Legendary Cleland family continues support for PNG’s heritage and literature
Sir Bob Cleland: Administrator of Papua and New Guinea from 1952-1966.

The fingerprints of the Cleland family’s hard work remain throughout Papua New Guinea – from the administrative machinery in Port Moresby to the misty heights of the Daulo Pass.

The Cleland legacy goes back to the 1950s and the family’s story is one of love for Papua New Guinea and its people, and deep respect for its sovereignty and heritage.

Author and former kiap Bob Cleland said that at that time “a unique thing was happening.”

“The traditional inhabitants and the newcomers were developing concurrently, side-by-side, with the same aims and aspirations.
“Government, private enterprise, Christian missions and village people were all pulling together in the same direction.”

Bob’s father, Sir Donald Cleland, was the distinguished Administrator of the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea from 1952-66 and played an important role as it prepared for Independence.

Under his direction, the first elected House of Assembly (the predecessor of the post-Independence parliament) was elected in 1964.

Sir Donald also worked to remove discriminatory barriers – restructuring the public service in order for Papua New Guineans to take a predominant role and ending the divisive liquor ban that applied only to Papua New Guineans.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says Sir Donald was “pragmatic, balancing commercial, mission and government interests against what he thought was primary: the orderly development of the indigenous people.

“Publicly, he measured success in terms of building roads, bridges and airstrips, the increase in government revenue and the expansion of the public service.”

Dame Rachel Cleland, Sir Donald’s wife, was an active supporter of PNG culture and society.

She maintained an attachment with the country for nearly 50 years and was a much loved figure in PNG before and after Independence because of her close relationships with the people. Dame Rachel also wrote two books on PNG: Pathways to Independence – A Story of Official and Family Life in PNG from 1951-75, and Grass Roots to Independence and Beyond – the Contribution by Women in PNG, 1951-91.

Lady Rachel Cleland with the Papuan Girls Choir.

Bob Cleland, like his mother and father, has an intimate connection with Papua New Guinea and its people. He arrived in 1953 and worked as a field administrator in Eastern Highlands, East New Britain, Morobe, Simbu and Western provinces.

In Eastern Highlands, Bob is regarded with legendary status because of his involvement in the construction of the Highlands Highway – the bigrot – and, in particular, the Daulo section that connects the province to neighbouring Simbu.

He recounted his experiences from this period in his own book, ‘Big Road: A Journey to the Heart of the New Guinea Highlands, 1953-56’, which was published in 2010.

An early sketch of Nokondi.

Later, Bob served as the executive officer at the Eastern Highlands Area Authority (which became the provincial government) and oversaw the introduction of the traditional character Nokondi as its logo – which was later adapted on to the provincial flag.

“I first heard a Nokondi story in 1954 or 1955,” Cleland said, “he was a mischievous figure who was often blamed for minor upsets in a village or garden.”

“Nokondi must have stolen the kaukau. Nokondi chased those young boys from the bush. Nokondi was the one who called out teasing comments to young girls in a garden.

“He was not a malignant presence and he was known by several peoples through much of the Eastern Highlands.”

In 1974, when the Eastern Highlands Area Authority was looking for a simple symbol or logo to use on its common seal and stationery, Nokondi was the unanimous choice of the members.

“Students at Goroka Teachers College had drawn, painted and made beaten copper images of their idea of Nokondi,” Cleland continued, “until then he was an orally-described being with one arm, one leg, one eye, one ear and, dare I say it, one testicle.”

“I simplified one of those images, adding a coffee branch to symbolise modern industry. I understand the copper beating still resides in the Provincial Government headquarters in Goroka.

“The concept came from the ancestors of those Area Authority members, far preceding the coming of Australians and the introduction of the coffee industry.”

The Cleland family has continued its support for Papua New Guinea and its unique traditions in many ways, including through the Crocodile Prize – the national literary contest.

In 2019, Bob and his family have once again thrown their support behind the Crocodile Prize, generously sponsoring the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature.

The Award will be bestowed for writing that delves into traditional customs, beliefs and stories, and discovers and promotes PNG’s cultural heritage.

It recognises that Papua New Guinean literature existed – whether in the oral tradition, the stories depicted in artwork, or the great poetry of the singsing – long before the introduction of the written word.

Entries to the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature are open to all Papua New Guineans.

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