When I arrived for my first agency nurse contract on Badu island in the Torres Strait I wasn’t aware of having any expectations. My main thought was that I was having an adventure. After a day or two I realized I was waiting for “something” to happen. Maybe shouting in the street, or some other type of sudden violence. The Cape York community I’d worked in for two years experienced a high level of violent outbursts. Raised voices in the streets were often the background noise to every other day. I had been initially shocked at that, but by the time I left I had grown accustomed to it.
The Cape York community was my first experience in working as a remote area nurse. I learnt my emergency skills there and began to have some understanding of the health and social difficulties of Indigenous people living in traditional lands. I didn’t know, though, that I expected every group of Indigenous people to be similar. Leaving the place I knew and arriving to work on a small island, my first lesson was about my own expectations. The fact that I had them, and that they were wrong.Since then I have worked almost two years in various Torres islands and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard shouting in a street. Becoming aware of my expectations and letting them go is a lifetime’s work. I learnt after those first few days to be more open to what I actually saw and heard instead of living from my assumptions. And I’ve been constantly and wonderfully surprised at the differences within Australian Indigenous cultures and individual people.
My first day off after starting work in the clinic in the remote Indigenous community of Aurukun, in far north Queensland, was spent walking around the few paved roads photographing the obvious landmarks of church, store, airstrip and police station. I wanted to take photos of the things that shocked or surprised me, the skinny mangy dogs, the rundown houses, families sitting on the bare ground cooking food over open fires. The intimate things like the profile of a grandmother, a naked child playing with a scrawny puppy or the women whirling out their cast nets in a wide white circle to catch a small fish meal. But I didn’t dare point my camera at any of those things. I still wonder about that, are people’s lives that are lived in a public space open to portrayal on film? I was concerned to not be intrusive or to add to any negative images the dominant white culture already has of such communities. But, now that I’m more experienced with my camera, I wish I’d at least asked some of the local adults if I could photograph them going about their ordinary lives, if for no other reason than to retain my memory of them, and of course, to offer them copies for posterity.
The photo here is the one I took of the store, not nearly as interesting as a group of people or a simple portrait.
Have you ever had the experience of a few simple words changing your life? I have, over five years ago sitting on a red Weston’s flour drum at the landing in Aurukun, Fasi was sitting next to me watching local women fish as the November sun set. They were his words, “In my country we have a saying, when the sun goes down it’s the end of the day.” He first spoke them softly in Samoan and I thought I’d never heard anything so wise and sweet. I won’t tell you the rest of the story, except to say, I can still hear the whispered words in my imagination and their simplicity still makes me smile and it’s become a joke between us. I fell in love with him that evening.
Here is fasi and our friend, the cockatoo outside the Aurukun clinic in 2009.
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.
A 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.
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.
I’ve written in a journal for years, not daily, but often. During the years I’ve worked as a remote area nurse I’ve jotted down thoughts, events, names and places. It helped with all the changes that were happening, to feel real and solid, the events able to be processed and not to disappear into nothingness.
Writer, Joan Didion, stated that notebook-keepers “are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
I wrote because I didn’t want to ever lose the experiences, because I never wanted to forget the names, because one day I knew I would want to read my own stories.
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.
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.