Therese Douglas, New South Wales Regional Meeting
I have a pair of Dunlop thongs stained with red earth from a visit to Jigalong four years ago. They are not particularly attractive but are very durable. And maybe that sums up the life of the Martu people who have made Jigalong their home.
Jigalong is a remote Aboriginal community where few people just “drop in”. Permission from the local council is needed. But this doesn’t always work. Although I was there as an official visitor for three weeks I never received my permit.
Life was very slow: from the road speed of 20 km throughout the community to the pace of everyday living. As a volunteer adult literacy and numeracy tutor I probably had 10 people visit our makeshift classroom.
But the rhythm of life actually lulled me. My walking pace slowed, I gained weight and just enjoyed the sitting and occupying myself on the off chance that someone might come by with a request for help.
The classroom was at the back of the community/council chambers. We had fly screens with no windows and the concrete floor was covered by the red dirt that blew in regularly. My morning routine was to sweep it out the doorway as the council manager would come by with his pie and sauce for breakfast. Although Indigenous he was not a local Martu man. But he did work alongside the council made up of locals. His council chambers also had red dirt throughout as well as people and their dogs wandering in at any time.
The council’s executive secretary had spent many years living in various remote communities. Her dog came to work every day with her and sat under her desk. This larger-than-life woman was not able to utter two sentences without swearing. I was staying with her and another volunteer as there was no other accommodation left for us. We made a strange trio. One: a diminutive retired academic from Canberra who would spend his winters volunteering in order to escape the cold of Canberra and rent out his home. Two: our host who had had unsuccessful lap-band surgery and loved the remote communities but really couldn’t stand most of the people living there. Three: me, a middle-aged adult educator from Sydney. Each of us had a passion to use our skills in a positive way to assist in this remote community.
But life is a lot more complicated than that, and three weeks is really nothing! As a volunteer with Indigenous Communities Volunteers (ICV) my resumé was held in a database for requests from any indigenous community across Australia for people with specific skills their community may require for short or long term projects. ICV did the selection process and paid for initial training, transport and accommodation. My role was in response to a request from the Martu community to have adult education available, as many of the residents had little high school education.
You may have heard of the Martu people. They are seen as the last indigenous Australians to have lived a traditional nomadic life. Their lands were chosen for testing rockets in 1960s and so all people were required to move off the land into settlements in order to be accounted for safely. The ABC has made a documentary interviewing some of these people. Jigalong was a government outpost and many indigenous people had already drifted to it by the lure of western ways. Martu land stretches across the Little Sandy Desert and today people live in a number of small communities stretching across hundreds of kilometres. That the communities are still closely linked is evidenced from the movement of people for funerals and other family events.
So this brings up one of the many challenges of working with the Martu in the 21st century. Schools are not set up for children who move from one locality to another because of family business. There is an assumption by the educational bureaucracy that people will be committed to stability for the sake of children and their education for a few years at least.
Many non-government organisations (NGOs) come to Martu full of great ideas and with generous pots of money. I met workers from one organisation that was called “Building Communities” who decided to put on a sausage sizzle on a monthly basis. They didn’t seem to see the irony in this: how could community be built once a month for an hour or so? How could outsiders build a community in a remote area? Why would the Martu have trust in yet another organisation’s plans for them? And of course why is there an assumption that the Martu aren’t already a strong community? I came to believe that many NGOs are required to tick off their connection with an indigenous community and that Jigalong was the one many chose. In fact, I was invited to attend an interagency meeting. The main focus was how to create a database of the NGOs working in the area so they could communicate with each other. I remember my initial reaction was to question how would this actually be working towards anything of value for the local people?
And it is not only NGOs that come bearing gifts. Being located in the iron ore rich Pilbarra region, Jigalong is subjected to many large mining companies wanting to share their largess due to government requirements. I was shown the incredible “men’s shed” built by BHP for the locals. This shed was more like an airport hanger. It was a forlorn but pristine building surrounded by a large wire fence. It was felt that a building this good needed to be protected. But at the time of my visit it had not been used and there were no plans for its use. Another great plan was to have a job expo in the main street of Jigalong. Nothing eventuated from this idea either.
So how do people actually live and what is their source of income?
All families receive some form of government assistance. There are limited jobs in the community such as working at the large store, the school, the council centre, the health centre or the car mechanic. There was also a local church and some other government services. One of the most popular and successful programs has been the collaboration between national parks and wildlife and the local people who are able to assist with such skills as controlled burning, locating waterholes and identifying flora and fauna. This has been so successful that discussion regarding a women’s only group was underway. Also there were many women who would spend their days at a shed painting. These works were then sold through a cooperative in Newman. The artists would also tour across northern Australia meeting up with other artists. Sometimes geologists doing exploratory work would come to the community and offer to pay for the services of any local who could assist with guiding to remote locations in order to find new mineral deposits. People might take this opportunity if they needed extra money.
But on the whole people lived a very quiet life. Some would play cards in the heat of the day gambling their allowances. Many would stay indoors with the air-conditioning to watch TV. I realised from one of my students that many people don’t tell the time: the school bells designate when things need to happen such as when the store will be open and when it is time to collect the kids.
Where does Reconciliation fit into this? I left Jigalong with some confusion over the value of what I had contributed in my short stay. I know ICV volunteers often felt that because we had been invited in by the community that somehow we were on higher moral ground than the 40 plus NGOs that decided what they thought was the best action for Jigalong. I loved the slower pace of life and remember my mixed reactions to a trio of motor bike riders who dropped into town one day on their way around the state. They had no idea that the road would be covered with red dirt (despite being on the edge of the Little Sandy Desert!) and thought they would be able to stay a while in Jigalong. They were surprised that they were not given permission to stay not realising that this is one of the few powers the community has. I knew it was my privilege to spend just a short time in this remote community so distant both in location and lifestyle from most of Australia.
When I left, journeying through the sparse bush to the mining town of Newman and on the plane full of miners leaving for anywhere else but this hot harsh region, I realised that it was in the stillness and slowness that I actually glimpsed Reconciliation. It isn’t always about doing something, it can be about learning through just being and listening and watching.