Odd Friends

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.

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.

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.

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.

First RAN Christmas

My first remote area nurse Christmas was in Aurukun 2008. Well….it was meant to be, but I ended up flying to Townsville for a CT scan of my right wrist. All the preparations were made….I had tinsel, lights and decorations posted from home. My then 16 year old daughter was flying up for two weeks, presents bought from before I ran away from home and ready to post from the top of Cape York and all the ingredients I needed for a boiled fruitcake were in the local store. I was set to enjoy a tropical wet season Christmas in the middle of “nowhere”.

But late one afternoon my desire to explore got the better of me. My daughter, Fasi and I walked about an hour along a bush track next to the Archer river…admiring the lush growth of pandanus on one side of the red dirt and mangroves on the other. I walked in the middle while the other two talked….suddenly they were still talking and I was flat on my back in sticky mud….trying not to make a fuss about the sharp pain in my wrist. They helped me to my feet as if I was an old woman, made a few jokes and wondered if we should keep walking or return home. The clouds were darkening and the tide was washing across the river bank. We pressed on, only, to be soon drenched in a heavy shower of rain. Fasi took that opportunity to closely peer into the water looking for fish, then made a hasty repair to an old net hanging in a tree while Mel and I were shivering with cold and water dripped off our noses and down our backs.

We walked home in semi-darkness feeling a bond forged by the experience….still making jokes! We still talk about it five years later as if it was a big adventure.

My arm was plastered back at the clinic, Fasi flew back to Brisbane, we enjoyed a clinic Christmas party and a few days of the house being lit up, then flew to join the family in Townsville. It was Christmas with a difference alright and one of the most memorable.

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.

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.

Security

090Before I flew into Aurukun the Director of Nursing at the Health Clinic told me she employed two Tongan security guards to keep the nurses safe in the clinic on after hours emergency call outs.

When I arrived in 2008 I was taught how to lock the ambulance securely in a shipping container. Prior to that idea ambulances had been stolen and wrecked by local youths hungry for adventure.

I soon became accustomed to carrying several keys for various secured doors and the padlocks of closed heavy metal gates.

The word security means the state of being free from danger or threat, it comes from an old Latin word, securitas, which means “free from care”.

Aurukun over the past 20-30 years has had a history of violence, riots in the streets and fighting between families and clans. The reasons are too many and complicated for this post. But it’s resulted in the need for high security measures for all who work there.

It’s an odd thought that to be safe and free from care actually requires a large amount of resources, planning and attention. It’s just another paradox I’ve encountered as a remote area nurse.