A thud at the living room window drew my attention from my book. Not three feet from my head, the impact had left a smear, and there on the table where it had landed after rebounding was a small bird lying on its side. A closer look revealed a long Kingfisher beak, brown feathers tinged with blue, a white collar and a white chest that appeared to be moving. Behind it, an Indian Myna hopped around curiously.
Insight ran an excellent series of interviews with young Aborigines living in Alice Springs last night. The kids opened up and talked about their fights, their drinking, their family problems and their hopes for a better future. If I have one regret about my book Dragon Bones, it's that the stories of the Bhutanese people are told in my words, not theirs. It's now my dream to collect the stories of Aborigines, immigrants and other minority groups in Australia and publish them (in some form) in their own words. I've recently discovered the 'Sydney Story Factory', which looks to be a great way to do that. Thousands of students attend courses and regular tuition on creative writing, with a focus on telling their own stories. All volunteers are screened for working with children so it's a comfortable environment. Unfortunately, the screenings have always clashed with my other volunteering commitments, so I'm yet to join, but it will happen this year.
As soon as the introductions were done, our Maori hosts invited us into their home for lunch. Louise served us a delicious banquet including battered fish, roast chicken with cranberry sauce, potato bake, a green salad and fried bread. It was largely a Western-style meal, but the Maori influence was clear, particularly in the fried bread. These matchbox-sized pieces were still greasy with the oil theyâ€™d been cooked in and were tasty cold, though I imagined they would have been much better fresh out of the pan. Later, when Bob was showing us around his yard, he pointed out the wire frames used to hold hot stones for a hangi — a communal roast cooked for large groups. First they make a fire stacked five logs high and pile on the stones to warm up. Then they dig a trench, choosing the length depending on the number of diners. When the stones are ready, theyâ€™re packed into the wire baskets and lowered into the trench. Food is then placed on top with meat closest to the stones and vegetables above that. These days, they use a canvas cover to keep the heat in, but it was probably made from flax in the past. The sheet is held down by dirt around the edges and balloons up with the heat. When the sheet collapses after about three hours, the meal is ready. Itâ€™s a lot of work and they donâ€™t bother for less than twenty people (unfortunately for us), but Bob says that itâ€™s not much more effort to cook for three hundred. Bob picked some feijoa fruit from trees next to the house and some banana passionfruit during our tour, both of which were delicious.
The first song of greeting that Bob and Louise, our Maori hosts, chose to sing mentioned a god. I asked whether that was the Christian God or a / the Maori god. It turned out to be the Christian God, which, they told me, didnâ€™t interfere with their Maori culture. Maori lore included creationism and there was no reason to believe that the Christian God couldnâ€™t be their creator. That begged the question of whether everyone in their tribes was Christian, and they started listing off the religions other family members subscribed to -- Mormon, Seventh Day Adventists, Muslim. Everyone was different and that was acceptable. After all, it was all the same God. That made a lot more sense to me than the idea that unless you follow a particular flavour of Christianity, youâ€™ll go to an eternal hell. Louise told us that each person chose a religion based on whatever gave them most comfort in their particular time of need. For many of them, I guess that is when they lose a loved one, and although they look to different religions, the tribe still celebrates death in the traditional way. Family and friends gather around the body in the marae and tell each other stories of their memories. To hear Bob and Louise describe it, there is a lot of laughter and people can get quite cheeky, especially since itâ€™s the last opportunity to get back the chain saw they lent the deceased (to which a son might respond that they thought it was the chain saw he himself had lent last year). Once the stories are all told, which may be days later, the body is rowed across the inlet and carried
Bob and Louise, our Maori hosts, lived in one of three houses across from the beach at Rawhiti (pronounced Rarfity). They came from separate tribes that shared the Rawhiti peninsular at the east end of the Bay of Islands. Three houses seemed a little small for two whole tribes, but I soon found that more people lived in the area than I had imagined. Out of site in either direction, driveways peeled off from the coastal road, each leading to four or five family houses. Bob and Louise themselves had eight children, and while they joked that they had 'only three' still living at home, it seemed that large families were the norm. Bob himself came from a family of eight children and another relative had eleven children. While Maori's have a history of inter-tribal violence, the two tribes here have long had peaceful relations (Louise claims that her tribe is known for peace-making and mediation). They are even close enough to share a marae, the town-hall-like hut that forms the centre of the Maori community. These days, children often move to the city or overseas as soon as they finish school, but they always end up coming home between jobs and the tribe is still strong. A small amount of the land on the peninsula has been lost to non-Maoris, but that seems to have worked out well. Bob works in the orchard of one and another owns ExploreNZ, a tour company taking people out to swim with the dolphins. The tour we're on is his brain-child and seems to be a winner all round. Locals get paid and their culture lives on, the owner gets a profit, and I get to have the
Bob and Louise stopped us as we walked up the beach, waited for our barge to depart, then sang us a Maori welcome. They explained that theyâ€™d adapted the rituals used in the tribal gatherings to give structure to the day. On some days they had over thirty visitors, shared amongst the local families, so the structure was necessary. Today, it was just Fiona and me, which made for a more intimate experience. It certainly felt that way when we shook hands and pressed our noses together in the traditional greeting. After a brief introduction, they sang another song to humble themselves and asked us to do the same. Unable to think of anything else, Fiona and I sang the Kookaburra song. By each humbling ourselves, we were offering apology for any offense we had accidentally caused or might cause throughout the day. We sang again in the community Marae - this time we chose â€˜The Piano Manâ€™ - after an imaginary speech at a make-believe community meeting. They tell us that even the most heated argument would stop when a new person arrives so they could speak a greeting and sing for humility. We sang â€˜You are my Sunshineâ€™ as we said goodbye at the end of the day. Bob and Louise helped reduce our embarrassment at our poor singing by joining in with their beautiful voices. Itâ€™s clear that Maori enjoy singing and all the practice pays off.
The following experience may not be typical for clubs in New Zealand, but it's different enough to be worth noting. Fiona and I came to NZ for a wedding and are now enjoying travel for its own sake. Tonight we decided to eat in a local club, hoping to see locals in their native habitat. Being an ex-servicemen's club, the clientÃ¨le were elderly, and we were lucky to see them enjoying a game of bowls. I should explain that unlike the rambling clubs I'm used to in Australia, the club at Paihia is one large hall, split out into an area for pool tables, an open floor and a mezzanine eatery. Today, the floor was host to a long mat rolled out to create a bowls green that seemed to satisfy the local men. The last difference we noticed was that patrons chose a glass of their preferred size from the fridge, then asked the barman to pour their preferred drink. We assume that the cost varies depending on which glass is chosen. Tomorrow we embark on an all-day cultural tour of the Bay of Islands, including visiting a Maori village. I'm not expecting the true experience, but we don't have time for anthropology this trip.
Have you ever heard a politician praise the previous government? Adam Giles, NT Transport Minister, gave full credit to his predecessor for 'the best program the territory government has ever run' and vowed to continue it. The program? DriveSafe NT Remote is helping indigenous Australians to get driving licenses. In the Northern Territory, it's impossible for most people to get around without driving, but few Aborigines have the papers necessary to apply for a driving license, so they don't bother. They don't have proper lessons and they have never been tested, but many still drive. Under these conditions, it shouldn't be a surprise that on a per capita basis, indigenous deaths are twice as likely as deaths of non-indigenous people in road accidents. This figure alone is enough to show that the society that brought motor vehicles into the country should be make training available for everyone who wishes to use them. But there are side effects that enhance the need. Aborigines who have never had the opportunity for training because they don't have a birth certificate get sent to gaol for minor traffic offences. This program, which my employer is taking up for NSW, provides support for indigenous people, helping them get the required paperwork and putting them in touch with volunteer trainers. Check out the facebook page to support them.
Not everyone understands the Australian sense of humour. Sometimes it's even beyond Australians. Some of my countrymen have complained about the Prime Minister's recent video declaring that the end of the world is nigh. In one case, a mother of a young autistic man has had to convince her son that the Mayan calendar can't influence the physical world and the seemingly authoritative video didn't help. Aside from a few such cases, most Australians love the fact that our leader doesn't take herself seriously all the time. Many other cultures, particularly those in which humour is based on word plays or visual misfortune, just don't get it. Gillard's video went viral in China, where the reaction was of bafflement that a world leader could believe in the end of the world. When the subtitled version began to circulate, some Chinese accepted the joke ('oh no, but I haven't gotten married yet'), but more were horrified that a head of state could be so irresponsible as to push a false message to her people. I wish that I could explain, in 500 words, why humour doesn't translate between cultures, but I can't. Word plays, at least, suffer from homonyms in one language sounding nothing alike in another, and humour based on political or historical context is doomed to fail outside of the original setting. But I never understood why Japanese comedians must perform in pairs or why Asians don't understand irony. The best I can do, unless you have the time to read a thesis, is to respect Gillard for understanding her own people and to remind the rest of the world that we're all different.
Last month, the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence launched its own social networking site. The officially named Community of Excellence is known as Black Fella Facebook by its users. Targeted exclusively at young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the site allows youths to share their goals and aspirations and to indicate their support for each other's posts using a 'Respect' button. I really like that the inspiration came from the community and that the Aboriginal youth were consulted in the design process. Who else could design a system to meet the community needs? I am also impressed to learn that a large non-indigenous organisation like Telstra (through the Telstra Foundation) would commit their resources to developing such a complex tool without, as far as I can tell, trying to influence the design. I question the NCIE's statement that this is a new era of digital inclusion, because non-indigenous Australians like me are not invited to join, but this is not a complaint. The service is not designed for me. One day, if it works well, there may be similar respect-based, goal-oriented tools made available for all Australians, but for now, I respect that black fellas want a facebook of their own.