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One of the most memorable times of my life was when I worked on Aboriginal communities in the remote north of Western Australia. My partner and I embarked on this adventure about 2001. Prior to this, I had been a city dweller in Perth. I’d never travelled and never had any contact with any indigenous people.
The community had a population somewhere between 200-400 depending on visitors for ceremonial events. We managed the community store. It was their store but they wouldn’t or couldn’t manage it so contracted managers were appointed. We had to prove ourselves very quickly as store managers were viewed with suspicion due to the fact that there were many unscrupulous people working on (and stealing from) Aboriginal communities.
When we first arrived the store was very run down, there was low stock and not much variety. If members of the community wanted something not supplied by the store, they had to travel more than 80km to the nearest town. I took the view that the store had to provide for the local community’s needs. Many people didn’t have transport anyway.
Within a few months we had the store stocked with more food items, cooking pots, TVs, fridges, mattresses, clothes and toys… Anything the community needed. An elder woman came in one day and said, “This store, [it’s] like Kmart!” which was indeed a compliment.
The older people in the community were some of the nicest people I’ve met. I found them to be gentle, polite, friendly and quiet. They all called me Missus, which I repeatedly told them not to do, but they persisted and I suspect it was their way of showing respect. One day a group of five older women were sitting around a fire when they called me to join them. They made room for me to sit in their circle and gestured to the fire. I could see the tail of a goanna! They pulled a piece of meat off for me. I felt very honoured to be invited to share their meal.
The children I met were an absolute delight; happy, chatty, playful and friendly.
A travelling fair came to visit but it was ‘off pension’ week, so no one had any money to spend. Yet, they were all there at night enjoying the lights and the spectacle. We decided to negotiate with the fair owner to give all the children a ride on the attractions. How amazing it was to see the children form a line after school. This was the first time any of them had been on a fairground ride. It was very emotional to watch their excited faces … and hear their screams!
Another aspect of my job in the community was to receive their mail. Many times they would come to me with their mail to read. Most were offers from banks to give them $5,000 credit cards! I got tired of having to explain what ‘loan’ meant, as they all thought the government was giving them money and didn’t get the fact that it would have to be repaid.
My partner and I worked on two more communities and at a road house after that, but that first community with its beautiful people is the one I remember. I came away from the experience with very mixed feelings. There was a sense of loss that their culture was being taken away; a sense of frustration that although many of those I met blamed the ‘white fella’ for their predicament, they were quite happy to take the money being handed out; a sense of sadness that opportunities for education in these remote areas are quite limited, as are jobs; and more frustration that 200 years on many of these indigenous people will not accept life has changed. I don’t have the answer, but there is certainly still a problem.