My Intervention (in Cowdy)

By | 1 February 2015

Following is another poem that I have written about Borroloola’s struggles with alcohol, stress and fighting; the conversation I have with indigenous family about the cause of this fight – which later led to rioting – occurred a few months after the event. Here is ‘Dystopian Empire’:

Gossip spot-fires in Borroloola’s Big Camp,
excitement incites The Gravel,
at Malandari, shopkeepers look up from their stocktaking
and the whitefulla foreskins forget their power:
dem people fightin’! twobula bardibardi ini dirt
an dem whitefullas can’t stop’em…

The grey nomad traffic to King Ash is incensed
at the effrontery, claiming a flotilla
with the miners for gawking. And crowds keep streaming
from the catchments, this build-up’s broken:
there’s two old women fighting down there
and no one can obstruct them.

The close combatants are tearing hair and stomping 
toes; bowed knee to knee like breaking kindling; gouging 
and screaming as though into mirrors: jirda! dat munga
cartin’ yarn at me ini! The fierceness
of their fighting has the crowd banked up, pointing

and impotent in the late afternoon burning,
a dehydrated alcoholic crankiness; and the riot squad
is back in Darwin, worn out with the fighting,
their vacancy unfilled like the punch line of rainbows.

Some will say, in the years to come, that the young
blackfullas lit up their ganja, or sniffed,
at the spectacle; the expectant mums pissed
as coconuts fermenting in sand:
but that soap-box’s bent boss-eyed.

What do munanga know of salutarily singing Country?
Of the numinous mischievously stirring strife
amongst already sabotaged custodians whose kujika’s scorched?
Who will tearfully sing him, big business, with millad mob
in the dirt, pressing forwards, hoping for peace?

My poem echoes Les Murray’s glorious ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, where a city is surprised and held by one man’s weeping; Borroloola is too often arrested by fighting. It sometimes seems a deep sadness and traumatised anger overwhelms the Bardibardi and Malbu. This shocking brokenness, manifest in so much mental illness, is terribly difficult to bear witness to.

More than a dozen young adults have passed away by suicide or violent death during my time of residency in Borroloola. Substance abuse is rife – especially of tobacco, ganja and alcohol – and too many young people have criminal convictions for petty violence and property misdemeanors. But the town has poor access to mental health care with specialist services usually provided in Katherine (700 km distance) or Darwin (960 km). Borroloola is ‘out of sight and out of mind’: a place where immense community need is too often met with disengaged and inconsistent government service. Borroloola’s health clinic, I am told by indigenous family, is infamous for making indigenous clients wait while non-indigenous people are prioritised. Some openly racist administration workers in one government agency have their employment survive every complaint and protest. I have been slandered, more than once, for not knowing my place in non-indigenous society.

Living remotely amidst so much trauma, racism and cultural dislocation is emotionally exhausting and debilitating. ‘Borroloola Blue’ is another poem of mine that responds to these anxieties:

All around our steel home’s broad bull-nosed veranda
we’d jack-hammered rock, dug garden beds and ponds,
fenced an oasis as we planned for shade, blossoms, wildlife and fruit.
Amongst the natives we’d cultivated

paw paws, frangipanis, mangoes, bananas … Security
lights drew tree frogs and geckos; a Greek chorus
of bellowed crawks and clicking chick chacks;
an agile profusion alternating with contentment and strife.

But that season, in the Build-up to the Wet,
it was the raucous rocket frogs’ ratchet-like croakings
we noticed most. Each night the males made our ponds
throb with their rapid yapping calls, withdrawing at sunrise

when grass finches postured on the lips of ponds,
flicking their tails and singing a series
of squeezed rasping notes; white-gaped honeyeaters
threaded a path through foliage and blossom

as Papuan cuckoo-shrikes tore paw paws and mangoes.
Then one night at the Build-up’s end, as we drank
chardonnay on ice, Yanyuwa youths ran amok
on ganja, throwing stones and chiacking at our padlocked gates.

It only ended when [sorry name] leapt on our fence,
screaming at stars, before lightly climbing
a power pole like a cabbage tree palm – 
an unabashed athleticism electrified
                                                in the fall.

In remote places like Borroloola, mental health care, especially for young adults, is in crisis. And what of education, the other main area of government service for young people? Throughout the period of the Intervention, school attendance figures in Borroloola have stubbornly remained at around 57%. If conditions are so over-crowded and stressful at home, why can’t an air-conditioned comfortable school get kids to attend? The school works in partnership with a local mine to manage a trust that facilitates vocational education, camps and sporting opportunities. Theoretically this trust exists to compensate local indigenous people for lost access to country. But by the time the school and mine have enforced strict school attendance and behavior requirements for attending these ‘opportunities,’ the school’s ratio of 97% indigenous students is sometimes reversed in favour of non-indigenous students. In 2013-14, only four senior students were offered vocational education; of these just one was indigenous. The school and mine are right to have high expectations for all students, but what of reengagement programs and second chances? I am often forced to comfort students, who I have grown very close to, because they have been excluded from vocational education or sporting camps. Teachers like me are too easily made to feel like we are working against a system that often appears uncompromising and slow to engage with the frustrations and challenges of indigenous youth. The Bardibardi, for example, continually ask for segregated upper primary and secondary classes; it is culturally so much more sensitive. And they would like their grandchildren educated in indigenous language and culture along side Australian curriculum.

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