BY CATHY KEIMELO
‘Dame Rose Kekedo’ by Eric Johns, pamphlet, 27 pages, Pearson & Longman Publisher, South Melbourne, Australia, January 1 2002, ISBN-10: 0733933300, ISBN-13: 978-0733933301 Available on Amazon for US$39.99
Dame Rose Kekedo is the eponymous biography a famous Papua New Guinean, and first woman to venture into fields and roles that were and are traditionally reserved for men. This amazing woman who broke the glass ceiling in PNG was Rose Kekedo, who was knighted for her services to the government of PNG before and after independence (1975).
The author, Eric Johns, begins by telling the story of Dame Kekedo’s family background and how her mother Mary (who later became Dame Mary Kekedo) was determined for Rose and her brother to have a good education. She set up a school in Kokoda which grew to have 200 children attending including Rose and her brother. Sadly, the volcanic eruption of Mt Lamington forced the school to close and Rose could not go to school. Despite this, both her parents, Mary and Walter were determined that she continue her education. Rose was sent to St Agnes Primary School at Dokina. She describes her two years as the loneliest time of her life. Eventually as conditions got better, she returned to Kokoda to complete her primary education. As her grades were good, her parents sent her to attend the government intermediate school at Popondetta.
In the late 1950’s Rose became one of PNG’s most highly educated people after returning from the Good Samaritan College to study for the Junior Certificate of Education. This was made possible by the scholarship scheme for Papua and New Guinea students for which only 20 were selected each year to study in Australia. The scholarships began in 1954 and ceased in 1972. In 1972 when she returned from the University of Colorado (USA) Rose Kekedo was one of few Papua New Guineans with a tertiary degree.
It’s interesting to see how the author recounts the Dame’s story during the brief colonial administration of Papua and New Guinea. The changes which occurred over the years through the education system contributed to her journey. During this time the Education Department was ready to build more high schools however this was prevented by Paul Hasluck, then Australia’s minister for External Territories. Secondary education would not expand until more primary schools were built in 1955. This situation contributed to the limited opportunities for many primary school students to further their education. Girls comprised only 20 percent of all students in Papua and New Guinea primary schools and very few of them entered secondary school. Rose was fortunate to be one of the very few girls who got into secondary school and had an opportunity to do her best. This good fortune also gave her the drive to work hard in her professional career and also to help and encourage young girls and women to do the same.
In 1967 Rose entered public life as the first woman to represent PNG at the United Nations based in New York. Dame Kekedo was also the first Papua and New Guinean woman to hold a permanent lecturer’s position at Madang Teachers College in 1968. She was the first female principal of Port Moresby Teachers College (PMTC) in 1974, the first female head for the Department of Community and Family Services in 1980, the first female head for the Department of Labour in 1983 and the first female chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in 1996.
Prior to her success in the public services Dame Kekedo was committed to working towards the welfare of the needy and continued to advocate and encourage girls and women to aspire in their personal and professional life. She was a respected leader who abided by the rules and regulations of the public offices which she held.
Dame Kekedo’s achievements in traditionally male areas of government service did not come without challenges. Despite being removed as head of the Department of Community and Family Services when the department was demolished in 1983 she continued to persevere in the public service. In 1995, her services and hard work were recognised when Rose was awarded the Queen’s Birthday Honours with a knighthood. She became the second woman in her family to be a Dame. Her mother Dame Mary Kekedo was knighted in 1987 for her work in educating and supporting the people in Kokoda. The family is indeed remarkable. Rose’s sister Jean Kekedo graduated from the Adelaide University also became well known for her work with corporate and government organisations.
This form of short biography is highly recommended for upper primary and secondary school children, college and university students to read and learn about historical figures of PNG. Eric John,s book provides a useful reference for those who are interested in PNG history. The book may appeal to anyone who is interested in learning about few of PNG’s first remarkable women. It will surely inspire young Papua New Guinean women in their personal and professional lives to reach for the stars and to learn that even if they fall there is always a way to move forward. Dame Rose Kekedo is an amazing role model for many young PNG girls and women.