Of cows, bulls, canon law & having a sense of humour
Imaginary Friends

Sir Joseph Nombri & the emergence of the Chimbu elite

Sir Joseph Nombri
Sir Joseph Nombri


KUNDIAWA - After the Europeans came to Chimbu their laws were introduced among the people and any old ways that were unacceptable to the general principles of humanity were forbidden.

The common Chimbu traits of peace, love, friendship, giving and family were encouraged so travel and communication among the tribes became easier.

In the beginning tribal leaders were the first to embrace the new ideas. The leaders were made Luluai and Tultul and others became policemen, postal boys, translators and held other responsible positions serving the colonial administration all over the highlands and the coast.

Dinga leader Aina was known as an engineer supervising the building of airstrips and roads throughout Chimbu and the highlands.

Kumga chief Tumun, Golen chief Ninkama Bomai, Karimui leader Inuabe Egaiano and Kamare chief Launa were tribal leaders who became some of the first elected leaders to embrace the white men’s ways.

Lawyer Theodore Banda of the Wandike clan in Gembogl was the first highlander to graduate from university in 1972, while Michael Danga was the first Chimbu man to play for national Kumuls rugby league team in 1966.

The great Iambakey Palma Okuk hailed from the Kamaneku tribe in Chimbu. Ignatius Kilage was the first ordained Catholic priest from mainland New Guinea in 1968 and was later remembered as Papua New Guinea’s first Ombudsman.

Yauwe Wauwe carried cargo for Jim Taylor in the 1940s and was later appointed Luluai for his Komongu tribe. He was elected to the first and second House of Assembly representing Chuave and also served on the board of the Chimbu Coffee Society.

In 1980 he was elected to the Chimbu Provincial Assembly and became its speaker in 1984. He died in 1986 and the Chuave Secondary High School is named after him.

Early contemporary artists such as Mathias Kauage interpreted traditional Chimbu culture in their paintings and their work is exhibited in Australia, England and many other countries.

In the 1970s, educated people, entrepreneurs, politicians and government bureaucrats were highly regarded as leaders and became famous. Rugby league personalities were looked upon as heroes.

Some Chimbu men also became patrol officers and served with the Australians kiaps in the administration. The training of these Papua New Guineans as patrol officers was begun by the Department of Native Affairs in 1961 at Finschhafen.

A number of Chimbu men who had completed schooling in the late 1950s and 1960s joined the colonial Administration as patrol officers.

They included Joseph (Joe) Nombri, John Mua Nilkare, Kimin Poka, John Wawe, Jim Nombri, John Gigmai, Joe Kaugla, Joe Towa, Mathew Towa, Jerry Gerry, Philip Gore, Steven Kume, Otto Olmi, Peter Abba, John Ninkama, Alfred Poka, Philip Opri, John Koma and Joseph Mogna.

It was Administration policy not to post Papua New Guinean patrol officers or police to their home districts to ensure there were no conflicts of interest.

However, as Papua New Guineans, they had a particularly good knowledge of culture, geography and language that made them equal to the task and sometimes better than their Australian counterparts in stopping tribal fights, conducting peace ceremonies, supervising compensation and running elections and censuses.

Papua New Guinean kiaps from other provinces served in Chimbu during this time. They included Jerry Nalau from Morobe, who succeeded Laurie Doolan as District Commissioner in 1973, Paru Kairi from Gulf, Joe Kekemo from Henganofi in Eastern Highlands, Jack Tagita from Milne Bay, Jeffrey Dia from Wabag, Luke Pena from Western Highlands, Caspir Angapi from Sepik, Gerson Amen from New Ireland and Bruno Garima from Bundi in Madang.

Another milestone in the development of Chimbu was the commissioning of Radio Chimbu, ‘Karai Blo Mambu’. Iambakey Okuk as regional MP for Chimbu uttered the first words on air from the new station on 17 October 1973.

Of the indigenous kiaps, Sir Joseph (Joe) Nombri Kt OBE MBE ISO in later years was to become a distinguished statesman knighted by the Queen. Due to the rule I described, Joe Nombri did not serve in Chimbu during his kiap days.

He was born in September 1940 in Wagl village, Pari, near Kundiawa, the only child of Nombri of the Kamanuku tribe and Degbabo of the Kengaku tribe.

In the mid-1950s Joe attended Gon School in Kundiawa and later went to Goroka High School and then to Sogeri High School in the early 1960s. One of his schoolmates was Michael Somare, who was to become the first chief minister and then prime minister of Papua New Guinea from 1975.

Joe was received a scholarship to attend school in Australia, after which he trained at the Administrative College in Port Moresby graduating as a patrol officer.

John Nilkare, who became a kiap two years after Joe, described him as “the smartest indigenous patrol officer I had known, even smarter than the white kiaps”.

Joe served with distinction as a patrol officer in Western, Enga and East New Britain and travelled to many other parts of Papua New Guinea on his duties. He became the first indigenous district commissioner from the highlands, serving in Southern Highlands and, at independence, in Morobe.

He was later appointed Public Service Commissioner and in 1981 was appointed ambassador to Japan where he served for over 11 years.

In Japan he mastered the Japanese language and became a close friend of the Emperor. He also successfully negotiated K8 million in funding from the Japanese government to construct a provincial hospital in his home town of Kundiawa.

In the mid-1960s, Joe had been a member of the famous Bully Beef Club which was the beginning of PNG’s pre-eminent political party, Pangu, of which in 1967 he was the founding president.

Another Chimbu, Joe Nombri’s cousin Iambakey Okuk, elected MP for Chimbu in 1972, played a key role in ensuring Michael Somare’s rise to eminence and in leading PNG to independence.

Joe Nombri  Kiunga 1969
Joe Nombri, Kiunga, 1969

Joe’s kiap mate Phil Fitzpatrick, who was based in Kiunga in the late 1960s, in an article on the popular PNG Attitude blog recalled a moment when they conspired together:

“Joe and I shared a house at Kiunga. We repainted the old kero fridge in Pangu Pati colours to upset the District Commissioner when he visited. Joe also liked to greet visiting dignitaries at the airport carrying a sign saying ‘Open season on swans’.

“This was a reference to the ‘swanning around’ on ‘fact-finding missions’ practiced by many senior public servants in the years immediately before independence.”

After he returned from Japan, Joe stood for the regional seat in 1992 but was unsuccessful. Late in his life, Joe battled throat cancer for many years. He went to Brisbane  for specialist treatment but the cancer was too advanced.

When Joe died in Port Moresby aged 70 in 2008, the hospital in Kundiawa was named the Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Kundiawa General Hospital in memory of this most humble Chimbu leader.

My ChimbuThe late Tangil Okuk wrote of his uncle in his Facebook column after his death in 2008:

“PNG is surely in need of the likes of this humble servant. He gave everything and more and I personally have never heard him complain or utter grievances about the system and people who had let him down in his years after public service. Sir J always kept his dignity intact. He was a man mountain amongst others...”

This is an edited extract from Mathias Kin’s book, ‘My Chimbu’, available from Amazon


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Philip Kai Morre

Mathias, I thank you for your article on Sir Joseph Nombri who was a man of humility, wisdom and insights.

My mother is from Sir Joseph's clan (Ouakane) of the Kamaneku tribe. The humble servant is a historical figure and a role model for all of us to follow.

Joe Herman

While I was on a short visit to Japan in the late 1980s, Joe invited me to his residence while he served as the Ambassador there. In his typical Simbu spirit, I was humbled by his hospitality. He was a very down to earth person.

Edwin Brumby

I met Joe through my good mate, Norm Oliver (Land Titles Commission) in the early 1970s and, like Bob, can vouch for his ever-present sense of humour and easy-going ways - neither of which distracted from his fundamentally gentlemanly demeanour.

Bob Cleland

G'day Mathias. I've read your book and found it most interesting. Congratulations.

I thought I knew a bit about the Chimbu, but I realise now that was only a smidgen.

This is a good opportunity to tell you a story about Joe Nombri when he was studying in Finschhafen to be an Assistant Patrol Officer.....

The first House of Assembly elections were held in 1964.

They were conducted everywhere by teams, mostly led by kiaps

I was allocated the Wain, Naba and Erap census areas in the mountains north of Lae.

The trainee Patrol Officers from Finschhafen were sent as assistants to these patrols. I scored Joseph Nombri.

Also along for the task was Harry Dunstan, didiman (agriculture field officer).

Neither before nor since that patrol have I experienced such an enjoyable few weeks.

Harry's wit was quick and rather droll. Joe's was equally quick in a rambunctious and outrageous way. The days seemed to be one continuous belly laugh. At times, my ribs ached from the laughing.

But we got the job done

Those weeks started a close friendship between Joe and me.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)