Monday, May 10, 2010

Visit and fellowship in Arnhemland

Thanks to good fortune I am currently employed in great job that occasionally requires me to travel to Aboriginal Communities in Arnhem Land. Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Island community of Milingimbi in North Eastern Arnhem Land. This was a special place for me to visit since it was the home of a man who had made a big impression on me before he passed away last year. He was a special person who had an enormous capacity for love and forgiveness he did a lot to create channels of communication and understanding between Yolngu and Balanda.

This has been my longest stay in an Arnhem Land community and the best chance I've had so far to experience the atmosphere in this unique part of the world.

Although my schedule was extremely busy and there were all kinds of logistical problems that I just hadn't counted on, I still managed to find plenty of opportunities to get about and meet up with some rather inspirational people as well as attend some local activities.

There's a lot going on over at Milingimbi at the moment and from my perspective I'd say much of it is very good.

Stained Glass Window
(Stained window, Milingimbi Church)

Milingimbi is an old Mission settlement and there are several Clan groups living in the township. As with most other Aboriginal Communities Milingimbi is affected by the Federal Intervention and all it's restrictions and impositions, however unlike many other Communities Milingimbi had already been dry for some time before the Intervention and functioned fairly well without the new laws that were brought down upon them 2 years or so ago. (Of course Milingimbi has seen some benefits from renewed interest from Government agencies)

relaxing on a rug
(Sitting in comfort on a rug on the sand)

While I was there I was fortunate to see just how well things can come together at the initiative of local people. Although my experience of Christianity is quite limited (actually prior to 5 years ago I'd had no meaningful contact with the religion outside of attending weddings or funerals) I'd have to say that the activities at Milingimbi are quite a phenomenon! There is a strong Christian Fellowship in Milingimbi that meets every night and I found the gatherings quite amazing! On my second night there I went along to the beach expecting maybe half a dozen loyal followers of the tradition handed to them by missionaries in the early 20th Century... What I found was a crowd of maybe 200 people, gathered together in fellowship, families, young and old people together. Singing, Dancing, Sharing stories. I saw a group of up to 30 young children performing a carefully choreographed dance, perfectly synchronized, later a group of about 8 young men performing their own dance, then more beautiful singing from the older ladies and on it went until late at night. People sitting happily with their family and friends, on rugs and mats as a gentle northerly sea breeze kept the sand-flies at bay and cooled the brows of some very enthusiastic performers.
What a BUZ!

Unlike many outback townships there were no sounds of drunken brawls, no screeching tires, smashing glass, abusive language or any of the behavior that might prevent families from venturing down Mitchel Street on any night... Just the sound of singing, happy chatter and the bark of an occasional dog as people wandered home after a night of warmth and fellowship.

It happened to be school sports week while I was there so lunch times were spent cheering the young athletes as they raced each other down the mains street. I'd heard about low attendance rates at Community schools but what I saw on Milingimbi seemed to contradict this story completely. In fact I saw kids turning up more than an hour early for school full of enthusiasm and ready to get stuck into the learning before their teachers had even arrived. The kids there really seemed to be engaged and interested in learning... The school seemed to have just the right ingredients. Music, Sport, some really involved teachers and a library full of Yolngu stories. The library even had a traditional hand carved canoe and one of the bark canoes from the film 10 Canoes. The Milingimbi School is COOL!

(Image if person now deceased has been removed out of respect for the family)

(Rev. Larry B------ with some home grown watermelons)

All these things were great but there was one aspect to this trip that really impressed me. While I was talking to Rev. Larry we got talking about gardening and all the benefits that come from growing vegetables in particular. Before I knew it he was imparting a whole philosophy on me that absolutely fit perfectly the concepts I'd been thinking about over the past few years. A program for providing young people with an environment where they can develop a sense of, community self worth and become confident independent thinkers. The Patch down in Leanyer is a great example of the enormous benefit this kind of education can improve the outcomes for students who are struggling with the regular curriculum.
Nature is a great teacher, by engaging with the natural processes of planting, nurturing and growing vegetables we can learn a lot about the skills we need in other aspects of life. Patience, care, observation, a little bit of sweat and the reward of reaping what we have sown... If for some reason the crop fails we learn how to deal with disappointment as we proceed to try again.
Larry has teamed up with a teacher at the school and they've been working with a couple of boys who have benefited greatly from the activities. The idea of a larger project has taken on and they've produced a short documentary in which Larry explains the philosophy behind the project which has an excellent name that I will publish when I know it's OK to do so.

It seems the school may even come on board and dedicate some land especially for the purpose of developing a larger training program around this philosophy! Since all the fresh fruit and vegetables on Milingimbi are imported, this project could have many flow on benefits for the community.

There's so much more I could rant on about but basically I have come home feeling recharged and optimistic about all the potential of this small community.


Amaria said...

I stumbled on this post by accident, and was really glad to find it! I lived in Milingimbi when I was little and am glad that the place that holds so many happy childhood memories (including that stained-glass window!) continues to be a happy place.

David J said...

Hi Amaria,
Yes like all small communities I suppose they have their ups and downs but I have had some very nice times visiting Milingimbi.

Unfortunately buildings like the church have become somewhat run down but there are moves afoot to restore the church. The stained window may even get some attention.

Thanks for your comment.

Peter Burt said...

Such a great place. Was there for only 2.5 years, flying for mission aviation (MAF) but have such good memories of that time. Not too many Balanda kids grew up there which is kind of a shame. Awesome to see Bilanya still going strong there. Did you know him at all?

David J said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your comment,

Sadly the man I spoke about in this post has passed away. If you were close with him I am sorry that you are finding out this way. Please allow me some time to adjust the post respectfully.

Peter Burt said...

Oh, I'm sad to hear he's gone. He was a really good man and was always there pulling hard for his people. His lovely wife worked in our office at Milingimbi. We were poison cousins but she was cool about that and would try to teach me language. A hopless task I'm afraid. Tell me David, did you meet their daughter Heather and, if so, how was she doing? I did go back to Arnhem land a couple of times but sadly didn't have the heart to spend time with my adopted family there on the island. It was shortly after my wife had died at a young age and the memories of our time there were still too raw. Any info would be appreciated.

David J said...

Peter I should probably respond to your questions privately. You can email me at

I'll delete this comment in one day, or after receiving your email.