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.
I was District Director of Education for the Kimberley when the story took place. While it was about twenty-five years ago, there is little that I think has changed in terms of the theme.
I’d just spent two years completing studies for a Ph.D, at the conclusion of which I was sent back to the Kimberley Region as District Director of Education. 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, I went to visit schools in the Fitzroy Valley and the first was Djugerari, about 110 kms south east of Fitzroy Crossing, 60 kms off Highway One and 20 kms from 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 organized a plane to leave Fitzroy at 7.30 the next morning.
After about forty-five kms of travel that morning, 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 just a centimetre of air remained in it. It was my fault. I should have checked the spare before leaving Kununurra and didn’t. I couldn’t see the spare lasting me into Fitzroy Crossing. Nor did I see it lasting the trip back to Djugerari. I figured I should press on to another small remote community about five kms ahead and see if someone there could help.
When I drove in to the place, most people were still asleep. Only an Aboriginal man and woman were visible, sitting in front of a fire in the front yard of a house. Eventually, the man, who was about my age came to see me. He stood looking at me, saying nothing. As I spoke no Walmajarri or Gooniyandi and I figured his English was, at best, very basic pidjin, it was an extended silence.
I figured it was up to me to state my purpose.
“My name’s Dave and I wonder if you have such a thing as a pump?”
“What you arks?” His words echoed his confused expression.
I tried again, this time without words, pointing at my rear tyre and making a pumping action with my arms and hands.
After about ten seconds, his face indicated he had some sense of what I wanted and told me, “You been wait here.”
He disappeared around some houses and I did as instructed. Suddenly, there was a dull roar and a Land Rover appeared, driven by a very overweight man who had few teeth, an unkempt beard, wild, slightly crossed eyes and wore only a singlet and shorts. The first man I’d met was in the passenger’s seat. The Land Rover parked facing my car on the only semblance of grass in the community. The engine was switched off, the bonnet raised, and one end of about twenty metres of garden hose and a short strand of thin wire were handed to me. The unkempt man fiddled in the Land Rover engine, reappeared with a spark plug, took the other end of the hose and forced it into the hole where the spark plug had been. He tied it somehow with wire to hold it there, then turned and looked at me expectantly.
When I made no move, he made a sound of disgust and waved exasperatedly to the other man, who came and took my end of the hose and the wire . After much twisting, he forced the end of the hose onto the tyre valve and held it there. 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 these two men 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 I was, Ph.D completed, but unable to fix a flat tyre. And there they were, probably what I’d call illiterate, 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.