I have had a once in a lifetime experience.
One that forces you to see life though a different lens.
My eyes and ears have been exposed to a culture and languages I had never seen nor heard before,
yet they have existed in the land I call home, for over 60 thousand years.
I had not anticipated being ignited in such a big way, having found myself in a world of mixed emotions, complex questions and unexpected responses every day, on what was to be a wild and grand adventure. The beauty, love and wisdom I experienced took my breath away.
Visiting Elcho Island, 550km north of Darwin, known to its traditional owners as Galiwin’ku, is a remote traditional First Nations community with restricted access. I was privileged to receive an invitation to head there for work.
The invitation was a surprise, a gift that came about 18months ago when I received a random phone call from the impressive Dr Sarah Ireland at Charles Darwin University. Sarah was undertaking an enormous, much needed research project called Caring for Mum on Country. Sarah and Associate Professor Lawurrpa Maypilama, a proud Yolgnu woman, had identified that Yolgnu women from East Arnhem land are losing their traditional birthing practices. So, what if, these were formally recorded and shared and the women became more empowered about their bodies and their current options and choices, or lack thereof?
Combining ancient wisdom in Yolŋu Matha, meaning “Yolŋu tongue” with some new ideas and the modern birthing ways of the ‘Balanda’ (a white person), we could bring enormous possibilities.
Sarah, who has been researching and working with a variety of Indigenous tribes over an impressive and expansive career had discovered the ADC during her search for a Government Accredited Doula training. The plan was to formally train some of the local women to become Doulas by having them complete a unit of Accredited training. I was thrilled and jumped in without hesitation. Once all the formalities were sorted, myself and my daughter Ruby, who was joining me were 100% on board.
Most people are unaware that Australia sends its First Nations pregnant women away from their homeland, to birth off Country. For them, this means being separated from loved ones, their culture, their language, their bush tucker, and all their usual comforts and supports. These beautiful and venerable women are forced to travel to a foreign place to give birth. Imagine that for yourself?
For some women this can be from as early as four weeks pre-their babies estimated birth date. These divine women, once new mothers, would also have issues getting their babies back home as soon as possible, due to travel restrictions with a newborn.
So finally, in November 2019 I hit the ground running being greeted by Sarah and Lawurrpa at the airport and heading straight to the Uni where we got to know each other a little better and completed a, dare I say loose time line on what our vision in Galiwin’ku might look like. Three days later we were on a small plane off to Galiwin’ku.
Setting eyes on what I was to learn is a broken yet resilient community for the first time, I found myself feeling as equally heartbroken as I was excited. The air was thick, hot and extremely humid and the dirt beneath my feet was red and fine.
As we drove from the airport to our accommodation, I was pretty gobsmacked as I looked around and started to soak in the surrounds.
Houses were the strangest colours; the streets were full of garbage and many of the local people seemed to be walking around aimlessly without any purpose. The surrounding ocean was an inviting iridescent blue but there were many signs to remind you not to swim because of the baru (crocodile).
Where had we landed?
We arrived at our accommodation and whist basic to say the least, we had a kitchen, a flushing toilet and for us ladies, a single bed each. Patrick, the projects official photographer, was to sleep on a mattress on the floor.
We got straight to work. Lawurrpa and Sarah wanted to ‘round’ up the women who had said they were interested in the training. Lawurrpa had been speaking with many of the local elder women in preparation for many months. English is not the first language in Galiwin’ku and I was to learn that amazingly, some of the women spoke up to 12 dialectics. I was to learn quite a lot of Yolgnu Matha but the women would often joke, that I had a lazy tongue.
We drove around in the troopie, our beaten-up old hire vehicle, for a couple of hours allowing Lawurrpa to speak with women in the community. The majority of the local community do not have phones, access to computers or email addresses, so communication is often challenging and was proving to be so.
We had no expectations on how many women would come along for training and I had no idea about the local culture other than the crash course I had received. Sarah had the experience in that realm and of course Lawurrpa as a Yolgnu woman, so I was to learn. And fast!
On the second day we were in Galiwin’ku I met the beautiful Guymun Dhamarrnydji. A strong, wise elder whose history of contribution to women in Galiwin’ku is outstanding. Guymun adopted myself and my family into the Djambarrpuynu tribe. Being adopted placed us in the kinship, a complex system that determines how people relate to each other, their responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land. Traditional kinship structures remain important in most Indigenous communities today.
I have got to say that as a white woman with no understanding of kindship at all, I struggled to work out how I related to everyone I was meeting, yet all the children I met knew exactly who I was and how to relate to me and what we should call each other in that relationship. Amazing! I was given the Aboriginal name Bulwunu, meaning west wind. In the kinship, Guymun is my yapa (sister)
Guymun contributed immensely to our time in Galiwin’ku.
We celebrated each other and the triumph of these divine women completing an Accredited training with the delicacy of kangaroo tails, fish and vegetables cooked in an underground oven on the beach one night. Being a vegetarian, I’ll never forget picking up frozen kangaroo tails from the supermarket! Not my normal.
I promised myself from the get go, I would take this job on with an open heart and mind and that I would take it all in, no matter how it unfolded. Thing is, it unfolded in so many more amazing ways than I had anticipated.
It took me a long time to assimilate the combination of feelings I had coming home from Arnhem land and I honestly received more than I gave. I got to transcend into a world I never expected to visit. A visit I am incredibly grateful for. And one that has sparked my newest project.