Sunday, 30 October 2011

Galiwin'ku freshwater spring

I have discovered a delight at Galiwin'ku: right on the beach, in front of my house, there is a freshwater spring. It is quite unexpected... It means that on the rocky, sandy beach, there is a a patch of thickly growing green grass, and a gorgeous big shade tree.

When the tide is low, it is a lovely little pond- perhaps knee-deep- surrounded by soft cushiony grass: a great place to lie back in fresh, cool water and escape the heat (you can't swim in the ocean due to crocs and box jellyfish). On the high tide, it produces the rare (for me, anyway) site of the sea lapping at green grass, as the saltwater mixes with the spring water.

I tried to take some photos on my phone. I don't think they do it justice, but am glad I didn't take the work camera given I slipped over on the moss and landed in a puddle.

Here they are:

These ones are on the low tide:

Sorry about that pic, it just wanted to be sideways and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

...and this one is the high tide.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Protest calls for end to mandatory detention

In the wake of self-harm and protest by refugees, people of Darwin gathered to show their support for a more humane refugee solution.

Twenty people rallied outside the offices of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on October 26 to call for and end to mandatory detention and oppose the proposed new detention centre at Wickham Point.

The proposed Wickham Point detention centre would house up to 1500 asylum seekers for processing. The site was previously earmarked for housing for workers in the gas industry. This was stopped when the level of mosquito and midge infestation was deemed too high for human habitation.

On September 3, Michael Bowden from the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support And Advocacy Network (DASSAN) described the proposal as "inhumane and amoral."

In the past week, several Rohingyan and Burmese refugees have staged rooftop protests and hunger strikes. Most of these people have been found to be legitimate refugees but have waited for ASIO security clearances for up to two years.

The rally at DIAC was organised by DASSAN and featured Doctor Peter Morris from the NT branch of the Australian Medical Association.

Morris said that the AMA believed that mandatory detention of asylum seekers had profound mental health consequences and should be replaced with a community-based scheme.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Postcard from Galiwin'ku

I have come back to stunning Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, a tiny island in the Arafura Sea, almost swimming distance from the mainland.

I was here only a month ago, and it’s great to return so soon, to continue getting to know my adopted family.

The build-up to the wet season has definitely intensified since last time I was here, and I am appreciating the hire car (which we didn’t have last time), despite the tiny size of the community. The humidity makes us sluggish – adding to the exhaustion we feel at the end of each day spent speaking in/listening to a foreign language and finding the proper ways to behave in this vastly different culture, interpreting new signs and body language, respecting new boundaries, adjusting to the new concept of time.

This time we are here for an ear health project. It is my first time as a health educator, and talking about anatomy and physiology are proving to be refreshingly concrete after the abstract economic/social/political issues I’ve been focusing on this year. Australian Aboriginal languages don’t tend to use abstractions very often, making discussion of, say, “economic participation” incredibly challenging.

Aboriginal people, on the other hand, are more au fait with anatomy than we tend to be, being hunters etc. So it is no great leap from discussion anatomy to move onto discussing physiological function, if you find the right story line. So somehow over the course of this week I have found myself almost able to describe the entire anatomy and function of the ear in Yolŋu Matha. When I see a diagram of different parts of the ear I find myself knowing the Yolŋu Matha word before the English word, as that is the language I’ve acquired this new knowledge in.

But it is very exhausting, being immersed in the other language all day! It makes me remember being an exchange student in Chile, how I initially needed about 14 hours sleep to rest my brain, before I started thinking in Spanish.

So, the ear health field trip has come to an end for the time being, my colleagues are leaving tomorrow, and I am staying on for another five days. Maybe more language immersion (after a big sleep on the weekend!). I was hoping to do some education with Yolŋu women about the recently released federal government’s Indigenous Economic Development Strategy ( to follow on from some employment research I did last time.

But I’ve started reading the strategy, and it is rather depressing. Spin spin spin. When I have my community educator hat on, I read things differently to if I’m reading for political research, an article for Green Left Weekly, say. Each sentence I read, I wonder what it would mean to Yolŋu, how I would explain it to Yolŋu. And reading this new policy fills me with despair. How’s this for some incredibly abstract generative terms: “economic participation”, “social engagement”, “closing the gap”.

And that is before we start to look at the content, to discover the underlying meaning behind all the spin.

The more I read about the “closing the gap” initiative, the more I think when the government uses those words, it means “turning Aboriginal Australians into whitefellas”. I think it is more assimilationist bullshit. That doesn’t mean the goal of closing the life expectancy gap etc isn’t one worth fighting for.

But for the government, the way to do that seems to be to focus blindly on a few key benchmarks: Aboriginal people owning their own home, Aboriginal people working, Aboriginal people starting their own business.

What about the things we know really contribute to positive health outcomes? Aboriginal people being valued – as Aboriginal people, different to whitefellas, with different values; Aboriginal people having control and power over their lives and affairs; Aboriginal people not being an oppressed minority in a racist system Aboriginal culture being seen as inherently worthy; Aboriginal ownership and structures being recognised... Reckon that might help the health situation any?

Anyway I thought an interesting way to spend my days out here might be to find out what Yolŋu think about “closing the gap”. Have they heard about it? Do they know what it means? Do they agree with it? What would Yolŋu strategies for closing the gap look like? I wonder what the responses will be to the fact that the federal government used almost $100,000 of taxpayers’ money to design the “closing the gap” logo, on top on $1 million over 2 years to promote the initiative? (see

In an interview with Yingiya Guyula published earlier on this blog, this is what he had to say about closing the gap:

"Let’s build a bridge to close that gap. That’s what I believe. Let’s build a bridge together. You don’t build it for me, we’ll build it together. "

Sunday, 16 October 2011

When the rain started

We live in Australia's tropical arid north. There are two seasons, according to whitefellas: the wet and the dry. (The First Nations people from these parts recognise many more seasons than that).

In between the wet and dry there is what I guess is a mini-season: the build-up. The humidity starts to increase, but doesn't yet bring the relief of monsoonal downpours. It's meant to be a pretty hard and exhausting time of year. We southerners were warned.

The last few days the heat and humidity just started to get to me. A five-minute bike ride exhausted me and drenched me in sweat. This morning I woke to the sound of very animated green tree frogs: I couldn't see any but there voices echoed and bounced out of pots, toilet bowls, guttering and other beautifully echoing habitats around the garden.

It seems they knew they were in for a treat today! The rain has started! Is this the end of the dreaded wet season? Already? Or just a teaser, a promise of what is to come?

I wish this blog let me manipulate the size of photos, so you could appreciate the newly sodden backyard environment in all its sparkling glory.

Nonetheless, check it out:

Saturday, 15 October 2011

We are the 99%

Today in Darwin, like in hundreds of cities around the world, there was an "occupy Darwin" event. Thirty people gathered outside Parliament House for a few hours - and committed to continue doing so for as long as this inspiring movement continues.

For a great statement outlining why we should occupy, see the Socialist Alliance's "Occupy to put human need before corporate greed":

Each Wednesday at 5:00pm there will be an occupy protest outside Parliament House in Darwin.

Here are some photos from today's event.

* * *

Friday, 14 October 2011

Short holiday in Kakadu

Here's where we stayed:

Here's some arty photos that Emma took while we went walking:

Here are some examples of rock art that Emma was talking about the other day:

The size of the country here is incredible. The park covers an area a quarter the size of Tasmania.

No Kakadu trip would be complete without crocs, of course:

We had fun!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Desert Wanderings and Wonderings

Hello dear readers,

in preparation for my imminent departure from the Book of Face, I am transferring some of the notes I wrote during our Epic! Desert! Journeys! for 15 weeks of this year onto the blog. For Posterity. Because Facebook became something of a repository for Stuff I wanted to share and maybe I still want to share it, even if I don't want to be on Facebook.

So apologies if you have all read this before. Here it is again, a nice big chunk of text without any pictures to break it up, alas. Bare with me.

For those who don't know the history, Pete and I spent 15 weeks (5 weeks then 10 weeks) travelling through the remote Ngaanyatjarra lands of Western Australia, spending time in Aboriginal communities providing computer training and IT support...

* * *


Woke up early to drive to Blackstone. Car broken into overnight, music gear taken. Decide not to leave until we recover it. Computer lab closed until music gear returned, our boss says. Not sure how I feel about this collective punishment, but anyway. The guys who "borrowed" the instruments for an all-night jam (more of my old students!) happily return it, smiling helpfully and gesturing vaguely when we ask where they "found" it. Leave town a few hours later than planned but with instruments and music trainer in tow.

Arrive at Blackstone. A big fight, not nice to watch, starts outside the shop and moves around the community. Feels like we should just stay put at the telecentre, which is slightly larger than a toilet cubicle. Claustrophobia notwithstanding, three young women and their kids crowd in there for the afternoon, keeping tabs on the fight oustide and doing computer training while pete successfully occupies ratty children.

That's day one at Blackstone.


MAY 10

This week we are sharing the accommodation with a music trainer. Today he offered to cook dinner.

MT: "You're vegetarian, right?" Me: "Yeah, hope that's cool."

MT: "Sure, no worries. My partner's vego so I'm cool with it. How about some pasta with mince?"

Me: "Ah, yeah. I don't eat meat, that's the thing."

MT: "Oh, ok. um... Vegie pasta?"

Me: "That sounds great!"

MT: "Maybe with some ham and bacon chucked in for flavour."

Me: "Um, there's just one thing: I'M VEGETARIAN... Happy to cook for myself though."

MT:"No, no, it's cool... um... what could I put in the pasta...?"


MAY 12

Today there is nobody free/keen to do IT Training. Everybody is at a community meeting hearing about a new "no work no pay" rule. Everyone's a bit confused, not sure who made the rule. A sign went up on the office door last night stressing the importance of the meeting (the mtg happening the next morning!) and saying anybody that doesn't go to the meeting won't get paid.

Apparently if they have a good excuse not to be there, they can let the office know "ASAP". But the office is closed, on account of the meeting. And at least five people I know have been out bush since Tuesday anyway, so don't know about the meeting.

I guess they'll come home tonight to discover they're not getting paid?

So we are sitting here with nothing to do. We ain't working, but we're still getting paid.


MAY 19

So once again, this job sends us unannounced into a community to do mainstream training nobody is interested in or needs, particularly.

Turns out I am not very good at being aimless.

Those people who say "money is being thrown at Aboriginal communities...", they're not necessarily wrong. they're just using it to push unhelpful ideologies. There is a whole lot of government money being spent on ill-planned programs that aren't driven by the grassroots, don't work, and don't help.

Unfortunately perhaps I am currently involved in one such project.

Who am I to tell adults who drop in of their own volition that they can't just spend the day looking at photos, that they have to do some "training"? Like training will lead to employment or something, out here?

The unemployment isn't because people don't know how to send emails. It's because the government doesn't invest in jobs with justice- but it's happy to spend money for people like me to travel around with thousands of dollars worth of equipment so people can spend the week playing on Facebook and looking at photos.



Tjirrkarli: Each day, we optimistically visit the tiny community store, convinced there will be something fresh, yum, exciting... something we must have missed last time we went. Some cheese maybe, fresh vegies? Juice? Yoghurt! Even a frozen chicken, damnit...!

It takes less than a minute to peruse the short aisle. Again we come away with IndoMei instant noodles, multiple cans of baked beans, tinned mushrooms, scotch finger biscuits... sigh... Baked beans with no cheese for dinner, again...

Next week we will be in Warburton, population 500 and about 50 different government service provision agencies (my god it'll be like being in Sydney after where we've been!). That means lots of whitefellas, and - as disturbing as the implications are- we're expecting that means a more well-stocked store.



Wow our tolerance of bad food and boredom is getting seriously tested. We're at Tjirrkarli. A tiny community with baaaaad food. Meant to leave Sunday past but the radiator has given in. Expected a new radiator yesterday on the mail plane, which didn't arrive due to bad weather. Didn't land again today, and the mechanic who was hanging around to fit it for us has had to bite the bullet and take the trip he postponed on our behalf.

So we're here until at least Tuesday. We're eating baked beans and Indo Mei two minute noodles. I am seriously craving fruit or something green. Wondering just how bad the tinned peas in the shop could be (Pete assures me they could be pretty damn bad). Anyway, turns out the shop's closed for the next few days?!?! So not only do we have to continue with the indo mei and baked beans, we have to BE CAREFUL NOT TO EAT TOO MUCH OF IT!! (which won't be hard, as Pete points out.) Could I be feeling so tired because I'm not getting enough of the stuff we're meant to get from food??!!

How the hell do anangu cope? (ah. life expectancy gap. Yep, it's not so much that they "cope"... )

Meanwhile, nobody is really interested in training this week (could it be the bad food...?). There is no internet at home. We're rationing the few DVDs we have left. And the few books we have left.

So I pass the days going for walks, watching daytime TV , trying to study yolngu matha (although is it just me or does boredom and crap food do bad things to the brain/concentration/motivation?).

Meanwhile apparently all the roads to the west of here (where we're headed) are closed due to bad weather. I bloody well hope they're open by the time we get out of here...



Last night we stayed at Tjukayirla roadhouse, owned by the papulankutja community. Best roadhouse food in Australia! (you gotta travel far to get there though...) Home cooked vegie lasagne, chicken curry, home-cooked sticky date puddings, avocado on toast.... mmmm so different to the two and a half weeks we just spent at Tjirrkarli. Still have four more weeks on the road, but am feeling very energised with good food in my belly and a good radiator under the bonnet...

Cosmo Newberry seems interesting. Unlike other communities, it is entirely Aboriginal-run. Not just in terms of what the constitution says (which in practise never means anything anyway. We can't just thrust "democratically elected community councils" onto an entirely different, ancient culture and expect them to work, can we?). In Cosmo, thhe advisor, office manager, store managers etc are all Aboriginal.

Anyway. Have to recover from 10 days of eating rubbish food, watching rubbish TV and sleeping in as an anti-boredom strategy. Back to work!


The gov’t (not sure if it’s federal or state) provides an Aboriginal media organisations with a certain amount of money to set up telecentres in each community across the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, with satellite internet access etc. Connected to the telecentres is IT Training , which is what we’re meant to do.

The potential for these places is great I reckon. In theory, can access government services and online media, control their finances through internet banking, etc, all without putting pressure on the already over-worked community offices.

It’s also generating Aboriginal employment, of sorts. Each telecentre has one or two local Aboriginal workers who open the centre, supervise them etc. And they’re paid real wages, again from the government via NG Media, rather than CDEP.

In practise there are huge problems, as with most well-meaning programs out here. While we on the left call for real jobs for Aboriginal people in these places, and the government can say it is providing real jobs (in this instance), I think aspects of this program are a huge step backward in terms of empowering Aboriginal people, treating them as adults, giving communities control etc.

For example, the telecentre workers are paid for 20 hours a week. There are certain things they’re meant to do in those 20 hours. But there is no supervision, support, or training. There is no employer-type person acting like they give two hoots whether these people work on not, or supporting them one something goes wrong, or training them for the basic skills that they’d need to feel they’re doing a good job (surely our annual one-week visit isn’t adequate?!).

They are left to their own devices. Telecentre workers tend to be young people who have better English and basic computer literacy. Ie people who, according to their culture, don’t have a lot of authority or rights to tell people what to do. In a way, they are set up to fail.

The government is told of places where the job isn’t happening, where the telecentre is being used inappropriately, but doesn’t take any action because all it cares about is being able to say “look, we employed 20 Aboriginal people in IT jobs”

Effectively, the government says “you’re Aboriginal people, we have low expectations. We don’t expect you to do what we’d expect non-Aboriginal people to do. We’re going to let you do what you want, but we reserve the right to occasionally tell you off, disconnect your internet or maybe even sack you for doing the wrong thing. But this won’t happen very often because basically we’ll ignore you.”

So the telecentre workers who open the room, leave it open 24/7 while they’re away, come back to (surprisingly enough) broken computers, shitloads of downloaded porn and a very uncomfortable community, gets paid the same amount as the worker in another community who works long hours, keeps the place locked up at night, calls community meetings to develop a grassroots response to the porn issue… all in the name of “investing in jobs for Aboriginal people”.

Giving Aboriginal people “real jobs”, without training, support, consequence etc, is just as problematic as all the other paternalistic policies, I reckon, though I’m sure that’s controversial. In the end the government will no doubt say, “well look, we tried. We paid you good money. And what happened? You trashed computers, downloaded porn in front of kids, etc etc…”

And another service will be taken away, again without people really understanding why, although somehow they will understand that they have failed another mystifying whiitefella test.

Anyway that’s what I have been thinking about, during my time at Tjirrkarli.

Monday, 10 October 2011

DNA, rock art, and monolingual governments

"DNA sequencing of a 100-year-old lock of hair has established that Aboriginal Australians have a longer continuous association with the land than any other race of people", reported ABC Online on September 23.

The DNA taken from an Aboriginal man in from the Western Australian Goldfields in 1923 revealed he was a descendant of people who migrated from Africa into Asia around 70,000 years ago. Dr Joe Dortch, an archeologist at the University of Western Australia said: "It shows Aboriginal Australians have the longest branch of history in one particular place of anyone in the world. No one else in the world can say 'I am descended from people who have been here 75,000 years'."

I read this article after spending a weekend in Kakadu National Park, a stunningly beautiful part of the country - world heritage protected, Ranger Uranium Mine notwithstanding.

We had the opportunity to check out some spectacular rock art while we were there. (I call it rock art in my ignorance, not knowing what important stories, legal issues etc it represented - see my Yirrkala Bark Petition blog post for more information.)

Some cave walls had different layers of painting overlapping each other, and you could see different styles from different eras. We were looking at some of the X-Ray and cross-hatching styles- you maybe familiar with the style: outlines of people and animals with incredibly detailed anatomical information within the outline (X-ray style). I overhead a ranger telling some tourists that this was the modern art style for this region. I guess that's why it was over the top of more simple, faded designs.

Anyway, without missing a beat, having identified it as the modern style, he went on to say "So we're looking at 8,000-10,000 years ago."

I think my heart skipped a beat. Or something happened inside me, anyway. Aboriginal people have been living on, and caring for, this country, for a very very long time. Which I guess we all know, although you wouldn't think there was anything special about that if you were to consider current government policies.

I thought about European art, and how every century or so heralds a new "age" in art. And once we get back to before the birth of jesus, we're delving into "ancient" times - ancient languages, ancient civilisations. I used to want to study Latin or Ancient Greek, I thought it would be fascinating to learn a language spoken in "ancient times".

And here I am, living and working, and learning the languages of, people who have been here for tens of thousands of years. And are still here, speaking those languages. At least, some of them. Australia has the fastest rate of language extinction in the world, according to UNESCO. Go to this site and type in Australia for country: It gives you a sense of the state of Australia's first languages - though I think the situation is probably worse than the map indicates, given there is nothing marked for Victoria, very little for South Australia, etc.

So, what do we make of this picture? We have on this continent some of the world's oldest cultures, oldest languages, and people with the longest continuous connection to the land. The Aboriginal languages are the only languages adapted over thousands of years to the Australian environment, and the contribution these languages could make to understanding the environment, and to climate change mitigation, is unmeasured- although we do know, from exemplary researchers such as Jon Altman that people living on country and practising customary land management does contribute to ecological sustainability.

And then we have the government. The monolingual, introduced, capitalist Australian governments that are hellbent on banning bilingual education in ther Northern Territory, moving Aboriginal people off their traditional lands and into larger regional centres, "mainstreaming" them, and withdrawing all support from homelands and outstations.

And that is all I have to say today.