Ebia Olewale: A Life of Service

This new biography by Dr Jonathan Ritchie tells the story of Ebia Olewale, one of the founding fathers of the modern nation of Papua New Guinea. The book provides an account of Olewale’s life, from his birth in 1940 to his death in 2009.  In doing so, it also presents a history of PNG itself, as it moved from a collection of tiny and divided sub-regional districts into a modern, (mostly) unified state.

Olewale began his life in a village, attended school in the regional town of Daru and then the only government high school in existence at the time, Sogeri.  Trained as a teacher, he quickly became involved in the world of nationalist politics; when PNG acquired its first elected government led by Papua New Guineans in 1972, he took office as the first Minister for Education.  Over the next decade, other ministerial posts followed, significantly including Foreign Affairs in the post-independence era, before he fell from grace with electoral loss in 1982.

A period in the wilderness followed, throughout the 1980s: both for Olewale personally, and also – figuratively – for the Papua New Guinean nation.  While Olewale cast around for ways to serve his people, trying several different initiatives, PNG rocked from one political crisis to another, culminating in the exposure of rampant corruption in government and the commencement of the Bougainville civil war.

The nation took a lengthy route to recovery from the impact of Bougainville.  The key to its recovery lay in PNG’s abundant mineral resources: albeit a mixed blessing.  Curiously, the mining boom proved to be Olewale’s saviour as well, as his role with the PNG Sustainable Development Program from 2002 allowed him ample opportunity to serve the people of Papua New Guinea, something denied him since leaving politics two decades before.

Olewale’s early and untimely death, at the age of 68 was a blow to his nation, and especially to all who knew him and were touched by his example of service.  Where his earthly remains lie, in the village of Kunini in PNG’s Western Province, an imposing monument arises, simply stating his name and his family’s love for him; but his real monument exists in the hearts of those who walked alongside him during the seven decades of his life.  The nation that he helped to create faces many serious challenges, and perhaps the greatest of these is the dead hand of corruption that so upset him.  For all that, however, it is hard to believe that he would not have been proud of the progress that his people have made.

The book is divided into twenty-six short chapters, each of which address a period in his life.  After the introductory chapter, the first six deal with his life in the village and his progression through schools in Daru and Sogeri.  The next eight look at his time in Port Moresby, as a student, teacher, and young politician, culminating in the 1972 election that saw his party – Pangu – lead the first government consisting of Papua New Guineans and Olewale take up the ministerial responsibility for Education.  Chapters sixteen to twenty-two address the period flanking independence in 1975, from 1972 to 1982, a time when Olewale shone as a senior member of the government, and during which he became a significant participant in the great issues of the time – independence itself, the borders with Indonesia and Australia, and secession movements in Papua and Bougainville.  Finally, the concluding four chapters examine Olewale’s life that followed the crescendo of his time as Foreign Minister, and how he rebuilt his life through his continuing drive for public service.

The book is intended to be read widely, inside and outside of Papua New Guinea.  It is meant for the general reader, as well as for a more informed readership.  The main elements of PNG’s path to independence and beyond have been referred to, and elaborated in detail where this has been necessary for the main purpose of the book, the life of Ebia Olewale; but in the main this is not intended as a history of PNG, a subject which is capably addressed in other writings, especially by Professor John Waiko (a close friend of Olewale’s).

In conclusion, what this book is meant to be is a simple exposition of the ebb and flow of a man’s life, set against the background of the momentous events through which he and his country have passed.

Book available from University of Papua New Guinea Bookshop (upngbooks@gmail.com).

[Born and raised in PNG, Jonathan Ritchie has maintained an interest in the stories of PNG’s path to independence and afterwards.  His PhD addressed the Papua New Guinean people’s contributions to the Constitution, and more recently he has conducted a large oral history exercise for the National Library of Australia, interviewing more than fifty Australians who had lived and worked in PNG from 1940 to 1975.  Following the publication of his biography of one of PNG’s ‘founding fathers’, the late Sir Ebia Olewale, Jonathan is pursuing ways for the life experiences of other important Papua New Guineans to be recorded and retold, for the benefit of all Papua New Guineans.  These stories contain lessons for future generations about how the task of bringing PNG’s diverse peoples and cultures together into an independent nation was achieved.]

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