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.

Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding

Those two security guards employed at the Aurukun clinic weren’t Tongan, they were both Samoan. Same thing you probably think, just as the Director of Nursing probably did if she stopped to think about it at all. It’s not the same thing, similar Pacific island culture that shares a few common words, but very different places, history and people.

Before I started to work with Indigenous people in out-of-the-way parts of Australia I thought of “Aborigines” as a whole group. I had no concept of different family and clan groups, different languages and customs. The way the phrase, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”, rolls out of the noise of the media so smoothly lulls most of us into thinking all Indigenous people are the same. It’s a falsehood and one that serves no good purpose to any Australian. It stops us from understanding our own people and therefore our history and land.

When we consciously or unconsciously assume a group of people outside our own culture are the same, we narrow our understanding of the world, we limit our own possibilities to learn and to have our experience of life enriched. We are often too lazy to pay attention or to listen to someone different, or maybe too busy, or worse, too bigoted and stuck in our own or our parents attitudes towards certain cultures.

I’ve caught myself assuming, not wanting to hear and thinking I know better, but as I get older and encounter more people from other cultures and other clans of Indigenous people I want to close my mouth and open my mind and be amazed at the variety of languages, customs and attitudes flourishing  outside my experiences.

One of those Samoan security guards became my soul mate and opened up a world for me I barely knew existed, and helped me see close up cross-cultural communication at it’s best and worst.