Like many of you, I grew up in an Australian neighbourhood not too far from the city, knowing only one or two Aboriginal people. So when a few years ago, I drove across the country and had to refill at a petrol station in a remote Aboriginal community where bowsers were in locked cages and the beat up cars around me occupied an illegal number of passengers, a few cute, barefoot & snotty-nosed babies – I felt unsure and all the fear & misinformation I had received in my lifetime about these people, swam through my head. In those few hours waiting for the station to open, and fill up the car, my eyes were opened to a welcoming, curious community who wanted to know everything about us even though they could barely speak English. I realised everything I thought I knew was actually nothing at all.
So when the opportunity arose to spend a few days in an Aboriginal community in Katherine, Northern Territory I was excited at the prospect of learning firsthand what these communities and people are really like. I knew a few days wouldn’t even scratch the surface but even a sliver of light in total darkness can show you the way.
Let Me Tell You A Story
I had arrived in Darwin, my shoulder pressed against the delightfully warm, full sized windows of the bus. I watched as the beautiful arid landscape sped by and listened intently as I was told the story of John McDouall Stuart of whom the highway we were driving on was named. It was a story of the Scottish explorer who led the first successful expedition across the harsh Australian mainland from south to north and return to pave way for the Australian Overland Telegraph Line which allowed fast communication between Australia and the rest of the world and was a significant milestone in Australian telegraphic history. The story has all the intrigue of dramatic events, violence, numerous failed attempts, illness, injury, a fierce competition between states (against the famous Burke & Wills) and the bravery of a man who ensured he never lost a man despite the harshness of the country he encountered. The end was sad. Stuart was a heavy drinker and a loner. This made him a controversial figure, and some people even minimised his achievements due to this. He fled back to Scotland where his adventures were less known and died soon after of his illnesses.
I’ve always admired storytellers, maybe because I am not a very good one. What makes a good story? For me it’s the message, the life lesson, an ideal told in a way that makes you think about it for more than a minute whilst it dances around playfully in your heart.
I had applied through work to spend a few days in Katherine with The Fred Hollows Foundation to witness the special work they do for the surrounding remote Indigenous communities, the challenges they face, meet some of the people they’ve helped and the selfless people carrying out the work. Aside from this though, I learnt something else that actually STRUCK ME and that was the importance of storytelling to a community. How wisdom, tradition, lessons, history, the truth, laws, kinship, and a sense of belonging is all passed on through the generations this way. And that it is a vital part of life and so profoundly beautiful.
In this blog post, I’m going to summarise (& hopefully not butcher) some of the stories I was told and other snippets from my meaningful, though oh-too-brief Katherine trip. I don’t claim to have a full understanding of the mystery of our Indigenous Australians, their clan traditions and numerous languages, their struggles or their joys. But I must write something, because the little I did witness stirred something in me, which I have to share with you.
Please take time to read more about The Fred Hollows Foundation here.
Keep Your Word
I was taken aback by how politically savvy the Indigenous people I met were. How articulate they are in talking on government, policies and history. I was told they have to be. Politics is so important and they are educated about it because who is in power impacts everything in the communities.
I was told the Northern Territory (NT) communities had backed the Labor party for many, many years, but during one election the Liberal party won the Aboriginal bush seats, and won government. This was because the Liberals took to the bush to campaign against the federal government’s intervention (NTER), promising to get rid of it. Nothing came of it though because the NT government has no say over federal legislation, and so the promise was broken and next election, Labor was again voted in. The strength of your word, and how you treat people will be remembered for a long time.
The Fred Hollows Foundation understands the importance of this. They call it the Patient Pathway & know that if they don’t do it right in every instance, they could potentially damage impression of the medical industry and lose a relationship with an entire community for generations to come.
Cultural respect & understanding is vital. I heard horrific stories about a history of Indigenous people not being given anaesthetic because it was thought they didn’t feel pain the way non-indigenous people did. This grossly incorrect assumption arose from their observation at the time of Aboriginal women not screaming out during painful childbirth. However, this is the cultural practice amongst Aboriginals. How crazy to think they didn’t feel pain like anybody else?
Katherine’s Traditional Owners are the Jawoyn people. They call the region Nitmiluk which derives its name from nitmi meaning the “cicada song” Nabilil the crocodile heard when he set up camp at the entrance to the gorge (luk signifying “place”).
It is common knowledge that this part of Australia is croc country. I had heard a number of scary crocodile tales (pun intended) around the campfire, but this one is my favourite:
An Aboriginal family gathered together at their beach camp which they had been going to for generations. Aunty was a favourite with the kids because she was the only adult that woke up early so they could get out of their tents and play under her supervision. Six days had passed, and Aunty was having some trouble stoking the fire for her morning brew of coffee. She heard her name being called excitedly, and she grumpily made her way to the shore where the kids were playing in waist deep water. They had called her to see the unusual sight of a lone dolphin swimming extremely close to the shore. The dolphin leapt out of the water to the sounds of ‘Ooohs and Aahhs’ and as Aunty and the children watched, the arc formed by the dolphin revealed a giant salt water crocodile trying to get to the children. The dolphin sighting allowed the children to see the salty and they wasted no time getting the heck out of there. Aunty’s heart raced as she held the children close and said “One of you lucky kids has dolphin dreaming. That dolphin saved your life”
What would you want to see first, if you were cured of blindness?
It is probably a question you have asked yourself at some time or another.
I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. ~ Vincent Van Gogh.
Whilst at Katherine District Hospital I was told a story about an Aboriginal fellow who was blinded by cataracts. He had corrective surgery, through the Fred Hollows Foundation and when they were removing his patches, he stopped them and asked where his wife was. She stepped forward and held his hands and he said she was the first thing he wanted to SEE. When he opened his eyes and looked at her, he said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, more beautiful then he remembered.. What a lovely way to explain love at first sight!
Good eye health is a luxury many of us take for granted. Check out these staggering statistics:
- 90% of vision loss for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults is preventable or treatable
- in most cases, most vision loss can be corrected overnight
- The four eye conditions that cause this vision loss are: refractive error (needing glasses), cataract, diabetic retinopathy and trachoma
- Australia is the only developed country to have trachoma and it’s the 4th leading cause of blindness in Aboriginal people
But of course, what would a story be without an ending? Though there is still a long way to go… The Fred Hollows Foundation, and the people I met in Katherine are making a real difference. The general vibe is understanding and non-judgement. Love, compassion & unity. I have never felt as happy in my surroundings as I felt for those few days. With a beautiful vision that everyone is deserving of the same treatment – how could I not have been inspired?
The Fred Hollows Foundation 2017 results in Australia
- 14,633 people screened
- 1,162 eye operations and treatments performed including 775 diabetic retinopathy procedures and 317 cataract surgeries.
- 2,798 pairs of glasses distributed
- 605 school children and community members educated in eye health
- Research, training and technology
- 56 people trained, including two fifth-year trainee ophthalmologists, one optometrist, one diabetic retinopathy clinical support worker, 24 midlevel eye care workers and 10 community-based workers.
I look forward to learning more about Indigenous Australians so I can spread the word, and be part of the change.