Gideon Kakabin was a national treasure of Papua New Guinea.
We knew that. Those of us lucky enough to consider as a friend this humble, generous, gentle man with an unmatched passion and love for history and charting the cultures and customs of his land.
But as we reeled from the news of Gideon’s sudden passing in Canberra this week, it was fitting to hear this from the Chairman of the National Museum and Art Gallery of PNG, Julius Violaris:“Gideon was a national treasure and a huge loss to the nation.”
But the orbit of Gideon was even wider. His loss will be felt by admirers and friends in galleries and museums and universities in various countries – beneficiaries of Gideon’s knowledge, skills and energy. More on this below but, firstly, nowhere will Gideon be missed more than his beloved East New Britain.
His friend Deni ToKunai, posted the tragic news on the facebook site Gideon founded – The New Guinea Islands (NGI) Historical Society: “We have lost an epic pillar of historical knowledge today. Gideon at heart was a storyteller. He loved PNG, East New Britain and the special history our little part of the world has, he dedicated much of his spare time and his own finances to pursue his passion and share it with the world.” Deni thanked Gideon’s wife Judy and family for “sharing your Gideon with the rest of us. For that we will be forever grateful”.
A typical response from a person who didn’t know Gideon but was an avid follower of his work, Sereugava Ugava, used the analogy of a volcano at Rabaul to post: “A void the size of Tavurvur crater now exists in our midst.” I suspect Gideon would have quietly approved this creative gesture.
Susie McGrade MBE of the Rabaul Hotel and a social warrior for her town and province described Gideon as gentle, humble and diligent and ‘a champion of the cause’ while a tribute from Andrea Williams (Papua New Guinea Association of Australia) ended: “ Gideon was always interested, appreciative, kind, thoughtful and generous. How can one person touch so many?”
Acclaimed Melbourne musician David Bridie (above) who collaborated with Gideon and legendary ENB singer George Telek on “A Bit na Ta”, a multimedia Tolai history exhibition touring Australia wrote: “ Gideon was a man so generous with his knowledge and his heart. A fine musician, historian, cultural expert, IT expert, golf player, artist, insect collector, painter , sound technician, poet and so much more.”
SO much more. For me, was Gideon was an historical soul mate and dear friend. Even before we first ‘met’ via social media years ago, we were synched by a fascination and respect for my pioneer great grandparents Richard and Phebe Parkinson.
When I discovered Gideon had been helping maintain our family cemetery at Kuradui near Kokopo, I offered warm thanks on behalf of our clan. I’ll never forget his reply: “No thanks needed. It’s the least I could do. Without the Parkinsons, we would be strangers in our own land.”
(Richard Parkinson was a Danish anthropologist (and botanist and explorer) who wrote the classic Thirty Years in the South Seas, the quintessential account of customs and culture in the Bismarck Archipelago, and many other books. His multilingual American-Samoan wife Phebe translated the stories of the New Guinean people for him and was admired and loved by the communities she touched in the New Guinea islands.)
A couple of weeks ago (left) I caught up for a meal with Gideon in Canberra, where he was enjoying a stint as artist-in-residence at the Australian War Memorial. He was happy and thrilled at the opportunity and we gasbagged about plans and possibilities for preserving East New Britain history. This included his scoping, for the World Bank, of a proposed museum development at Kokopo. It could even include a replica of Queen Emma’s famous bungalow Gunantambu, built by her brother-in-law Parkinson.We talked also of the long and frustrating campaign Gideon was leading, with my family’s backing, for the restoration and preservation of Queen Emma’s steps. Ditto on the battle by Susie McGrade to get a culture centre in Rabaul. Such things would be a boon to ENB tourism and bring interest and dollars into the local economy.
But the most important moment of the evening was more personal and again involved Gideon’s generosity. Recently, my mother passed away and, according to her and Dad’s wishes, our family will bring both their ashes back to their spiritual home New Britain. That’ll happen in September 2019. Gideon had been helping and advising us on the cultural preparations, including a Tolai Tabuan/Duk Duk ceremony. The ritual required pigs for a feast that will include local landowners and custodians of the Parkinson cemetery. Gideon brushed aside my questions about sourcing and purchasing pigs, vegetables and tabu (shell money.) “Don’t worry,” he said, “I will raise the pigs myself on my land and I’ll organise the vegetables and the tabu.”
Gideon told me also how he’d been approached to visit a London University later this year to talk about PNG arts and culture. It was to be yet another feather in his extraordinary cap.
I remembered marvelling at this self-made, self-trained man. Here he was in the middle of a stint with the Australian War Memorial. Sure, they were teaching him things but the favour was being reciprocated as they mined his intellectual property of shared Australian-PNG history including the Battle for Bita Paka, Australia’s little-known first action of WW1. Now Gideon’s knowledge was being recognised by a UK university, just as it was for a German broadcaster in a recent film about the era of German New Guinea and, over time, by Japanese, Australian, American and PNG researchers.
Julius Violaris, the PNG museum boss mentioned above, seconded Gideon to various projects at NMAG in Port Moresby. He had been working towards making Gideon a trustee of the national museum. Julius told me he wanted “to clone” Gideon. His plan involved sending Gideon to provinces all around PNG to teach others how to capture and preserve history and customs.
Gideon will be impossible to clone, even on a professional level. He was one of a kind. He could research like any historian and write as well as most journalists anywhere (as former head of ABC News and Current Affairs I am a reliable judge on this matter at least) but there would be few historians and journalists who could match Gideon’s selfless motivation or the extra musical and artistic strings to his bow. Gideon was unique and a gift to PNG.
There’s a consistent drumbeat message coming from many grieving for Gideon and his family. We can’t clone him but, by God, let’s honour Gideon’s work, shore up his legacy and continue to pursue his vision. Let’s make the gentle giant smile down from heaven.
Vale Gideon, a treasure to your family, country, friends and followers.