2006 Margaret Dooley Young Writers Award-winning long essay
Visiting Arnhem Land changes a person’s life. The land is rich with spirit, the rivers tell stories from centuries past, the birds fly with unrestrained grace, and the sunsets powerfully whisper the promise of peace. Earlier this year I had the privilege of spending a week in Ngukurr—a remote Aboriginal community in southeast Arnhem Land situated beside the spectacular Roper River. My friend had been appointed acting principal of the local school, and I decided to visit him as well as get a brief insight into community life.
Several months have passed since my visit but the images from that week are fresh and vibrant in my mind: the innocence and enthusiasm that shone in the eyes of the year four class I helped teach; the melancholic confusion from the movements of teenagers who wandered the streets; the compassion, love and respect of older members in the community; dilapidated houses, weary roads, abused cars and a football field void of grass.
The central image however that still haunts me is that of a grieving woman who began to smash a brick against her head during a ceremony for the return of the body of a deceased young man. Her helplessness, sadness and despair entered me as I watched her wail and mourn.
Shortly after my stay in Ngukurr I found myself back in Sydney trying to get on with life. Returning to such a spiritually destructive place was highly traumatic. I had been removed from one world and placed in another. My new reality was a man made environment consisting of cars, pollution, advertising, skyscrapers and mobile phones. There was no sense of community, as all the people walked to the oppressive rhythm of selfishness and fear.
My experiences in these contrasting milieus revealed a poignant truth: Australia exists on Aboriginal land, and all Australians must embrace Aboriginality if they are to have any sense of who they are and where they belong. All Aboriginal Australians deserve the same chance at life as anyone else. The oppression they endure is a burden carried by the whole nation. Their salvation is directly intertwined with ours.
This essay will comprise three parts. Part one will entail my recollection of the ceremony at Ngukurr. Part two will entail my reaction to returning to Sydney. Part three will expand on the significance of these events in relation to Australia’s desperate need to address Aboriginal disadvantage, and rediscover its intrinsic Aboriginality. By connecting with our past we will restore some much needed vigour to our imagination, and thereby rediscover the beauty and sacredness of life.
Part One: Ceremony at Ngukurr
Body in boat
brought back home.
Tears. Fury. Confusion. Pain.
Woman takes a brick to her head.
Young man kicks an innocent dog.
Watching. We are watching.
Intensely private. Infinitely personal.
Arcs of layered emotion fill the sacred space.
The men are strong in their movements.
The women painfully sincere in their grief.
Each person knows their place.
Every action unfolds to the strict rhythm of the traditional way.
The sadness enters me.
I suddenly don’t know who I am
or why I am here.
My heart hurts.
It is swollen with sorrow.
I’m on the verge of tears but I don’t cry.
I shrink inside myself.
I want nothing but silence.
No words. No thoughts.
The world is but a lifeless shadow.
The moon has turned away…
The boat carrying the body arrived at midday. The sun’s rays were hot, dry and soothing. A gentle wind dishevelled the red dirt and contemptuously tossed discarded litter into the bush.
The coffin was transported from the boat ramp to the house in the back of a four-wheel drive. In front of the car the male relatives marched in a scattered formation whilst moving to the penetrating sounds of the didgeridoo and clap sticks. Further behind were members of the community who wanted to pay their respects.
Once at the house the female relatives were seated cross-legged on the ground, beside a mattress on which the coffin would be placed. They wore differently coloured clothes and were painted with markings on their faces and legs.
Opposite the women on the other side of the yard were more men and boys. They were huddled together rehearsing movements and ceremonial rhythms. Their legs and faces were also painted, but with a different pattern to that of the women.
As the car pulled into the driveway a cloud of grief descended upon the space. In unison the women burst into tears. Their cries were loud and painful and increased with intensity as the body was removed from the car and placed before them.
The strongest men carried the coffin. They moved slowly and respectfully, while the other men chanted and danced to the insistent rhythm of the didgeridoo and clap sticks.
They were truly captivating as they shattered society’s fabricated stereotype of an Aboriginal male. Usually we are confronted with images of hopeless alcoholics and low-life lazy criminals. Before me though I saw no such people. These men moved with pride and conviction. They stamped the ground with authority. They knew their place. Each movement exuded confidence and grace. Their eyes were alive with passion and their bodies were governed by a tradition that was in place many centuries before colonisation.
Whilst these dances and chants continued at sporadic intervals, the women sat cross-legged by the body and wept. Never in my life had I heard such anguish. It seemed as if their grief would never end. A symphony of sadness was unfolding before my eyes as these women stayed together and moaned in the merciless heat of the midday sun.
It was at this point that one woman sprung from the ground and grabbed a stray brick and started smashing it into her head. She was soon stopped and controlled by two other women. They tried to comfort her, all three still shedding a constant stream of tears.
Before long the body was then placed inside the back of the car and taken to the morgue. Again the car was led by a small group of men. All relatives followed amidst a haze of lingering grief.
Part Two: Returning to Sydney
A barrage of artificial images
clogs my arteries and suffocates my soul.
My worried face is led by nervous footsteps.
An unforgiving wind goes through me.
The concrete has given birth to more cars.
Faces and faces: expressionless and robotic.
No empathy. No love.
Am in the center of sadness,
Consumed by darkness.
The pollution infects me,
sucking all passion from my veins.
Nature has been defeated.
Winter’s leaves are strewn across the pavement.
Amidst the scattered insincerity of abused butts and bottles
they lie helpless weeping tears
of regret and pain…
It was like some sick nightmare. The moment I got off the plane, I was struck by confused and chaotic energy. My senses were assaulted by the noise, the fumes, the advertising, the unnatural speed at which everything and everyone moved. I was thrown into a severe sense of solitude as I struggled to find understanding in anyone’s eyes. Even my loving family and girlfriend could offer little support because they had not seen what I had seen. They had not heard the cries from the mourning women. Their soul had not been touched by the penetrating perfection of the didgeridoo.
Days turned into weeks and slowly I settled back in. The whole time however my mind was filled with Ngukurr: the wide and wonder-filled eyes of the children at school, the creature-like mountains and escarpments that rested upon the horizon, the languages other than English that were spoken at will and the serene silence that accompanied each breath.
Sydney had none of this. It had replaced nature with the manifestations of its mind. These included loveless freeways, spiritless skyscrapers and a toxic brown haze that hovered above the insanity of city life.
Part Three: Creating a new dreaming
Time has passed and the contrasting nature of these experiences still stirs turmoil in my veins. How is it fair that the people who were here first are sentenced to lives of poverty and despair? Should such a situation exist when Australia’s economy has never been so strong? How on earth did our imagination give birth to such a fatally unjust world?
The fundamental factor that will instil a sense of sanity upon these shores is a renewed spirituality that enlivens our moral imagination thereby uniting us as one. No matter how convincing the media is in insisting that we find self-definition in the endless acquisition of material goods, the truth is that we are all spiritual beings who are connected by the land. With this in mind one begins to realise that all people have an obligation to each other, as well as the natural environment to ensure that justice is served.
A radical change in consciousness is desperately needed as the situation seemingly spirals out of control. All Australians must shoulder the responsibility to break free from the constraints of a society that worships power, and places money high on a pedestal above the inexpressible beauty of nature’s song. We must reclaim our imagination and create a new dreaming that is based on a deep respect for the land, all its people and its eternal rhythms that have been suppressed for far too long.
The women in Ngukurr were not grieving solely for the death of the young man. They were mourning the constant cloud of death that envelops all Aboriginal families nationwide. They were crying for the pain and suffering endured by all Aboriginal cultures since First Settlement. They were wailing for the continued rape and destruction of their sacred land. Each one of their tears was a distilled expression of fear that the death of this young man was one step closer to the extinction of their race.
Sydney’s spiritless environment is a direct manifestation of the distorted imagination that lives in the minds of its citizens. It is fatally ignorant to assume that progress can be measured by the extent to which a group of people can destroy the land but this is Sydney’s reality and shame. For years upon years the senses of its citizens have been starved as they have been markedly disconnected from nature. This has led to a foolish acceptance of mediocrity along with the erosion of any moral sense of what is sacred.
If Australia can create a new dreaming by reconnecting with its Aboriginal past, then it will shape a new generation whose legacy will be an insatiable hunger for justice and fervent desire for peace. Most of us don’t know it but, as a nation, we are only one step away from greatness. We can be the nation who admitted it was wrong. We can be the nation who learnt from its mistakes. We can be the nation who ensured justice for all its citizens and transformed its ways to tread lightly upon the earth.
The birth of each new day is a chance for us to discover the intrinsic Aboriginality that connects us. We must reclaim our imagination and ensure that justice is served because the fate of future generations depends solely on how we currently choose to live. The spirits of this land are alive in each heart. Their stories and histories are the uniting medium that will lead to our salvation.
If you listen carefully the cries of the women in Ngukurr can be heard on the wings of summer’s wind. It is time to listen to the heartbeat of our common soul and liberate humanity from these doldrums of despair.