August Ibrum Kituai, 1950-2015
by Dr Jonathan Ritchie
The Pacific history community is mourning the loss of Dr August Ibrum Kituai, Associate Professor in History at the University of Papua New Guinea, who passed away after a long struggle with illness in the early hours of Saturday, 5 December 2015. In grieving for late Dr Kituai, we are joining his loving wife and family, his community at Bundi, the UPNG staff and students, and the wider Papua New Guinean population, who have lost a husband, father, teacher and leader with his death.
August Kituai’s life spanned the journey that his nation of Papua New Guinea has taken, from the village to the world. In 1950, when he was born in the village of Bundi, in the rugged mountains close to Mt Wilhelm in PNG’s Madang Province, the members of his Emegari tribe had experienced very little contact with the outside world. One of eight children, August spent the first years of his life in a traditional setting with his family in Bundi, a way of life hardly disturbed by the arrival of Divine Word missionaries in 1932 and the desultory efforts of the Australian Administration to extend control into the area (August remembered his first sight of a white man, a kiap or patrol officer, when he was only two or three years old).
The missionaries brought education as well as Christianity to Bundi. At the age of eight, August was sent off to board at the school run by the Sisters of Charity, from where his educational trajectory was launched. In 1965, he boarded a light plane bound for Madang and the minor seminary, with plans to further his education while studying to be a priest; but by 1969 he was disillusioned with the priesthood and, by that time, an entirely more enticing opportunity beckoned in the form of the new University of Papua New Guinea.
His time at UPNG was spent studying and playing rugby – union, which he loved: not for him the social and political unrest of some of his peers – when was there time? The one outlet was the opportunity to see movies at the Skyline Drive-In, helped by some of his Bundi wantoks who worked there. His focus at university was on History and Literature, in which he excelled, with the help of his lecturers who included Bill Gammage, Edgar Waters, Rod Lacey, Donald Denoon, Ken Inglis, and Sione Latukefu. He had signed up for a cadetship and a ready-made job waiting for him on graduation at the University of Technology in Lae; but when Bill Gammage came to see him with the offer of a teaching fellowship at UPNG, August’s vocation in life was confirmed.
A Master’s degree from Flinders University on the Banabans came next, before he moved to his PhD at the Australian National University, which began with the casual mention by Edgar Waters that ‘Ann Chowning had located some retired policemen’ still living in West New Britain: would August be interested to interview them? The resulting thesis, published as My Gun My Brother: the world of the Papua New Guinea colonial police, 1920-1960 (University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), has been described as ‘a classic in Pacific history’. A full list of August’s publications appears below.
August could have chosen to base a stellar international academic career on his ground-breaking research so far. But he always considered his real vocation to be teaching, and so he returned to UPNG, to the life of a lecturer, a life that he pursued, stoically and uncomplainingly, for the best part of three decades. During these years, literally thousands of students must have had their first encounter with the fascinations of Pacific and PNG History through his teaching. While sadly hardly any went on to become historians in their own right, there are nonetheless many Papua New Guineans in all walks of life whose understanding of themselves as citizens of this region has been deepened by August’s work.
Despite repeated attempts by his friends in the academy to entice him back to research, August was completely dedicated to teaching. Year after year, he laboured to introduce his students to the history of his country, while around him the institution that offered so much promise when he first went to it in 1970 slowly deteriorated. It must have broken his heart at times to see the ‘golden years’ of that earlier time wasting away, with little attention given to maintenance and renewal of facilities. Over the intervening years, however, August and others like him struggled to keep the educational flame alive. In particular, as head of the History, Gender and Philosophy Strand, August demonstrated the quiet, unassuming and gentle leadership that has continued to endear him to fellow staff, and especially students who recognised at first sight that here was a man who cared for them.
In his last years, August’s devotion to his students waned not one bit. Being confronted with serious illness, many of us may have decided that the time was right to return to the village and gardens, or to retreat into the study and books. Not August. He continued to teach for as long as he had breath to speak: and sadly, it was his breathing that defeated him in the end. Tragically for his family and for the nation of Papua New Guinea, August Kituai died far too young, like so many others of his peers, worn out by the years of toil. We in the Pacific History community have seen this take place on far too many occasions in recent years. We can only hope that August has found peace at last as he returns to Bundi, his people, and his country
Published works by August Kituai:
‘The flight of a villager’ in Greicus, M. S., ed., Three short novels from Papua New Guinea (1976). London: Longman Paul.
‘An example of Pacific micro-nationalism: the Banaban case’ (1981). M.A., Flinders University of South Australia.
‘Innovation and Intrusion: Villagers and Policemen in Papua New Guinea’ (1988). The Journal of Pacific History, 23(2): 156-166.
My gun, my brother the world of the Papua New Guinea colonial police, 1920-1960 (1998). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
A bibliography of Madang Province (with S.T. Kaima) (1999). Port Moresby: University of Papua New Guinea.
‘Book Review: A Trial Separation: Australia and the Decolonisation of Papua New Guinea’ (2006). The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 115(3): 291-293.
‘Bougainville before the Conflict. Edited by Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin’ (2011). The Journal of Pacific History, 46(2): 264-267.