This story is set in East Arnhem Land and involves me, an old Aboriginal man and an Aboriginal principal. The term “Yolgnu matha” in this story designates Yolgnu language. Literally translated, the term means “Yolgnu speak”. The term “balanda” refers to whitefellas. It came into Yolgnu matha from Bahasa Indonesia via the Macassans who traded with Yolgnu in the 16th or 17th Century. I understand the term referred to “Hollanders” but as there is no “h” sound in Bahasa, the term became balanda. Photos in the website version of this story are from several of the East Arnhem Land communities.

He was a man of quite some years. I wasn’t sure how old, but his white hair and beard were indicators of substantial longevity.

I was sitting on one of four benches in the shape of a square beside the community school. 1983092901

Rosa, the Aboriginal principal, was very busy trying to help some community members fill in government forms for welfare payments,  complicated by restrictions imposed on Northern Territory Aboriginal people during the years of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response or, as it was known colloquially, “The Intervention”.

It was a sunny, warm June day. From a cloudless sky, the sun glinted on the lake at the base of the community: warm but with a steady gentle breeze from the south-east. 1999040306

Suddenly an old man was sitting on a bench facing me. He seemed to appear from nowhere 1356666-3x2-940x627

“Who bin your mob? Where you bin prom?” he questioned.

“I’m Dave,” I told him, “and I come from a place called Perth.”

“Where dem Dockers and Heagles come prom,” he rejoined with a cackle and then pointed at my shirt pocket, where a packet of cigarettes was apparent.

I took them out, offered him one and took one for myself. “Which team do you follow, old man?”

“Dat Port mob. Motlop boys play with dem. Come from up dis way.”

When the cigarettes were lit, he asked, “Why you bin here?”

I told him I was working with Rosa, trying to see what we could do to get the children in the community to come to school regularly. He nodded and I thought we would move to another subject. But we didn’t.1999042003

“What por?” he suddenly asked. “Why you bin want dem kids to get schooling?”

For some reason, the question rocked me. It was not a question I’d anticipated. In all remote communities I’d been in I was used to hearing Aboriginal people speak about the kids needing to get to school, and preferably to be taught in the way mission schools operated.

“Well, they have to, don’t they?” I floundered. “It’s the law. Until they’re fifteen they have to come to school.”

“What por?” he inquired, this time sounding almost forceful.

I wondered if he were having me on: setting out to keep asking why, without really caring about the answers. But when I looked at the twinkling eyes under the white eyebrows, I knew I was wrong.

“Why they got to do dat ting?” he questioned. “Balanda make dat law, not blackfella.”arnhemland1_lg

“Don’t you think they should come to school?” I ventured.

He shrugged. “Dis ting you call schooling only been one ting for our kids. They got to learn big mob other tings too.”

“Say some more old man.”

“All dem tings dat kids got to learn bin what us mob call heducation. Dis schooling ting only one bit of heducation. Bin lot more ting to learn, ay?”

The only response I had was a typical balanda reply. “But it’s the law. Kids have to come to school to learn to read and write until they’re fifteen. Can’t you teach them other things when school isn’t happening?”

“Why balanda law bin good ting? Why bin better than Yolgnu matha lore?”

AUSTRALIA - APRIL 21: Arnhem Land, Kakadu National Park (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1981), Northern Territory, Australia. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)It took me a little time to decipher and as I did, he chuckled again and offered, “I teach kids culture when they been ready, and not like in schooling that do it by how old they bin. So when some kids not ready, we wait for them. We don’t say, now you pive (five) you come to school and when you bin pifteen you puck off. Why all kids got to come for schooling when you mob say? Why not come when they ready?”

I sat in silence and he pointed at my pocket again. I handed over a second cigarette and lit it for him. I felt that for all my educational expertise, I’d been outflanked, surrounded, and was about to be hung, drawn and quartered in this debate. It was at this moment that Rosa reappeared with the adults she’d been helping. She bade them farewell and came to join me and the old man.

“You bin humbug dis balanda pella, old boy?” she asked him with a smile.

He grinned, drew on the cigarette , stood and told Rosa, “Bin tucker time for old boy, ay.”DSC_0005

I passed him two more cigarettes and he nodded his thanks before hobbling away on the road passing the school.

“What was the yarn about?” she queried.

“We were talking about …” I drew breath to prevent my natural inclination to say ‘education’ and managed, “schooling”.

She watched him leaving on the red track, stark against the green of the gum leaves. “I think he was saying how us mob do things and they been different from your mob and how you do things, ay?”

“Yes, that’s right: about the difference between education and schooling.”

“He’s a smart old man, that one. And some of what he says is hard to understand if you’re balanda, but not if you’re Yolgnu.”

“Can you explain that some more, please Rosa? I’m all ears.”Galiwin'ku 006

“Well, rules say school starts in February and finishes in December.  That gives us eight weeks off in the wet season when kids are stuck here with flooded roads and nothing to do. In the middle of the year, we got the dry. That’s when the kids take off with families and go bush. In the wet, we got lots of kids and no teachers at school. In the dry, we got lots of teachers and no kids. That doesn’t make sense, Dave.

“And then we got rules that say how old kids got to be to start school, like five, and how old they be when they finish school. We get maybe ten years to school them but each year they get promoted to the next class so they don’t look bad: not for what they know, but because they’re a year older. Why do we do those things? What’s wrong with them coming for schooling for sixteen years or twenty. Let them come three days each week if that what my mob want, have lots of bush days and culture, and we teach them when they ready to learn, not because they’re ten years old.

“And there’s that rule about schooling being five days each week. And to make sure kids come, Government gives us a bus. The bus drives around to wake kids up. If they don’t come out when the driver toots, he goes and gets them. And we make breakfast and lunch at school. So what’s the family doing? Nothing! We take responsibility for kids off them, and we make family and kids dependent on us. Why do we do that, Dave?”

She sat looking at me. I had no answer, just as I had no answer for the old man.Gapuwiyak

“We got to stop this shit about doing it by rules made in Darwin, by balandas for balanda kids. This place isn’t Darwin and I hope will never be like that.” She sighed heavily. “We got to talk to community and ask them what they want. And when they tell us, we got to find ways to do it. Yeh, us teachers got to do our job but they got to do their jobs with their kids too. We got to stop doing things to them or for them. But most of all, we got to ask what they want, and then we got to make them part of the answer. Then, no more saying ‘what por’, like old boy does,” and she grinned at me, “and we can be a real community mob again.”