You show up in Parnawarratji and try to arrange the single loop of sealed road, the vacant red dirt lots and the dotted housing with massive metal cages on the front, into a ‘community’ in your mind. It isn’t what you were expecting, but then, you didn’t know what to expect. Certainly not so much sky, arcing over the horizon, the line blurred by a hazy fringe of spinifex grass.
Three old women stalk past. Even though you know it’s their country, their black faces, refusing to make eye contact, fill you with foreboding. As their backs retreat ahead of you, it strikes you that their brightly coloured full skirts and billowing blouses belong in a cartoon, not this desolate place. A large pig ambles past. You get back in your Toyota.
The night passes inside your donga whose green lino is irretrievably streaked with red dirt. You shower in the tiny cubicle and pretend it’s novel, like that time you stayed in a business hotel in Osaka and showered over the toilet. When a green frog springs across the shower-screen you squeal, clap your hands over your mouth and blush for the audience not there. Nobody is there. Nobody will hear you. Your tiny donga rings with a loneliness that echoes across the flat horizon, into the giant sky where a full moon is rising.
In the morning, you discover far from being alone, three dogs of mixed breed have taken up residence on your doorstep. A fat corgi with the colouring of a blue healer; a dog with the body of an American Staffy but a long snout collapsing into wrinkles; a rat-like Jack Russel. They eye you lazily when you open the door, and roll upright to follow behind when you walk to the shop. When you get there, snarling erupts as your three shadows squall into the other twelve dogs waiting for their owners. The Jack Russel ducks under an outdoor table. An old woman yells and slaps the air behind it as it shoots out across the road.
For a moment the air-conditioning inside the shop is a relief; the gleam of the fridge’s florescent light and the artificial colours of the soft drink.
‘Morning!’ greets a middle-aged blond woman standing at the till. ‘What a relief! I love it when I see other white people!’
You glance over your shoulder, self-conscious, but whether it’s from the woman’s comment or your own reciprocal flush of relief you aren’t sure.
‘I’m Cathy,’ the woman continues, ‘just covering for the usual shop keepers here. They’re on leave—extended leave— but just between you and me, I’m not sure they’ll be back.’ She leans on the counter with her elbows. ‘This place drove them crackers. Who can blame them? The kids are always breaking in—for the paints, you know—’ She squints at you, and mimes holding a can under her nose. You blink back blankly.
‘I just wanted to grab some drinking water?’ you say.
She points over to where ten litre plastic containers are stacked in the centre of the floor. ‘That’s your best bet there.’
Somewhere in the midst of all this, you’re supposed to be both a health professional and a teacher. Travelling with you is a young woman, a final year occupational therapy student a university has sent up, to learn about remote health. You met her only briefly at the university and then again at the airport on your way up here, where she’d been flanked on either side by anxious-looking parents.
She’s followed you obediently into the shop, and you notice her following more closely as you leave, hauling your ten litres of drinking water. You greet four men sitting at a table outside the shop— they ignore you. You wonder exactly how you’re going to explain ‘occupational therapy’ to these people. You did some reading before you came up— on your own, the health service provided nothing—these people came in from the desert only fifty years ago. Some of the eldest still living were born and raised in the desert. As you walk, you notice, something on the ground. Something fleshy. You pause. From the strange pink mass you pick out the curve of a spine; oh— it’s a kangaroo foetus. You hope your student didn’t see that.
You won’t admit it, not until years later, but for months it’s like this. Your senses disoriented and dislocated, unable to construct solid ground around you; the sky so huge above you. You’re faking it, taking your student with you to meetings—‘planning’, ‘consulting’, ‘needs assessments’. A month goes by before you realise the only Aboriginal person you’ve spoken with is Eileen, a woman who’s forty-five but looks about sixty and has an opinion on everything. She tells you, ‘We need to close the gap,’ and was on the board that decided your program could enter the community. Yet every time you set up a meeting to discuss with her the best way to deliver therapy services day-to-day, she doesn’t show. When you run into her on the street or in the shop, she apologises and tells you she went into town that day. Instead, you end up meeting just with school teachers.
‘Noah has problems,’ his teacher, Julie says. She’s worked the remote circuit for eight years, shifting schools every two.
‘It’s his s-sounds,’ says Ally, a new grad, with long dreadlocks and baggy pants ending in military style boots. She looks the embodiment of something, but you’re not sure what. ‘Noah’s parents don’t care. He comes to school filthy.’
‘He doesn’t even have anywhere to live. Yesterday I asked him where he was sleeping and he said Molly’s camp. But I know for a fact that child protection thinks he stays at Janet’s.’ This is from Paul, the principal. He has a weaselly smile and a shiny bald head and talks a lot about the need for bilingual education.
The Aboriginal education officers aren’t in the meeting; not this one, nor any that you’ve been to in the past month.
Your ears are ringing. You drop your head into your hands. On the couch in the corner of the staffroom, your student is staring at you.
In the end, it’s one woman who changes everything.
One day you’re standing watching a flock of yellow swallows out the front of the shop, puffing and arcing through the spinifex grass-like wind, gusting.
You’re surprised when the old woman sits down on an abandoned white plastic shower-chair. Not close to you, but not far away either. Close enough to believe she’s watching you. You scan her quickly—her black hair has bright purple streaks in it. You’ve heard the Fijians who run the local aged care centre have been dying hair. What does her approach mean? Is this communication? She says nothing.
Over the past month or so, you’ve tried every conversation starter you can think of. You’ve greeted everyone in the street, you’ve asked them their names, you’ve spoken to them about your program. You’ve remembered that Aboriginal people care about where you come from and who your family is, so you’ve offered up the name of the country town you were born in, but seeing as you’re unmarried and have no kids, the family part fell short, and no-one was looking at you anyway. These people are the masters of the non-reply. Silence has never been quite so loud.
So when the old woman shifts her eyes momentarily sideways at you, you’re startled.
‘What are you here for?’ she asks.
I have no idea, you want to say, tears springing suddenly in your eyes. The dust stirs at your feet, caught for a moment in the wind.
‘We’re here to help the kids,’ you say. It comes out wrong. In your effort to keep it simple you’ve come out cliché. You take a deep breath, try again.
‘I am an occupational therapist. I work with children who have trouble learning, writing, talking, whose behaviour is wild.’ You want to say more, but you second guess everything that you’re about to say, your tongue falls over itself, and in the end, you say nothing.
The old woman nods.
‘You need cultural-awareness training,’ she says.
All of it— the words, the offer, the concept— is unexpected. You risk a second glance at the woman. Her dark eyes are on you, burning out of her narrow bony skull. You feel an impact, like you’ve been hit. You hold her gaze.
‘We do. Who can teach us?’
A younger woman holding a baby in her arms walks past into the shop.
‘That’s my Nana,’ the old woman says, pursing her lips towards the baby. She watches you a moment, her eyes sparkling, and so begins Berta’s lurching cultural-awareness training.
She shows up at your donga one night after dark, clutching a plastic bowl oozing with a thin stew and a fat bone of kangaroo tail. She explains how her son shot it and tied it up, how her sister butchered it with her daughter, Sonya, who took out the guts and cleaned them.
‘We use everything, cook it all up— even the head.’
You eye the meat in the bowl suspiciously.
‘Kangaroos are my totem.’ Berta says. ‘I can’t eat ‘em. I have a scar here,’ she points over her shoulder to a place on her back. ‘That’s how I know.’
Berta’s statements often leave you more bewildered. Your worlds are so different, and the limited vocabulary you share doesn’t allow for nuance.
You take hold of the hunk of kangaroo tail with your fingers, suck the meat from the bone at its centre. It’s fattier than you’re used to, the texture slick and oily. Berta’s eyes shine through the dark, a smile spreads across her lips.
Berta tells you her personal history in fits and starts and sentences that never entirely come together. Her father walked in from the desert back when this place was still a ration station.
‘They gave him a box of cereal and he speared it!’
She talks about her own childhood spent in a mission, the separate dormitories for boys and girls, the laundry days on Tuesday. She tells you about the new arrivals coming in on trucks from the bush.
‘We felt sorry for them— they didn’t even know what ‘school’ was. We used to deliberately bump into them, talk quietly in language— we weren’t allowed to speak language, we could only talk in English.’
You’re startled and appalled how it’s all so recent, the history you’ve vaguely learnt, suddenly so personal. You don’t know what to say so you nod numbly and find yourself, afterwards, close to tears.
Berta takes you out on country with three other old women. You pull up on a plain of yellow shrubs and the women pile out of the vehicle, fearlessly strolling amongst the spinifex grass, leaning down to yank a bush out of the ground. Berta fishes a grub out from the stalk, plops it on your palm.
As you approach the waterhole, the women call out in language. Berta yells out in English for your benefit.
‘Hello waterhole! We’re coming waterhole.’
When you’re sitting beside the water, relaxing under white trunked gum trees, cockatoos screeching through the green canopy, Berta quietly tells you that this is where they used to run away to.
‘We’d run, run, run away from the mission, light a fire, so that our mummies could come and find us.’
One day Berta’s brings her daughter, Sonya, over to meet you. She’s thirty-five years-old looking after three kids of her own, a brand new grandson, and two nieces, recently placed in her care by child protection, after living in a group home.
One of the nieces, Jadine, is a wild cyclone of a child, tearing through the house, fighting other kids, bursting abruptly into tears and howling for an hour at a time. Berta and Sonya want you to work with her. In the first session, Jadine demolishes your clinic room, overturning furniture, pulling every toy from the cupboard, tearing from each activity only seconds after initiating it. Once you’ve seen her off at the front door, you lean heavily against the doorframe, watching her small figure walk towards the huge, flat horizon.
You realise Allison, an Aboriginal education officer, has been watching you at school. Watching how your eyes glaze over when Julie starts whining about ringworm. Watching how you kneel down to speak with the children.
Allison comes over one day, sits down opposite you at the picnic table in the school playground. She says nothing, but Berta has taught you— this is a greeting. There’s something peaceful in the way the obvious can be left unsaid. That two people can be together, quietly. We have forgotten, in Western culture, the joy of silent company.
Sonya’s niece, Jadine, sprints past, bee-lining to the monkey-bars, Allison laughs. Jadine’s anticipatory joy is infectious.
‘She loves swinging around on the playground,’ you say, and Allison laughs again.
‘Yeah, she does.’
What you both aren’t saying is that Jadine is tearing to the playground because she is tearing away from the four walls of the classroom that she spends the rest of the day bouncing off.
‘I was like Jadine when I was younger.’ Allison says. You’re surprised by this sudden disclosure. ‘They took me away from my mum too. I grew up with a white family in Perth.’
Allison tells you how she no longer speaks the language of her people. How as a child she used to be visited by spirits in her dreams, calling her home.
‘I always knew I had to come back—this is my country. So when I turned eighteen, I came back. I was disappointed at first when I saw everything happening with my people. But I’m proud of where I come from and I want better for us.’
Allison wants a women’s centre where women can come and meet and speak together; school sport and holiday programs so kids have something do outside of school hours instead of getting into trouble; a parent’s committee, so Aboriginal families can have a say in their school.
The siren blares to call the end of lunch.
Julie marches past us. ‘Allison, can you pick up that rubbish?’ she says as she passes, pointing to a meat-pie wrapper puffing slowly towards the playground.
The day you overhear an audiologist explain to a fourteen-year-old that she needs an operation to correct her hearing loss, is the day you begin to believe the biggest problem in Aboriginal communities is white people. The fourteen-year-old nodded politely, but the audiologist didn’t wait for a parent to be present, didn’t seek a parent out at home, in a community where every home is no more than two minutes drive from everything else. No doubt, she relied on the local clinic nurse, but the local clinic nurse was a locum, here for five weeks, who left the community without ever meeting that family.
Sonya tells you after the nurse left, how she took her grandson in for a vaccine and the woman took the baby into a room and closed the door in her face. She’d heard her baby crying.
Two women, drug and alcohol counsellors, drive into Parnawarratji ready to deliver their service to the men the court has ordered to attend. But when they arrive, just as the sun sets, they seize the opportunity to exercise, jogging in tight shorts along the road into town. The next day, the men skip their mandatory appointments. The women in the community talk about those white women with no shame. The oldest ones cackle and slap their thighs, laughing about long white legs.
Natalie takes her time to approach you. For months you notice her, sitting with other women watching your therapy sessions, out the front of homes. After you’ve worked in Parnawarratji almost a year, she asks for help with her daughter, Lee.
Lee is having trouble learning to spell. You teach her how to sound out the word and make a spelling choice. Natalie sits with you in every session, occasionally muttering something in language to Lee or bringing her into line when she mucks around.
Natalie tells you one day that Lee is having a birthday party. She lets the silence hang.
‘Natalie, are you inviting me to the party?’ you finally ask.
‘Only if you want to come,’ she says, the smallest of smiles on her lips.
You pile into Natalie’s house on the day of the party. There must be thirty adults and eighty kids, running in and out of doorways. Natalie puts you on popcorn duty and you pick your way through the bodies delivering it hot from the microwave to the table. Seems like everyone from the community is here. Well, with some notable exceptions—you and your student are the only white faces.
In a lounge chair, beside a TV blaring Christian songs with subtitles, Berta sits alone. She has leaned right back, one hand holding up her head. She looks washed out, a pale shadow of herself. You greet her, she squeezes your hand, and you sit a moment at her feet. Later, you find out she’d just learned her sister, living in a community eight hundred kilometres away, had died.
Natalie taps you on the arm and proudly shows off the cake she’s baked. The two of you attack it together with cans of whipped cream and strawberries. The cream wilts in the heat. Your student sits outside, the kids clumped around her, raiding her pockets for the textas and books she’s always carrying. They sit together, drawing and reading.
It’s a shock then, when a week later, you show up with your student to work with Lee and six dogs come tearing out towards you, barking and snarling— the same dogs who usually sleep at your feet during the session.
You stand your ground, yelling ‘Go on!’ in your best guttural approximation of the old women who usually control these packs, but they stop less than a metre away, hunched and snarling.
Natalie’s husband stalks the front verandah pacing back and forth. Someone yells from inside the house and he yells back. He suddenly punches the wall and the building, made of tinny colour-bond, reverberates. You see Natalie for a moment, move past the doorway, a purple bruise blooming around her eye.
Quietly, you walk away.
That night, you shake in your bed. While attempting to cross the barriers of culture, language, power and racism, you left your professional identity behind you. Berta says you’ve become like family, that the children look at you like another mother. In a community where everyone is either related, or an ignored service provider, it had made sense. But now your brother is hitting your sister and your daughter is cowering somewhere in that house.
When you return to Perth on holiday everything seems shiny. The walls of houses so white, the tiled floors gleaming. The green of the trees, the blue river, the grass and roads—the lack of red dirt—makes everything seem pale and muted. You feel like you’ve walked into a magazine, something like Better Homes and Gardens.
You pop into a cafe for a piccolo and cinnamon brioche and for a moment the joy of life outside of Parnawarratji floods you. But as you walk through the shopping mall, crowded with objects in bins and massive sale signs, you wonder if this is what it’s all for. Is this why some communities live in poverty on their ancestral country? Is this what politicians and big business aspire for Aboriginal people?
You try to talk to your friends about what you’ve seen and learnt but grief reaches up for your jugular as you talk, and you’re strangled into silence.
You want to tell them about the day Sonya’s niece, Jadine, finally grew still— you had been playing together for forty minutes, swinging high on the school swing, launching off to land in the sand. When she was finally ready, she sat down with you on the ground and together you painted her home, the community; she mapped out the houses and drew the people to fill the homes.
You want to explain to your girlfriends how Berta, still weighted with the grief of her sister’s death, came to sit quietly beside you, then leant over, pointing to each home, talking gently with Jadine about how she fits into the family.
You want to explain that whilst this community has everything you read about— violence, drinking, poor education, bad health—it isn’t what defines it. These women have gathered around you and drawn you into a quiet that seems as deep as time; a strength somehow behind all the grief. They proudly held out their newest grand-baby so you could pinch his cheeks. When you worked with these families, they practised what you gave them—the speech exercises or the ways of rocking and singing and squeezing their children with long hugs to try and calm them, ready to learn. The progress their kids made was the fastest you’d ever seen.
You want to explain, but you realise most of what you would say might seem small and trite. Because these are pearls that are lighting up your interior: That an old nana held your hand even as she walked away, squeezing it tight; that an eight year old girl went from crying in the corner and using single words, to long joyful sentences tumbling out of her; that more and more women came seeking your service, walking into the dingy classroom you worked out of in the school, crossing a boundary they used to avoid. While at first they came to speak about their children, more and more they arrived to share their own worries. You couldn't fix those things, but you listened.
When the annual Close the Gap report comes out with a slew of hope-sucking articles, you find yourself thinking of Berta, Natalie and Allison. For thousands of years, desert women have made belts of hair to give them the power to walk for days. These women have walked for generations now. Withstanding too much loss in their country, too much death in their community. They move around the failure of agencies, the flow of visiting professionals and services, the changing policies. Their desert lands have been converted into missions, cattle stations, and now communities that are constantly threatened with closure.
In front of the shop where you first met, Berta sits on a wheelchair stripped of its tyres that has replaced the shower-chair that once lived there. You squat beside her and talk awhile. You ask her about the Uluru Statement from the Heart. She hasn’t heard about it, though her eyes light up when you use the word treaty. She pats your thigh with the back of her hand, then reaches for your hand and holds it, not letting go. Together you sit in silence. Further afield national movements are occurring, but here in Paranwarratji, the renewal starts closer in.
* Photo courtesy of Casey Schackow @unsplash