Going into a different culture can be daunting, even just as visitor. Unless one is immune to cultural difference or has an ego the size of an elephant, it should lead to questions of appropriate behaviour in a multitude of different settings and times of the day. Even more daunting is to have to undertake work with people from a different culture. I found the most effective way to manage both, and particularly the context here work is required, is to have a guide or mentor on what to do and how. Not only does it mean the visitor is being given ideas of what to do, but the guide can very often create a relationship for him or her with the locals. Here is one example.

In 2010, I was asked to develop a number of Alcohol Management Plans (AMPs) in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

039-Arnhem-Land-1The work was a consequence of the Commonwealth Government Intervention in the Territory in 2007 and was a first attempt by the Commonwealth Government agency in charge to allow some local decision-making by communities. That agency gave me a sheet of two pages to use as an introduction. It went like this:

Good morning and welcome to the first meeting to develop an Alcohol Management Plan in (name of community). The Department (name of department) is pleased to participate with you on this important development. The focus on the plan will be on the management of alcohol in this community and how the people of the community desire to see this occur. As a starting point, we will be discussing the amount of alcohol consumption, from banning alcohol to setting amounts per day, where it could legally occur and its frequency …

And so it went on: formal English, big words and long, obtuse sentences.Galiwin'ku 002

I arrived in the first remote community and met the Aboriginal Liaison Officer (ALO) whom I’ll call Ricky. I told him what the work would be about and asked him what he thought of the introduction. He got me to read it and about half-way through, stopped me.

“No, that been bullshit Daybt. Mob not know what you say. You come with me. I show you how we do this one, ay?”

He took me to sit in front of the local supermarket, a local meeting spot, and as people wandered in or past, he’d call, “Hey, you mob, come meet dis pella. ‘Im been Daybt and he got real good yarn to tell you. Come listen to dis Daybt pella.”

When he had about forty people gathered around, he told them, “Government mob arsk this pella to yarn with you about grog. He want to know, you want no grog, little bit grog, bit mob grog. He come talk this time to say hello and he keep coming back and talk more. That been right way, Daybt?”

indig_committee_witnessesAfter I nodded, he told them, “Okay, Daybt come yarn with you this day and tomorrow, say hello and tell you what he gonna do.”

So that was the end of the introduction, all done in pidgin, and, I think, understood by the listeners.

I did as Ricky suggested, created relationships, made connections, ‘yarned’ about what I thought I should do and asked people f they thought the ideas were good or should they change.

The next time I visited, which was three weeks later, I was walking towards the store with Ricky to start the second round of ‘yarning’, when I heard a man call out, several times, “Hey, you mob, look, been that Daybt Grog Man again!”

I already felt part of the furniture.