First week down under

I’ve been in Australia now for just over a week working with Matt Johnson and filming with the Aboriginal participants in the project.

I was picked up at the airport by Mary Graham and John Denduck. It was 1.00am Brisbane time but it was a warn and much needed welcome after a 26 hour flight via Dubai and Singapore. It was my first encounter with Mary’s disarming sense of humour and John’s deployment of few words to great effect.

For the first two nights I was staying in the Aboriginal Community Centre, Murri Mura, opposite Musgrave Park in South Brisbane. The Centre is part renovated with cables hanging from the ceiling and stud walls not quite yet in place. In a gesture of welcome and solidarity John stayed with me on the first night although I couldn’t have been happier to see a bed and pillow.

Since then we have filmed much including Matt’s arrival the following day and a discussion about Aboriginal culture between Matt and Mary sparked off by looking through a book published in 1988 by Burnum Burnum called, “Aboriginal Australia – A Travellers Guide.” This contained many illustrations of my romantic view of what Aboriginal culture was. People shown in rural settings, apparently at one with nature and featuring ritual scarring on the body. What the last few days have taught me is that many Aboriginal people live urban lives and have had to adapt their culture to deal with the pressures of a modern existence in a busy and unforgiving city.

On that first day we drove over to Jermain Tyson’s place in Inala, an Australian version of a British council housing estate. Jermain is a lovely chap both welcoming and generous with his time. He spoke to us about some of the problems with urban life for Aboriginal people – especially the young. There seems to be a dislocation between the young and “mainstream” Australian life. It reminded me of the situation of young people I had worked with in Widnes, England. Perhaps the difficulties Jermain outlined are not specific to the Aboriginal people in Brisbane but are mirrored across the world in disadvantaged communities.

On Friday we went to Queensland University to interview Norm Sheehan who had just delivered a lecture on his perspectives around education and Aboriginal young people. He had worked for many years in education and the central thesis of his talk was that if you engage with young people on a personal level they are more inclined to participate successfully in education. A line of thought applicable around the planet!

We met another of our co-researchers on Saturday, Lesley van Moelenbroek. She’s a larger than life woman full of great banter and laughter. Her hubby Russell cooked on the BBQ and it felt like a real Australian gathering. Lesley has worked in Aboriginal communities for many years and feels strongly about injustices done during that time.
She spoke about realising her identity as an Aboriginal woman and what that means to her. She is a caring and family centred woman.

Family and kinship is a theme that has emerged as central to Aboriginal culture. Strong bonds are woven throughout communities and help is never far away for those who have fallen on hard times or who need a helping hand. I’m reminded of our interview with Tony Bennett back in Ashington and of his descriptions of the mining community helping each other through when times got hard. He was unsure if that same spirit still existed as strongly in the era of closed mines and fragmented communities. Lesley was insistent that it does indeed continue here in Australia.
Lesley’s husband, Russell is a ship’s cook and the juicy lamb and pork went down a treat as the temperature dropped and the moon came up.

At 9.00pm (midday in Ashington) Matt has organised a Skype call to the UK and there on the screen appeared Fiona and Tony – one half of the Ashington group – the wonders of technology.

Although they have not yet met in the flesh there is an obvious bond between the two hemispheres. Jokes were exchanged and serious comments on social justice were aired demonstrating issues are not bound to individual countries but have echo’s in each continent. When the two halves meet in either country it will be interesting to hear their perspectives on issues that seem to be central to both sides – health, education, employment, use of resources… the list goes on.

What became clear in the exchanges is that humour is very important to both communities both as a tool to lambaste the perceived authorities control and to take the wind out of anyone’s sails who “get too big for their boots.”

More to come.

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