What it is to listen!
I sit here after another week in the Mowanjum Aboriginal community has come and gone. I think this was my 8th or 9th trip and I am consistently reminded that while on the surface, things look grim, there is more going on underneath than you imagine. There are many people and organisations quietly working to improve the lives of those living there, their children, grandchildren and extended families, including in the community itself. Attempting to keep the culture, the traditions and the art alive, and to give the next generation pride in who they are and where they come from.
But while there are positives if we look, there are also deep, deep issues that they face, some that are so hard to imagine, living in Perth as a white Australian.
For one thing the grief of this small community is palpable. In the last few weeks they have lost four of their elders, the most recent one being a long-time supporter of the Boab Network. This wonderful man died quickly from cancer, which is unusual, as many die from kidney disease, but all die much younger than you or I will.
This is on top of the many deaths of young men in particular over the years, There are mothers in the community who have lost sons, brothers and fathers to early death. The grief sits underneath everything, like a black shroud, darkening the sky. It is not an excuse for the things that occur but it is a pain that is hard to overcome or for us to understand
There are also the wider issues, which most of us already sadly know. The moving of the community over and over again, so that they are not on their traditional land, the many agencies that come and go but do little , the lack of jobs, the lack of social services, roads and even a decent playground. and the hopelessness many feel. And of course the scourge of alcohol and drugs which make things so much worse.
While these are huge issues, and I am no expert in answering these challenges, the more I go to the community, the more I know a way forward. And it is to listen, listen, and listen.
Every trip we meet more people, hear more stories, go that little bit deeper. This trip we took another step.
We went out to the Derby (Bungarum) Leprosarium, which is about 60 kms further along the Gibb river road from the community. It is like a sacred site, being very significant for the indigenous people of the northwest of Western Australia. And for the community at Mowanjum. It was specifically established for aboriginal patients with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy in 1936. Approximately 1200 people were inmates of this institution over the fifty years it was in operation. Inmates because most were unable to leave.
When we saw it, it was like a whole small town that once existed but is now empty and forgotten. Except for the names of the 350 people who died there, which are inscribed on a metal wall as you enter the cemetery. Names and people who have links to those living today. They are in unmarked graves, only designated with white crosses.
Bungarum was overseen by the nuns of the Sisters of St John of God, the community of Catholic Sisters whose members nursed and educated the patients and who also lived and died there, sacrificing much to care for them. Their graves are marked.
The leprosarium was closed in 1986 when better treatment and a cure was found for leprosy. It’s like they just left in mid-sentence, with files and papers still there. Yet for so long so many called it home.
It was an eerie, moving place.
We also went again to Old Mowanjum, where the community once lived before they were forcibly moved in 1975 to the current site. Overgrown and desolate, it speaks of another time, another home. A time when the community seemed to be settled. And it speaks of the lack of self-determination that has characterised the lives of aboriginal people, over and over again.
Another eerie, moving place.
It is not hard to see how the past can and does affect the present, and the future. It all blurs into one.
But I believe there is hope. There is always hope.
Hope in the resilience and spirituality of a people who have roots in this country going back 50,000 years, in the new generation who see the value of culture and language and tradition, but who also see the need for education and skills, and in the many non-aboriginal people willing to share, understand and stand beside communities like Mowanjum.
People like Gail who teaches in the kindy/pre-primary school but who also has a heart for the people, Greg, the “wood man”, who helped young children and older teenagers learn new skills building wooden drums, windmills and cars, with gentle guidance and care, and Liz, a community nurse who checks skin and sores, helps parents to prevent and clear up infections and has a real love for the families. And of course in the members of the Boab network who come up every school holidays to run activities for the kids, some educational and some just great fun!
This is a hope that things can change, can be transformed, and then being called to become part of the transformation. Sometimes it seems too hard, too challenging, and then I remember the stories, the dreams, the people, the gifts they have given to me. And I am inspired.
One day we will see justice and equity and peace for our first peoples and wholeness for ourselves in this country. Because while they suffer, we are diminished as well.
In the end we will realise they have so much to teach us, if we listen!.