• working/reading

    I am reading through 'both ways' literature of Yolngu and non-Yolngu working their knowledge systems together. Alongside I am reading Lorraine Code's 2006 book Ecological Thinking. I am also browsing through blogs and discussions on knowledge work and community development.
  • About this Blog

    Here I post some of my work and thinking. It is a much harder task than I thought! It is an extension of my research on knowledge and difference connecting my experiences, reflections, formal written pieces, and hopefully friends and colleagues. As work and self cannot be separate this blog is both personal and intellectual. Comments are moderated because, while it is a site for collective work, it is not anonymous.
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This blog is not longer being used: it has been moved to www.christianclark.net

Men

There has been a funeral in the community recently. I have spent most afternoons sitting with men my age and older.

On one afternoon a man decided he would look after me, explaining what was going on and so forth. His grandson was with him, sitting on his lap. While the ceremony went on, the little boy was excited about something else. He was four. For ten or more minutes, his father took four matches out of a box, poked them into the ground, lit them, and sang happy birthday. The boy tried to get the words out, and despite and bilma, yiḏaki and singing a few meters away his rendition was wonderful. After a while, the father, needing to keep a few matches for his cigarettes, reduced the ritual celebration to one candle per song.

Another evening a man my age sat waiting. His young child on his knee. When the ceremony started the man hoisted up his child and carried him on his hip while he sang, played bilma and took the ceremony to the house. At the house he sat and carried on with the ceremony, still singing, still keeping the beat and still holding his child.

Children have inalienable right to sit on knees. The man sitting next to me tried to deny it. “Can we please sit separately” he said (of course no in English). The boys walked away only to have his little brother jump immediately into the lap of his father.

Sitting on her fathers knee a little girls takes his hand and makes his finger wobble her loose tooth. “Too many lollies” he said. Her eyes opened in shock and she sits up. “Yuwalk!”, she exclaimed. True. “Yeah” he sad nodding. Biting her teeth together she drew one finger across her throat as if cutting it, keeping her eyes wide. You could see her thinking, ‘my life will never be the same.’

[From Men]

working space

DSCF3145.JPG

time in Gapuwiyak

“Every year this happens. Every year the shearers come, every year there is tis adventure and excitement. It will never end; there is no reason why it should ever end, as long as there are years.”

It is our second year here. As long as there are years, you can have a second year, and a third, a forth and so on. And as long as you can have a second year life comes into a fresh relief. You can think about altering your routines, become grateful for the good things that continue, reserve your some energy by out maneuvering the bad ones. Last year was a year of heart break and living inbetween: between languages, between ways of living, between houses, between homes, between families. We are still in between but hopefully a little nimble. We take care in how we rake up the mown grass as we know blistered bleeding skin doesn’t heal in the humidity, we have one dedicated embrace a day as shared experiences aren’t guaranteed, and we are careful of complaining as its immediate catharsis of its release only makes it harder to change.

Part of me wants to pursue the logic of ‘as long as there as years’. What about months, days and minutes. ‘As long as there are minutes’ can we live better in the second minute than the first? Right now, I am too keen to get things going to be paying attention to minutes. I have got a new desk and wireless broadband. Perhaps recursion is better suited to constant improvement than reflexivity.

The school had a new beginning too, doing things again and doing things differently. On the first day the Yolŋu staff had organised a cleansing ceremony. Lara and I had come back early especially for this. The stones where gathered, the bark pounded and soaked, and students and teachers gathered. The students and staff, first primary, then secondary men and secondary women, knelt around the fire pits that had heated the stones. Soaked bark was laid on top creating a steam that was held in by sheets covering the assembly of bodies. After each person had to bite a hot rock covered in bark to feel the heat that was at once energizing and disciplining. It was a powerful moment, too powerful for some of the little kids who cried, causing some of the teachers to watch the children out of the corner of their eye as their teeth clamped down on the bark. But elders and parents supported the children, standing next to them holding them.

At the end of the ceremony, one staff member said how it was like any school and than many school’s would have had mass today. She said all these ceremonies are just ‘people rituals’, as we are one humanity. It made me feel uneasy, though at the time I probably nodded at the positive comment, the likes of which were not certain to be forth coming. The comment put a frown on my face until late that night when I thought: they got out of trying to understand anything of the ceremony. It was the immediate resolution of difference that worried me. Such a quick move to become ‘we are all the same’ that can easily close off mutual learning across a difference. The next day I read of transcript of a senior Yolŋu man talking about education: “That is the gap that we want to close up, that we’re Yolngu people sitting on the land, saying that that rock is actually alive.”

I have been working on and off at the school. One day I was printing something out and needed a man to move away from the printer so I could put more paper in. He was on the phone. I asked him once and he didn’t seem hear. I looked up at him and he was signing softly down the phone. If he wasn’t so focussed on the phone I would have been certain that he was simply on hold and signing as many men often do. I said his name again. “Don’t. Someone has died”, an older man said next to me. I immediately tried to make myself as small as possible in the office. In year two. mistakes are still frequent.

Although we are keen to be back; happy and a little more confident, I am hanging onto the simplicity of the premise “as long as there are years”. In Coetzee’s novel from where I have taken it, it is clearly naïve, more an expression of the immediacy of boyhood than anything else. Last year, Lara and I were told by a lady that photos of her coffin would be sent to us when she dies. I remarked, ‘we might still be here!’ ‘No, you won’t’ came the reply. At least it is good enough motto with which begin a second year.

[From time in Gapuwiyak]

sport

It is the season for basketball here. Lara and I were walking around one Sunday evening looking for some physical activity to join in. Usually we have something planned either at 8am or 6pm when it is just cool enough, but last week a pilot and plane crashed in the ocean close to Gapuwiyak. Our good friends and reliable team mates are a pilot, Daniel, and his family Silke and Zoe. They had gone to town as their organisation came to terms with the crash and the missing pilot who has not been found since. Charter planes are a really important and familiar way to get around here, especially when in rains and the roads close. People know most off the pilots in the Mission Aviation Fellowship, so something like this effects everyone.

So, we were walking around, dropping off some damper to my mukul (the old lady we went to the bank with) and finally sat at the basketball court. This is where the young men hang out and play game after game, arranging and rearranging the teams. I figured that with such regular permutations and combinations I must at some point be asked to join. But alas, not this time. Wilson was there. He was wearing a bandage. You are never quite sure if it is a bandage covering a wound or it has been salvaged as a sweat band. While official policy is that the rascal school non-attenders, truants!, such as Wilson, are not chosen for extra curricular activities, this particular Wilson is so good that he was demanded in the School Team for the region’s sport meet. And he didn’t let anyone down. He won and made us proud, only to be not seen again until his skills are needed again next year.

Tom and Ben were also there. After their performances in the regional games, including Ben being joined by his ecstatic mother for the last hundred meters of the cross country, they went onto win again and again in the NT games and are now competing in the Pacific School Games in Canberra in November. The Australian Institute of Sport wants Ben to join a residential scheme in Darwin. If they all raise $3000 each to go to Canberra and Ben decides to not live with family for a few years, dreams may come true. I’m just not sure whose dreams they are. If only we capitalised on Indigenous sporting ability more. I guess getting Wilson in to win for us once a year is that kind of capitalising.

On the way home from the basketball game we passed the community oval. It has just had $14 000 spent on it: top soil, seed, fence. That’s all you need really. Except water. Knowing that there was very limited water supply to the oval the $14 000 was spent anyway. The solution? That evening we alked by the husband of the government business manger (Intervention money) stood in his stubby shorts holding a hose sprinkling the oval. A man, thumb over hose, standing in the middle of a football oval certainly fits the name ‘sprinkler’, (one who sprinkles) better than some of the contraptions at Albert Park or the MCG.

So we all prayed for rain. It came, in buckets, then stopped. At 35 degrees and 95% humidity there is not much chance of it happening for a while.

PS: any discussion on sport remains incomplete without some discussion of drinking. So an aside on drinking. In 1965, there was a widespread view that ‘the common set of citizenship capacities underlay’ the performance of both drinking and voting. One poll used to measure this asked people if they agreed or disagreed with the following: ‘I have nothing against people of another culture but allowing Aborigines to vote and to drink in public places is going a little too far.’ In 1958, the news that Albert Namatjira, who had been given citizenship, was going to jail for giving alcohol he legally bought to one of his relatives was the most well know news story in the history of Morgan Polling. Luckily, the House of Reps was pretty disgusted at linking voting and drinking (they even drunk to it their disgust) and again through Morgan polling of those asked 58% thought the court should have discretion over sentencing Namitjira. I wonder if they thought of having one of those rulings they gave Ian Thorpe allow him to drink underage after the 2000 Olympics. Luckily, Ian was not allowed to vote also, because who wouldn’t vote for a man that give you a drink.

[From sport]

family

Lara and I are back in Gapuwiyak after a holiday then a trip to Melbourne for my grandfather’s funeral (how easy it is to sum up turbulent times!). I will say something though. The grief that hit me when he died was like all those cliches: a cannon ball, stunned, winded, tearing you apart. I don’t think I have ever experienced being so fully torn from where you are. I had expected this to return at the funeral, but instead during my sisters speech, all I could feel was an immense pride toward him.

Lara is currently studying kinship with her class. She now calls every kid in her class by the way they are related to her – quite a feat. She is also writing a song about family using all the kin terms in English and Yolngu which after a few nights of work we have found impossible (I get a cameo on the guitar). For example, Waku is your sister’s child if you are a man, your child if your are a woman, your dad’s sisters husband and his sister, your great grand daughter and your great grandma, and people in the clan which is the waku clan of your own – and then it extends beyond humans too. So fitting all this into four bars to the chord of C turned into a tongue twister that we dared not attempt.

Talking about waku’s. One of my waku has just had a waku (my daughter has had a son), and one of my sisters has had a son which is my waku – so there are two beautiful babies in the family up here.

I also went to the nearby town of Nhulunbuy (Gove) with Lara’s waku, who is my dad’s sister. Her English name (much like many women her age) is Nancy. She is Old Nancy who lives in the blue house near the lake.

The mornings are cold so when I went to pick her up, together with my brother his wife and kids, Old Nancy was wearing a hoody over her bright floral dress. She was a sight, an old woman with wiry grey hair a slight hunch (slouch) that teenagers can only dream of getting right and a hoody. She also has a mean sense of humor, but sitting behind me her chuckles, which turned into coughs and the smell of tar, were not only joyous but pungent also.

First we went to the Yirrkala Arts Centre to sell some of her baskets. There is no question there and the manager writes her out a cheque. This drew a comment from one of the other staff about such causal acceptance of baskets. The manager’s response: “This lady is one of best weavers around. We buy anything from her we can.” Next was to Westpac where Nancy has her account. Not having a branch in Gapuwiyak and no interpreter service for any Indigenous language, this account easily builds up with the only access done silently through photo ID and a withdrawal slip 250km from her home. Out side the bank she distributes some money amongst family, including giving me about $300. To me! Why? I accept it as to not come across as ungrateful but later ask the man who adopted me about the behavior of his aunt (who is dealing with an very inaccessible account and income quarantining from Centrelink). He smiles, ‘she’s like that’.

The other night we played Taboo. If you don’t know it, it is a game where your team mates have to guess a word that you cannot say, and to make it harder there is a list of words you are also not allowed to say. Say the the word is ‘call centre’. You have to describe this well enough to be guessed without saying, call, centre, telephone, service, remote, switchboard, customer or any variant of or words rhyming with these words. It would go something like this ‘always rings up at dinner time, annoying, India’ and that would probably do it. However, this night we played with a Yolngu boy who is in class 7. He was so nervous and excited that he couldn’t decide whether to tuck his legs as far under him as he could, or try to relax and spread out like the rest of us whities.

Anyway, his turn went something like this:

“So you go away with your parents …” he said.

Shouts begin immediately: Holiday! Vacation! Beach! Plane! You see a poplular method is hit and miss. Say as many words as you can in 30 seconds and hope one is right.

“You are with your parents” he continues looking into the story which is sitting right in front of him. Maybe he thinks, ‘We are almost there, but not yet.’

“You are buying things …”

Shop! Food! Show!

He is still completely unfazed by the raucous shouting.

“And you have this thing with you and you go around …”

“Trolley” some one says and he smiles.

I couldn’t get the evening out of my head for days. Was he playing in a particularly Yolngu way or just like any young kid. What I did gather is that for him it appeared that no hit and miss was necessary. The object of guessing was as clear as day to him you just had to wait until the story got you there. Not hit and miss, by wait and see. My mental note was research is often hit and miss: frantically apply theory after theory until you think it sticks to the ‘real’ world. Well, thanks to this kid, I might try the wait and see method for a while.

[From family]

Wolmamirr

If you thought Christmas started early around shopping centres, catalogues stands and ad breaks, it certainly starts early in Arnhemland. Last month, I was sitting in the shade talking with a forty or fifty year old couple about how people use and talk about numbers and how they had worked their way into Yolngu lives. After first having these conversations with me talking about what I think I have learnt or observed this year with my adopted family, this couple were one of the collections of people I was told I should speak to. So we sat talking, the red light on the recorder keeping us all a little self aware, except for the kids and dogs that casually walked in, sat down, looked around, took some food I had brought (the kids) or where shooed off (the dogs). Others came and went getting order to buy fuel, taking money, returning with more food and generally sorting out the coming weekend. The most enduring task through out the interview was the copying of Maria Carey’s Christmas collection from a CD onto a a tape. At the end of the interview, only seconds after we had stood up, the man I was interviewing flipped the tape into a walkman with speaker and started playing the music. The music was to accompany is life from then on. So this is Christmas.

So Christmas time is wolmamirr time. That is the season of thunder – wolma, before the wet sinks in. Huge cloud pillars rise all around in the afternoons often bringing torrential rain, lightening and thunder. Particular clouds rise over particular country and can be recognised bringing with them the people who are no longer living. It is a season of joy but also sorrow, held together at once. Christmas and Wolmamirr are not separate either. So as soon as those bright white pillars begin, so do the familiar tunes that you begin to hum or sway to before you are conscious of their broadcast on mobile phones, walkmans, stereos, school PAs.

There is a music in the thunder too. When it first began I couldn’t help just sitting on the veranda and watch the darkened sky approach. The thunder was almost like its marching music, steadily growing, keeping the clouds on the move. Some thunder sounds like wide iron sheets wobble and warp as they are picked up or worked with, or large banners in a city being hit by wind. Sometimes it is a subtle as a door slam in a house in another camp. Some times it lands on the roof with a great shuddering thud. But you know it is close when it is no longer a deep boom. Most of the time air is so permissive, but when lightening needs to find its way through a few hundred metres away the thunder no longer booms. It tears at the air, intensifying into a noise that cannot be large iron sheeting or doors slamming or anything but thunder. After one of these a flickering fluorescent light is enough to make one duck.

The growing regularity of these storms forced a quick change of plans with the school Christmas concert. First scheduled Tuesday afternoon, it now had to be Wednesday morning. The PA was set up, streamers across the school assembly area, and staff and students alike walking around humming the tune of what is was they were to perform.

[From Wolmamirr]