When I first arrived in Aurukun I had a cheap “point and shoot” digital camera. I’d enjoyed taking photos for years but never had the confidence to buy and learn to use an SLR. The first weekend I was there I wandered off around the community taking the usual shots of the clinic, shop, post office and air strip. When I walked towards the church to take my last image for the morning I saw a huge pig on the grass in the church yard. It look oddly out of place there and so, of course, made an interesting picture. I didn’t need an expensive camera to grab that moment in time, just the eye to see it.
Now years later and the owner of an SLR and doing a course to learn how to use it I still think a photographer must have the eye to see and the intuitive feel for what makes an interesting composition. Good shots can still be captured on a cheapie camera, price isn’t everything.
Incidentally, I never saw that pig again!
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.
When you find yourself in a remote place you welcome any overtures of friendship. loneliness, culture shock and generally figuring out how you’re going to fill in the hours after work can be quite a challenge.
A sulphur-crested cockatoo befriended Fasi and I one afternoon. It was sitting on the guttering of the clinic building just above our heads, leaning over peering at us as we talked. When we walked the hundred or so metres home along the red dirt track, it flew through the gum trees, over our heads and landed on the metal railing outside the kitchen, loudly calling “hello”. It must have once been someone’s pet, although we never found out whose, and it never ventured far from the back verandah and it’s water and sunflower seed tray, from the day it arrived till the day we left.
I loved that bird, it brought another dimension to the harsh life I was experiencing in Aurukun. Just watching it waddle about on the railing or wandering into the house made me smile.
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.
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.
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.