In first year, when I discovered the possibility of doing a rural placement, I knew I was going. I wanted to go remote and have a cultural experience, so I chose to go to Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land. Nhulunbuy is 1000km east of Darwin and takes 30 hours to drive on the track… I flew there.
Flying into Nhulunbuy at dusk, there were no street lights, only a few campfires on the beaches. Contrasting the dimming blue tropical seas were massive red gashes in the land, where mines had cut into. How could a people and a culture continually develop here for 65,000 years, and not feel they are the land, when the earth bleeds red like we do¹? Spending two weeks in East Arnhem, sitting, watching, listening and learning from Yolηu people, I barely scratched the surface of getting to know the people, language and culture.
The airstrip at Garthalala
Stepping onto the tarmac, the spirit of the land felt different. I was picked up at the airport by my housemate, a medical student from Flinders. He was chatty and generous, offering to take me to the hospital the next day, inviting me onto the community Facebook page, and the local pub. The pace was slower, people were nicer… I was not in Sydney anymore.
On my first day at the hospital, I supported a Yolηu woman in labour. She and her cousin were flown from Elcho Island to Nhulunbuy Hospital two weeks prior for “sit down”. “Sit down” is when an Aboriginal woman is sent to the district hospital to await labour and birth in a facility. It was the most expressive and physical labour I had ever attended. In between contractions, her cousin would go to the window, place her face on the glass and close her eyes. In my words, I would have said she was feeling the sun on her face, or gaining energy from the sun to be able to support her cousin through labour, but in a moment of clarity, I realised I had no idea what she was thinking or feeling. This was the most foreign culture I had ever met. Yolηu concepts of time, land, spirit, ownership, dreams and identity didn’t translate into the Western capitalist world I had been brought up in.
A Saturday afternoon spent playing AFL
In my second week, I worked at Laynhapuy going out to health clinics in the homelands. Just before leaving the office to get into the four-wheel drive, one of the midwives said to me, “Don’t think you’ll be doing anything today.” She was putting me in my place and I think I understood – there was no one to “help”, nothing to “do”, only lessons and experiences to absorb. I went to three different homelands over three days with a team consisting of a doctor, a nurse and a physiotherapist. For many of the male visits, I wasn’t allowed in the clinic, so I sat in the sun, in the red dirt with the Aboriginal Health Worker. After minutes in silence, she asked me if I had been adopted. I hadn’t and she quickly took me in and gave me the name baṉumbirr, morning star. My ‘grandmother’ then cut a piece of my hair to make a brush to paint my totem, the shark. Yolηu culture is visible, alive and strong. Even after our disgraceful history and what I might represent, I felt openness and acceptance in the homelands.
Buku-Larrnggay Mulka | Yirrkala Art Centre
I left Sydney applying for NSW Health jobs and came back also applying for jobs in the Northern Territory. If I wanted to work there, I would need to be committed to stay for a while, as transient communities can degrade the landscape.
Flying away, looking from above at the blood of the earth that had been turned inside out, I thought of my culture and the miners, who only gain the tangible and monetary from their pursuits. They only take what they can see. The Yolηu people have a feeling and spirit that nobody can take. The Yolηu are the land, and the land is rich in spirit, history, culture… nobody can take this away.
¹ Clarkson, C., Jacobs, Z., Marwick, B., Fullagar, R., Wallis, L., Smith, M., Roberts, R.G., Hayes, E., Lowe, K., Carah, X. and Florin, S.A. 2017, “Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago”, Nature, vol. 547, no. 7663, p.306.