Really Useful Knowledge
At a recent presentation on my novels, I was asked whether I thought Aboriginal people saw themselves as superior or inferior to non-Aboriginal people. I said I didn’t know. All I knew was that different contexts would provide different ways of thinking about a response. And I told the following story.
Nearly three decades ago, I was District Director of Education for the Kimberley in Western Australia’s far north. I’d just completed two years study leave to undertake a Ph.D, at the conclusion of which I was sent back to the Kimberley Region . About five months after my return, I received news that my Thesis had been accepted and I’d receive my invitation to the graduation ceremony shortly. The week after that news, I went to visit schools in the Fitzroy Valley and the first was Djugerari, about 110 kilometres south-east of Fitzroy Crossing, 60 kilometres off Highway One and 20 kilometres south of Cherrabun Station.
I stayed the night with the Principal, Jarred, but in the afternoon, received a phone call telling me I had to get to One Arm Point School, north of Broome, as quickly as possible. I rang the charter group in Fitzroy and organised a plane to leave Fitzroy at 7.30 am the next day.
After about 45 kilometres, the steering of the car began to feel strange. I got out to the sight of a flat rear tyre. As rapidly as possible, I changed the tyre, only to see the spare start to sink until the rim was just a centimetre off the ground. It was my fault. I should have checked before leaving Kununurra and didn’t. I couldn’t see the spare lasting me until Fitzroy Crossing. Nor did I see it lasting the trip back to Djugerari. I figured I should press on to another small remote community named Ngalingkadji about five kilometres ahead to see if someone there could help.
When At a speed of about ten kilometres per hour, I managed to get there, and drove into a community where most people were still asleep. Only an young Aboriginal man and woman were visible, sitting in front of a fire in the front yard of a house. Eventually, after much beckoning on my part, the man came to see me, but stood looking at me, saying nothing. As I spoke no Walmajarri or Gooniyandi and figured his English was, at best, basic pidjin, it was an extended silence.
I decided it was up to me to speak.
“I been Dave. You got pump?”
“What that been?” His words echoed his confused expression.
I tried again, this time without words, pointing at my rear tyre and miming a pumping action .
After about ten seconds, his face indicated he had some sense of what I wanted and he told me, “You been wait.”
He disappeared around some houses and I did as instructed for perhaps 10 minutes. Suddenly, there was a dull roar and a Land Rover appeared driven by a very dark-skinned man with a number of missing teeth. He screeched the vehicle to a dusty halt facing my car on the only semblance of grass in the community, switched the engine off and he and the first man I’d met dismounted, the driver wearing only a singlet and shorts and with hair long and looking totally unkempt.
The driver brought about twenty metres of garden hose from inside the wagon, raised the bonnet and flicked one end of the hose with a short strand of thin wire wrapped around it to me. I was uncertain of what to do, so remained motionless as the unkempt man stood on a bumper, fiddled in the engine, reappeared with a spark plug which he put on the bumper, took the other end of the hose and forced it into the hole where the spark plug had been. He somehow tied it with wire which held it in place , then turned and looked at me expectantly.
At my lack of action, he made a sound of disgust and called exasperatedly in language to the other man who snatched the end of the hose and the wire I held and after much forcing and twisting got my end fixed and tied on the tyre valve. To my horror, the last of the air began to hiss from the tyre, but before I could speak or act, the engine of the Land Rover roared into life and the tyre slowly began to rise again.
What the pair had done was to create a compressor, using a piston from the Land Rover engine to force air down the hose, with the wire tied to the end of the hose holding the valve open.
So there was I, Ph.D completed, but unable to pump up a flat tyre. And there they were, probably with limited literacy , but with mechanical wisdom beyond my comprehension.
I got to Fitzroy Crossing with no further trouble, but it left me with a message I often reflect on to this day.
Really useful knowledge is not culturally limited or bound. The capacity to innovate in resourceful ways is in all cultures, and we must never forget it.