Spotlight On: Cultural Immersion

29 October 2018

This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News 26 October 2018.

First impressions are lasting impressions, and the heat and red dust that greeted us on our arrival in Arnhem Land certainly permeated the Mother/Daughter trip - but our eight days together were much more than just this.
During the holidays, Mrs Johnston, Mrs Tamberlin and I travelled with seven girls from Years 6 and 7 and their mothers to the Northern Territory for an immersion in the culture of the Nyinyikay community. There were so many opportunities to learn from the strong, resilient women of this homeland. Their generosity far exceeded any of our expectations. They shared their knowledge of bush medicine - tea that can be made from the stringy bark tree, the oil boiled from special leaves that can be used as a massage oil and moisturiser, and which can heal body and soul.  We learnt about the six seasons in the far north and when certain plants bloom, indicating that particular fruits will be abundant or that it is the right time to hunt sea turtles.  We were taught which ants sting and which were edible, and that the smoke from crushed and burning termites is a wonderful insect repellent.
The girls had many outdoor lessons as they sat and listened to the elders and the young women. They tried to grasp the very complicated system of Aboriginal kinship and learnt that each person has an Aboriginal name, a skin name, belongs to an extensive clan, has a land and sea totem and is either Dhuwa or Yirritja. Whether you are Dhuwa and Yirritja is passed down from your father, and the closest approximation we could find was the French use of ‘le’ and ‘la’. The girls explored one of the many languages of the region, learning bapa (father), mari (grandmother), napipi (uncle). They were introduced to dance and the purpose of song lines - messages and stories that are passed on to the next generation.
Mothers and daughters were taught the art of basket weaving. It is a detailed process that starts with the gathering of pandanus leaves, then stripping, dyeing, drying - much preparation was done before we could begin. Many hours were spent patiently trying to master this art while sitting on a mat, listening to the women chat in their native tongue. Time was not our keeper.
There were many messages to take home, but for me the overarching theme was about contrast and balance.  The contrast between the spike of the pandanus palm and the weep of the gum, the heat of the day and the cool of the evening, the green of the bush and the blackened trucks recently burnt.  The tranquility and beauty of the bay, and the sharks, crocodiles and stingers unseen below the surface. The Western need to have land ownership marked by fences and barriers and the Aboriginal boundaries marked by mountains and rivers.
The balance was subtle. The rise and fall of the tide, the yin and yang of Dhuwa and Yirritja, the focus on the sustainability and equilibrium of the land – take only from Mother Earth what you need for the present, ensuring there is enough for the next wet or dry season. The balance of the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical was central to all that we did and encountered.
As we lay on the dirt airstrip on one moonless night, the options to ‘reach for a star’ were endless. We felt absorbed into the mass above.
A mother/daughter bonding time, time to connect with Aboriginal people and the land…. Indeed it was.

Mrs Angela Toohey
Head of Junior School