8 Tips For Living and Working in Arnhem Land

We have learned a little about working with Yolngu and navigating the intersecting worlds of ngapaki and indigenous Australians in the past year. Since there are always new balanda coming through I thought it might be helpful to compile some tips and resources for individuals planning to work up here.  On another post I write more on best practice for organisations working up here.

First of all, have an open mind.  When we moved to New York a friend said ‘expect it to be like trying to get things done in India and you won’t be disappointed’.  She was right.  When we moved up here another friend said ‘you should need a visa to live in remote aboriginal communities’.  She was right, too, and in fact we do need a permit to live in Arnhem Land.  Basically they were both saying things are going to surprise you.  No matter how informed you are, the one tool that will help you the most will be an open mind..

But do your research nonetheless.  Read, read and read some more.  Do the Yolngu Matha course through CDU (or at least buy the resources and read them if you’ve missed the course cut-off).  Read An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land – in fact read that book even if you never plan to come up here.  It is the best book on Australian history I’ve ever read.  Not that I have read a lot, and it is about a very specific part of the country but still.  An eye-opening read.  Why Warriors Lie Down And Die was written by one of the handful of whitefellas that have dedicated their lives to understanding Yolngu culture.  Another was Donald Thomson and you can find some of his work hereBalanda – whether you want to or not, you’ll probably relate to it after working in community.  I found this book uncomfortable to read because of all the navel-gazing, not because I am against navel gazing but because her alienating earnestess to ‘do good’ just felt too close to the bone.  It is set in Maningrida, which may well be one of the tougher places to live up here.  Another favourite, set even further from this region, is Dog Ear Cafe.  The author provides a rare example of precisely how to work in indigenous Australia.  It isn’t rocket science but it doesn’t come naturally for most and it is the closest to a how-to manual you’ll get.  And Healers of Arnhem Land is another amazing read.  It brings me to my next point (when you read the book you’ll understand the segue).

There is always a reason.  This is so obvious that we often miss it.  Whatever area you work in you will find that things often do not go as planned up here.  People are late, don’t answer your calls or simply disappear for long stretches.  Maybe you will spend a couple of days chasing someone up and organising flights, accomodation and specialist treatment for their serious illness when you discover they have suddenly turned up in another community so all your work was wasted.  Or you might feel you are making progress, getting good attendance rates at the school when a funeral happens and the school is empty for the next two weeks.  Or one of the kids you are working with keeps getting scabies, is clearly under-nourished and rarely makes it to school.  If you are patient and open minded you will slowly discover that everything has a reason. Maybe the child has only one parent at home who is struggling financially and has a gambling addiction. And behind that will be another reason, perhaps her husband has left her and takes any money she gets and then there will be another reason behind that, and another, and another, leading you on and on until finally you realise that:

There are no quick fixes.  It can drive you crazy trying to fix other people’s problems and the answer is don’t.  It is disrespectful and disempowering to rush in and impose your solutions on someone else.  There are crises where bandaid solutions are very important – famines, for example – but for most people the quick fix works like yo-yo dieting.  It makes things worse in the long run.  Most balanda won’t commit to living in a remote indigenous community for long, no matter what their original intentions.  Three years is considered a long stint for a whitefella.  What this means is that you should not expect to make a big difference.  Know that you are just another in a very long line of well-intentioned foreigners who does not understand the local culture or language and is part of the system that maintains the status quo.  This does not mean that you can not do any good.

To help someone find their voice first listen to them.  Or, in the words of Wayalwanga Marika, spend more time with your Yolngu family.  Just that.  Without expectations or judgement.  As a novice with everything to learn, just spend time.  If anyone wants your help you can be sure they will ask you.  Pretty soon you’ll start to get sick of all the humbug and you’ll find yourself resenting dropping people here and there, giving them your car, phone, money, food.  So didn’t you want to help people?  Or did you mean help in the way that a child asks if they can ‘help’ clean the house and then makes more mess than there was in the first place?  Giving in to every request isn’t necessarily helpful, but then neither is what you are there to do.  If you want to make yourself useful you need to listen.  We discovered that the current approach to scabies did not seem to work very well.  All the direction we gave to the One Disease Scabies Project came about through listening very carefully to the people who suffered from scabies and the people who treated scabies on the ground.  And now we have a program that actually works.

Remember why you are here.  And if you think it is for them, think again!  When the next blackout comes and you lose your tv, phone and internet access and all the food in your fridge starts to go off you may as well try to find a cool breeze outside your sweltering little house, kick back and do a bit of soul searching.  Nobody ever does things purely for somebody else.  Think about how what you are doing makes you feel about yourself.  What was it that inspired you to come up here, again?  They say only Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits end up in these parts.  I’m guessing if you have read this far you’re a missionary.  Many committed, open-minded, compassionate missionaries have done great things.  And plenty of them have destroyed cultures and/or burnt out trying.  Don’t be a martyr – if you are not getting anything out of the experience of living up in Arnhem Land you can be sure nobody else will be getting anything out of your presence either.  Time to move on or take another look at what you may have been missing by focusing so hard on those ungrateful natives.

Make up your own mind.  No matter how much research you did, you will start off feeling awkward and at sea.  Other balanda can be your biggest nightmare, especially the cynical ones, and once you get your first glimpse of local politics you will wish you could just stay out of it all.  But you can’t really.  Life sucks you in and it would be awfully lonesome if it didn’t.  And awfully complicated when it does.  And like anywhere, people are people.  There is no consensus on who are the good people and who are the bad people.  Everyone will have an opinion but form your own impressions, and be ready to change your (still open) mind later.

Did I mention listen?  Listening, to your Yolngu family, to your friends, to your colleagues and to yourself, is your only chance of coming out of this experience not only alive but enriched.  Good listening will help you work out your boundaries and get what you need as well as making you a valuable friend to those around you.  Take up the offer of a hunting trip and hang out all day, wait out the long silences.  Don’t be in a rush.  Yolngu people tend to take their time getting to the point and often they never really do, to the ngapaki way of thinking, and not just because of language barriers.  With a bit of practice you’ll begin to notice that your own thoughts do the same thing – full of gaps and sidetracks.  Much of a conversation, internal or external, has nothing to do with what is being spoken about.  Take your time, listen carefully, keep an open mind and a new world will begin to open up to you.

Enjoy your journey!