‘How I came to live in a remote Aboriginal community, and what made me leave’

Sep 07, 2019
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Margaret just wanted to help the community where she was living and working in remote Western Australia. Source: Getty (stock image used)

Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this webpage may contain images or names of deceased persons in photographs or printed material.

In 2001, post-divorce and with a new partner – who lived in Alice Springs, Northern Territory while I lived in Perth, Western Australia – we decided to embark on travels around the country. This turned into a magnificent adventure, travelling around Australia and seeing the best of what this country had to offer.

We needed to work and some of the jobs we got were such a great introduction to Indigenous culture. Our first job was managing a community store near Fitzroy Crossing (a small town in the Kimberley region of WA, roughly 400 kilometres east of Broome). The community was 70km from Fitzroy Crossing, then 20km inland. Approximately 250 people lived there, but this fluctuated with people coming and going for ceremonial events, such as funerals, lore meetings, visiting family etc.

Many of the ‘white’ people who’d been in this management position had been dishonest and had betrayed the trust of the local Aboriginal people, so the community was quite wary of another couple of managers who were white. However, my partner and I only wanted to provide the best service we could to the local people. We knew the store was their lifeline, the nearest town being 90km away and few had the means to get there.

We set to work reviewing what the people needed. From food to cooking pots to mattresses and even clothes, we began making improvements. By the end of the first year we’d restored the store and had more than 1 million sales. We sold everything, including ‘luxury items’ such as televisions, jewellery, sunglasses, toys and the like. “This store is like Kmart now,” one lady by the name of Nola, told me one day.

The older people in the community were some of the nicest, gentlest, humble and affectionate people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. I often think about them and they will be in my heart forever. Many of them ‘adopted’ me and called me ‘daughter’.

It wasn’t uncommon for members of the community to seek our help managing their money, which was often a cheque from Centrelink. We’d collect them from the Fitzroy Crossing post office. When we returned to the store, and with an Aboriginal elder by my side, I would present them with their cheque, deduct what they owed the store for their ‘credit’ purchases and then give them cash for the balance.

I became familiar with the community’s culture of ‘sharing’ whatever they held and witnessed many of the older members being talked or cajoled out of their money. It often left them without food and sadly no one cared to look after them. To assist them we started a simple system at the store where we’d put the majority of their balance of the welfare money in an envelope and when they shopped with us we would remove that amount from the envelope. It ensured the older members didn’t go hungry and weren’t forced to hand over money when they didn’t have it.

I thought the system worked well. The older community members seemed happy with the arrangement. However, one day I was called to a council meeting and was accused of robbing the older people. I was accused of keeping the money of these older members for myself. It was simply untrue! Despite explaining the situation, I was told that trying to protect the elderly was “not my problem” and that in future I should give them their money.

There were some wonderful moments though, like the time I was invited to join a group of ladies cooking bungarra (goanna) in hot coals. “Hey missus, you come taste him. This bungarra,” they called.

Another time I asked an elder why there were so many white painted rocks around the community roads. I wondered if it might be something cultural. “No missus, that’s so we can see him rocks at night!” How embarrassing!

However, I was hurt by the accusations, but did as I was asked. I became disillusioned with what I saw happening in the community and soon after made the decision to leave.

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Have you spent time in a remote community of Australia or around the world?

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