Why Warriors Lie Down and Die

A nurse lent me this book in the first week I arrived to work in Aurukun. It wasn’t written about Aurukun people but another group of Indigenous Australians, the Yolgnu, in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory. Nevertheless, Richard Trudgens analysis of the importance of knowing history, language, cross-cultural communication and understanding another culture from the inside out rather than looking in from the dominant cultures point of view, makes this book invaluable to anyone working with Indigenous people the world over, or indeed, any other culture other than one’s own.

I had the privilege of meeting Richard a few months ago when I attended a two day seminar of his on cross-cultural awareness and learned much more. I’d already found his book insightful, almost like a handbook to me as I navigated my way into remote area nursing. There are few available resources for those of us working outside the dominant white culture, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Seven Seasons in Aurukun

IMG_4326A year after I started work in Aurukun a book was published (2009) Called “The Seven Seasons in Aurukun”. It was written by a woman who’d been a young teacher for two years in Aurukun in 2004/5. It was the book I’d wanted to write, her experiences, her impressions. She didn’t try and explain the “Indigenous Situation”, wasn’t overly political, the book was highly personal. Just want I needed to read at that time, to see how another woman had survived in Aurukun. I’d been writing my own account in a journal with the thought that it would one day make an interesting read. She was a teacher, I was a nurse, both had very different jobs and relationships, but when I heard about her book I assumed I didn’t have anymore to add.
Sitting around the white plastic table in the kitchen of the clinic one morning, the nurses discussed this book. A male nurse loudly stated his opinion that the book was “self-indulgent crap”. I cringed inwardly wondering how he’d judge anything I wrote in the future. It’s taken me a few years to realize someone is always going to say that about anyones memoir, and worse. It doesn’t matter, we all have a story within our one life and only we can express it.
I’m now on the third draft of my remote area nurse memoir and I hope I’m prepared for any opinion, comments and judgements when it’s published. Each story passed on adds to the wealth of human experience.

Aurukun Diary

Mrs Geraldine MacKenzie went with her husband, William, to Aurukun in 1925 and worked there with him for 40 years. She wrote a diary during those years which was published in 1981 with the first edition printing 1000 copies.

At the end of the forward the General Secretary, John P. Brown, of the Commission for World Mission, wrote ” Mrs Mackenzie wrote the following record of her life with Bill at Aurukun. It was a great sadness to her that the book was not published before her death. It is an exceedingly valuable document, full of information not widely known. It is particularly gratifying that the book is being published now because of the struggle that is likely to ensue in the next few years between the people of Aurukun and mining interest-a struggle in which the Aurukun people will need all the informed support that can be mustered: 13th August 1981.

The book is still available, second hand on the internet and is well worth reading as a historical document and for anyone planning to work there.

Magpie Goose Stew

Magpie Geese are large noisy birds that frequent the swamps of the Top end of Australia, especially during the wet season, when they nest and lay their eggs. They are a valuable source of food for Aboriginal people in those areas. The sky becomes filled with honking black and white flocks of birds and you know you’re soon going to come across cold camp fires when you’re out walking, with scattered feathers and bones around them. For me, they herald Christmas.

This recipe was given to me by an Aurukun health worker:

Magpie Good Stew

You need two geese, soy sauce, vinegar, One onion, Two potatoes, two garlic cloves, Two knobs ginger.

Cut out the bones, cut up the meat into cubes and soak in soy sauce and vinegar for two hours. In a camp oven throw in diced onion and potato, garlic, ginger and a cup full of water. Toss in marinated geese pieces, cook on the fire until meat and potatoes are cooked through. While the stew is simmering, place the geese bones on a grill on the fire until crispy and crunchy, they make a good snack. Serve with boiled rice.

A Breadfruit Tree

There was a breadfruit tree In Aurukun. Fasi and I found it one day when we walked along the back track to the store. He pointed it out with excitement. He always saw food on land and sea. The tree was in the middle of a block of land covered in long grass, enclosed by a broken wire fence. The fruit, round and green, the size of small basketballs were ripe. No-one seemed to own the land or showed interest in the tree. We found a way in through the wire, Fasi fashioned a long forked stick and jabbed at where the fruit joined a branch until they fell and caught them before they hit the ground.
He showed me how to scrape the skin off, cut them in quarters, boil them till almost soft and finish off the cooking process by oven baking. The kitchen filled with a warm baked smell, we ate it with a curry, dipping it into the spicy juices.
The tree isn’t native to Australia it was found originally in New Guinea and the islands of the Pacific, the Aurukun one would have been planted by visiting islanders.
We heard later that the overgrown block used to be a market garden which grew a variety of vegetables, possibly overseen by an islander. Garden cultivation is not a traditional part of the lives of Indigenous Australians but where an islander lives there is usually fruit or vegetables growing nearby. There was something comforting about the sight of that breadfruit tree, maybe it was the memory of the baking smell or simply the knowledge that in that remote place food could be found somewhere else other than the local store.

More about names…

To name something or somebody is to imbue a sense of meaning, to call forth into existence and to welcome with belonging. There are different naming customs among Indigenous Australians, at birth and at death. In Aurukun when a person dies their Christian name is replaced with a generic name, Tarpich. Anyone else in the community who shares the same name is also known as Tarpich. It is a tradition of un-naming, of letting go of meaning, existence and belonging and encouraging the spirit on it’s journey to freedom.

Names

My first day of work in the Aurukun clinic I read local surnames on medical charts and repeated them to myself like a mantra, feeling the shape of them in my mouth. It seemed important to know those names. Now, years later, they are as imbedded in the landscape of my psyche as they are in the history and geography of the Aurukun community…Yunkaporta, Pootchemunka, Owokerun, Wolmby, Pambegan, Ngallametta, Ampeybegan, Kawangka, Kerindun, Koomeeta, Kowearpta…their syllables flow in a stream of meaning and belonging.

Cultural Awareness

My experiences of formal cultural awareness programs is limited to three. The first was a two day compulsory program provided by Queensland Health in the nineties. I worked in a paediatric ward of a base hospital, occasionally I cared for an Aboriginal child but rarely had contact with a child’s carers. Usually older siblings were sent up to the ward to visit and police were asked to find parents when it was time for a child to be discharged. I assumed Aboriginal people weren’t comfortable with hospitals. The two days I spent in a classroom hearing the history of the crimes of the dominant white culture against Aboriginal people didn’t give me any insight at to why I rarely saw the parents of Aboriginal children visiting in the ward. Was it a distrust from years ago?

The second cultural awareness talk was less formal but one I was hoping to learn valuable information from. It was two days after I arrived in Aurukun to work with Aboriginal people in the health clinic. I knew I needed to learn about the local culture. The senior health worker took me to a private corner of the room to give me a cultural awareness talk and said “Sometimes a patient comes into the clinic and they might be poison to a health worker.” I’m sure my mouth dropped open and my eyes widened…I asked “What makes one person poison to another?”…after a meaningful pause and a long sigh…the reply was “it’s always been that way.” And with those few words he stood up to leave, having given me the talk. His words left far more questions in my mind than I had before he spoke to me. It was many months before I had any idea of what he was talking about. The little I learnt about local culture was taught informally by the two female health workers on a need to know basis.

The third experience was a whole day at the Alice Springs hospital last year as part of their orientation program. It was run by a local Aboriginal woman. I learnt about kinship systems, cross-cultural communication, local history and language. It was fascinating and informative but by that time I’d already learnt much of it through my own reading, watching films and listening and paying attention to Indigenous people around me who’d been open enough to talk about their lives.

Education is an interesting thing, it can be both formal or informal and come at the right time to be understood and benefitted from, or a lot of money and time can be wasted on irrelevant information badly timed.

Reverse Culture Shock

I worked in Aurukun at the top of Cape York, Queensland on a five week contract before deciding to apply for a permanent job in the clinic. After I was interviewed and got the job I was flown home to South-East Queensland for 10 days to pack my things to be shipped back for the three-bedroom house I was to move into.

En-route I stayed overnight in Cairns. There were too many people at the airport, the shops and the motel foyer. There seemed to be more cars on the roads than when I was there five weeks previously. The colours were brighter, there was too much choice in the shops and everyone seemed to be talking loudly. I felt strange just walking around Cairns Central looking at the shops. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong.

When I arrived home and met up with family and friends their questions sounded trivial to me, or their lack of questions widened a gap I felt was opening up between me and everything I’d considered normal before I left home.

I didn’t know it then but I was feeling the effects of reverse culture shock.

When a person returns home after being in another country or social environment it takes a whole other set of adjustments to when they first encountered the new setting. People assume because their friend or family member who’s been away, looks and sounds like the person they knew, that they still  belong to all they left behind. But often things have changed in their absence and they have experienced life outside their previous norms in the time since they left home. They can, in fact, be quite disorientated on return.

Being aware of reverse culture shock, being prepared to experience boredom, isolation, disorientation and annoyance on arrival home will help a person to readjust. It’s a good idea to keep in contact with new friends made from the host culture and to talk to people with whom you can relate. It’s also often helpful to use creativity to incorporate the new cultural experiences into one’s regular life by writing articles or creating a photo exhibition, or simply by bringing art or cultural items into one’s home as a reminder of the time away.

Asking yourself what you’ve learnt and how you’ve changed help you to be more aware and to adjust and for the time away to have a positive effect.

I have to admit though that while these ideas are helpful, coping with reverse culture shock takes a much longer time than you’d think and if a person moves between cultures fairly regularly it doesn’t seem to get any easier. In fact one often feels like an in-between person not quite belonging anywhere.

Samoa in Aurukun

My first weekend in Aurukun I wondered how I was going to fill in the time where there were no café, cinemas or friends. But I was invited to go fishing with another nurse and the two Samoan guards. I caught my first fish, a Trevally, and began a habit of walking down with the boys most weekends and spending time with a rod among the mangroves. Fasi and Tupe were fun to be around. They laughed, joked and told stories of Samoa. The time with them went too quickly.

I soon looked forward to having a chat with Fasi, on the clinic verandah on my way back home after seeing patients after hours. His English was better than Tupe’s and he told me stories about working on the family plantation in his village of Tuan’ai on the island of Upolu, before and after school. Of the long walk there and the need to please his often angry father. Being taught to dive by him, to spear fish and octopus to feed the family. He taught me a few Samoan words and laughed at my pronunciation. He talked about breadfruit, taro and coconut cream and other Samoan foods.

A month or so after I arrived Fasi and I walked down to the landing most afternoons after work if we weren’t on duty. The landing was where we fished and where the locals put their boats into the Archer river and headed off closer to the Gulf waters. On a slow wander along a red dirt track one afternoon we found a tall breadfruit tree, covered with green fruit the size and shape of small basketballs. Fasi was excited to see what he called in Samoan, an ulu tree. He knocked down four with a long forked stick and we carried them back to his flat. I had my first lesson in Samoan food preparation. The tiny kitchen soon filled with the warm scent of baking ulu. The next thing to do was to find coconuts to scrape the flesh and make cream to dip the ulu in, take fish out of the freezer and an island style feast would be ready in no time.