Life on a Community

Trip Start Apr 19, 2008
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Trip End Nov 31, 2008


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Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Monday, October 20, 2008

Our next stop was with Servas host Jenny, a teacher at a school on a remote aboriginal community, 200km south of Broome. It was a unique opportunity to gain an insight into community life and, for me, into school life in a setting far outside my previous experience.

Jenny was a wonderful hostess and I instantly felt at home, spending much time sitting in a hammock chair on her palm-shaded verandah, her two wee dogs vying for attention, drinking good coffee in the morning and beer in the evening, chatting with her about early childhood education, her various past schools, aboriginal culture, books we have read, Servas experiences, pampering myself in her spa... it was great relaxation.




The community has an excellent outdoor pool, sheltered beneath sail shades, and we spent an afternoon in the water, the friendly local kids eager to chat, show off their swimming skills, play games with us and ride on John's back! The following day saw us heading off to a gorgeous nearby beach spot and getting bogged in the wet clay earth, till friends of Jenny's happened by on their way to go fishing, and towed us out. The tide was rising as we arrived at Enjedina, stunning turqouise water flowing through an inlet in the rock, creating a constantly changing view as it covered sandbars and crept higher up the rocks. Apparently a croc has been sighted in the vicinity, but we cooled off in the sea anyway, following the locals' wisdom that crocs don't swim so close to the reef. Another local beach was our destination the following night, for a brief walk, followed by coldies from the cool bag as we sat and watched the sunset reflections on the wet sand.  In addition to Jenny's own delicious cooking, which was a very welcome change from our monotonous camp stove fare, we had dinner with neighbouring teachers Lauren and Dani, and enjoyed a digeridoo demo from Lauren which encouraged John to try it out and show a definite ability!  My lesson came the following day when multi-talented Lauren showed me how to make a pot (and a meighty mess!) on the pottery wheel.


These excursions were all very enjoyable but they couldn't beat the experience of spending a day in school, which was fascinating in terms of seeing the W.A. education system in action and more specifically, how it is moulded to fit the needs of these particular children. It would be easy to assume that children living so far from what many deem 'civilisation' are lacking in education and that teaching them would be a daunting task. The evidence I saw was very much to the contrary. The school itself has such a positive vibe, with a team of really positive staff and while there was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere in the classes I visited, there was a lot of serious work and learning occurring within that. The rooms are really well resourced by Irish standards, class sizes are significantly smaller, and each has an assistant - oh, the luxury! Spending half the day with Lauren's five-year-olds and the other half with Dani's four-year-olds, I witnessed just how advanced these children are in certain areas: they are confident, independent, show good mathematical understanding and have far more highly developed gross and fine motor skills than I have seen in such an age group in any other teaching setting. That their standard English is not entirely fluent could be perceived as lack of language ability, but it merely reflects the fact that their home tongue is Aboriginal English and they are, in fact, juggling two languages.

In addition to teaching these bright, gentle-mannered children in a dynamic school environment, I learned that among the perks of teaching in a remote community school area are an extra $10-15,000 location allowance; relocation costs; return flights to Perth; a free house to live in with bills covered; and 5 months additional paid leave after four years of service! If there had been a vacant position at the time I would have jumped at it!

Most Australians in the South and East have little contact with Aboriginal people - John, for example, tells me that they are never seen around Melbourne. Others have told me that their only exposure has been through very negative media portrayal of domestic violence, lack of school attendance, alcohol issues, mistreatment of accomodation. Many tourists would see only what we saw passing through towns such as Tennant Creek and Katherine: displaced Aborigines sitting outside pubs till opening time or congregated under trees with a few tins of beer. With no genuine contact, it is very easy to accept this stereotype, forgetting that the majority of indigenous people live in isolated communities where we have no idea of their lifestyle and also that all the above mentioned social problems are not unique to the Aboriginal people, but are present in most cultures, to a greater or lesser extent: my own home area certainly sees them on a regular basis. My experiences on this trip have allowed me to meet Indigenous people in several locations and contexts and, while I have only scratched the surface, I have learned of a rich, ancient culture with complex laws and customs, apparently strange to the outsider, but making great sense in the appropriate context. I have met people whose knowledge of their land is intimate and all-encompassing, whose understanding of their natural environment is vast and who live in harmony with it, as their ancestors have done for generations. I have seen art dating back thousands of years, heard stories which survived orally for the same length of time, and seen dance traditionally integral to the Aboriginal understanding of their world. These people have survived great injustice over the years, and now struggle with the challenges of maintaining their culture while living in the modern world and dealing with some of the social problems previously mentioned. None of this matches the stereotype of 'primitive' people. I feel privileged to have had the contact which I have had, and especially the time at Bidyadanga - thank you Jenny!
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