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Red ochre stained my shirt cuffs. John Pilger’s film, Utopia, pushed me back into the life there was no leaving. Even at 3am, his powerful images threw up only two dimensions of the stories weaving and intersecting in never ending patterns. This was not about healing. It was a white account of a black world for a white audience. 

One flash, two seconds, three women under a tree. How could images ever convey the power curling round, wrapping, other women, dressed by op shops, sitting cross legged under a different tree? “Are you alright” one had said. “Yes,” I had answered. “Nola says you are ill.” “No, I’m fine.” When the sun went down, and I came home, another woman came.  Another  ngangkuri; another message. “Are you sick?”

The ngangkuris, traditional healers, were right, and I was wrong. Night mares had struck. Airborne powder, dried manure from  feral horses roaming streets in search of water, had mixed with dust, and fed the germs the ngangkuris had sensed. Next day, the germs pounded my ears, punched my sinuses, glued shut all ways for air to travel through my nose. They forced thick slime backwards, down my throat, sickening my stomach. Nausea ebbed and flowed in waves. 

An overworked nurse relieved the clinic’s regular nurse. She didn’t know how to work with her bored health worker. She took people into a side room, where there was privacy, and closed a door. It was boring waiting on a bench instead of being in a play where the audience waited around walls until they become actors, in a bit piece, in an all-day play. 

A white person with a problem heard I was at the clinic, and rang as I retched, I passed their problem to the health worker. He knew more ways to get a message to a woman on the road than I did. 

Last time the germs in the horse dung had won their way, the usual nurse had gazed deep in my ear canals under caring, watchful eyes reminding me of eyes in the lung clinic of a Saigon hospital, A doctor sipping fruit juice carefully pulled the next file from the bottom of the pile as someone moved half metre to a stool in front of her. This room was five times the size. Nurses’ consultation conversations took place side by side, maybe around a right angle. instead of gazing at the doctor’s mouth, hanging on her words, eyes flickered, averting confrontation.

There was nothing fair about watching Pilger, and no avoiding confrontation. “Pilger – good for him – confronts the politicos. Pilger – less good for him – goes on too long,” groaned a reviewer in the Financial Times. “When the subject and subjects are allowed to speak for themselves – when Pilger doesn’t stand and preach – the injustices glow like throbbing wounds.”

In the face of their subject matter, would they, could they have maintained the gravitas this audience demanded of them?  “Interviewees he agrees with are coddled; those he disagrees with are harangued,” said Crikey.com.

Yes. Just as one of the “coddled,” a teacher by training, first learned of public consultations about Aboriginal employment half an hour before a short session began in a hall beside a city casino. Head of a large Aboriginal corporation, he stood up in a sea of white service providers who’d brought their blacks along to tell the Prime Minister’s department and Mr. Forrest how wonderful “their” providers were. Alas that Pilger had not coddled the Aboriginal men from the Mens Shed, fresh voices from the heart, trumping coddled and harangued and ossified around them.

Not my monkeys, not my circus. Surrounded by poverty both grim and unrelenting, it’s hard to stay detached when, in the remote windowless offices where decisions are made, the prurient attraction of talking about sex abuse “among them” eclipses the sickness, the starvation, the suffering.

Often on the ground was little better. Children knocked at the house of a woman new to Whitefeller Street. When she gave them oranges, her more experienced supervisor walked past two doors to speak to her about it. “Don’t you realise you’re making it hard for all of us?”

He was not alone. When children knocked at my door, and asked “Epple? Oringe?,” during a meeting, it angered another man. No matter there are few ways for the “old lady” to know them than to help assuage the vitamin craving assailing everyone confined to weeks of food from a community store.

Whitefeller Street could be Tom Sharpe’s Riotous Assembly revisited. You collect your Woolworths or Coles “bush order” from the same truck that serves the store. You pay the community nothing for unloading it for you, refrigerating it for you, until you are “not so busy.”

Over the months the words “Can I have” become as familiar as “orange” in a second language. “Please” followed, in every sense. By year’s end, “thank you” was second nature. Regulated by relationships in every way, there was no need to tell the children the reasons twice. Even small children grasp that if you want to ask for something “nice way,” learn the right words and you are more likely to get it. Palya?

Older people knew better. Someone who seemed like a nice man dropped in for a cup of tea. His reputation followed him. “When your car breaks down, he does not help.”

Virtually all the service providers had the same instructions. No passengers allowed in the car, no lending anyone anything. It might be a baby and its mother beside the road, miles from anywhere, it might be 43C. There’s no Law of the Sea where ships of the desert cross the tracks. Leave them a bottle of water.

Usually comprehension was not based in ignorance of urban management directives. Natural selection, in one of the harshest of arid landscapes, had seen to it that stupidity did not survive. Comprehension walked hand in hand with instinctive grasp of software designers’ principles producing pattern and underpinning product; with hand-eye coordination honed across thousands of years of catching birds with stones; with songs of the campfires and the starlight.

Yet mental health survived, revived from asking permission to enter buildings, to use items on agency and non-government organisation asset lists and purchased with “community funds.”

Resilience returned when the roads closed, the water-cart disappeared into the bush camps, and, out of white sight, processions began. Neediness and fear levels rose among those confined to every other road as burdens lifted from the chronically sick, from women unable to free themselves of endless childcare. They traveled with a small army of men with red head bands whose bodies were no longer their own.

“Planning” for “me” does not work in the same way when the concept of self is not the same and every Monday is Hungry Monday. The store closes on Saturday, but it will be Tuesday before any money begins to flow around and through the families again. It’s hard to study or work or stay out of arguments when all you can think about is something, anything to eat. One hunter was late to bring relief to people far from food vouchers or soup kitchens. “I got fourteen bush turkeys and three flat tyres.”

In the changing lights and seasons, deserts become more and more like the sea, distractingly similar, never the same. Though this explained the artists’ use of colour, it sheds no light on their sense of composition.  Affinity with music, and spatial relations, had not produced mathematicians in the Arab sense of statisticians and their spread sheets. One, kucha, two, kuchara, jumped straight to many, and the dynamics of the non-linear. People who understand complexity used relationships to walk the line dividing chaos from order.

These days, when some artists paint meaning amid the people using spreadsheets around them, they veil their meaning in a painted gauze. Watching Pilger, especially on Australia Day, it’s not hard to understand why.

Anne Anderson worked for a year in an Aboriginal community in Central Australia. By Pilger’s  useful measure, her status was not high. No matter how high the mercury went, she never merited more than one air conditioner.

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