Letters Home #5 "Speechless"

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Letter #5 “Speechless"

Each day before setting the sun exhales a warm breeze, to brush from the sky any lingering clouds that a few lost souls might navigate by the stars. Then the crackle of burning grass rises from fires in front of every home. And the street lights, stationed to preside over vacant patches of territory like soldiers of the Queen’s Guard, flicker into resolute attention. Its in the uncertain, in between stretches of shadowy dust that a mix of humble glow and determined incandescence do their best to share responsibility for lighting the way. 

In Arnhem Land the saying goes that foreigners are either missionaries, misfits, mercenaries or madmen. Which am I? Perhaps I’m a missionary. I come with books about history and talk passionately about ways we can work together for a better future. I frame the world in stories and revere the depth that lurks between their lines. I’m forever seeking the answers to an endless list of questions I scribble on pieces of paper that I stuff into a hand stitched shoulder bag, patched in places with the discarded artwork of children under ten. So I could be a madman. Yet I’m also a misfit. I enjoy the solitude out here, space to think and feel in my own time, far from crowds and traffic and banal conversation. There’s no pressure to fit in where a little strangeness is expected. As for a mercenary, well… 

The other day, in preparation to teach a group of kindergarteners, I approached one of the Yolngu assistants who sits in on every class. Like many Yolngu women in their late forties, B— is overweight, diabetic and moves languidly on skinny legs and bare feet. She is humble to the point of timidity - but when I asked her for a quick chat - I saw in her eyes that she is also fierce. I told B— that I wanted to try something different that day. That I would sit the kids in a circle and give them each a piece of paper and some crayons. Then I would tell them that they were going to hear a very special story. At that point, when their little minds were tickled with anticipation, I’d give B— the signal to begin telling the children about her life as a young girl in Gapuwiyak. B— was initially shy about the idea, but it didn’t take much in the way of encouragement to get her on board and together we walked into the classroom.

In the story she told, B— was a young girl playing by the lake. Her favourite game was to gather some mud from the bank and fashion it into a little baby doll, then wrap the doll in paperbark and carry it around like the mother she would one day become. She’d carry it home to a nearby shelter she shared with her parents and siblings. It consisted of a raised platform of sticks suspended between four trees. There was a small fire underneath and a ladder to climb to and from the landing, on which spread out a few beds of soft paperbark beneath a slanted roof. When B—’s family had to leave town to visit some nearby kin for a ceremony, or to gather seasonal foods, they would burn the shelter to the ground. And when eventually they returned, her father, brothers and uncles would build it again. That was less than fifty years ago.

By the end of the story the children were rapt. They asked B— questions and were given explanations for some of the details. Most of them seldom hear stories like that one. I suspect because its hard for people to talk about the old times. So much has changed. So they settle for a fire every night, and they search for somewhere to store the past in houses made of stone.  B— drew a picture of her story on the board and invited the children to do the same. Which they did. Then one by one they carried their pictures to me and I patiently asked them questions about what they’d drawn. Only then, when the children were telling me about their work, were the first words of English spoken. Up to that point everything had been in Yolngu Matha, the language children speak at home and in the playground. The language of their parents and grandparents, the language of their world. 

In the seventies a team of linguists arrived in Arnhem Land to learn that language. Their efforts resulted in the production of an entire body of literature, made up of people's stories, along with an entirely new alphabet to store them in print. They also developed a method of instruction to teach a generation of Yolngu people how to read and write a language that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I think sometimes we forget that we had to learn English at school to be able to read and write - that literacy isn’t the same as learning to speak. And sometimes we forget that no matter how many classes we took in French, the only people to learn it had to go to France. Important things to remember in Arnhem Land. Because there hasn’t been bilingual education here since the turn of the century. So children can’t read or write the language that they speak. And beyond the school walls no one speaks English, so they can’t really speak it either. I mean they can ask for a glass of water. But they can’t describe what it feels like to be unable to read letters from their grandparents or write letters to their future children. What it feels like to live in the shadowy dust between worlds, where a dying language struggles to be understood, with every laboured breath.

I can tell you what that looks like. One day I saw it, sitting with a teacher and some children. It was World Indigenous People Day and she was trying to teach them about goko (honey). She said, “We have fifteen words for goko, each with a story to tell. You can use the stories to find the goko in the bush.” The children smiled and listened. Most of them no longer learn this sort of thing from their parents. Then the teacher wrote the fifteen words for honey on fifteen pieces of paper and handed them to the children. Their expressions flattened. They no longer understood. I watched the teacher take a deep breath and plead with the children to concentrate. A dog started barking and over the noise they could barely hear her. She cried, “Someone needs to know these words! Each one has a story to tell!” But the children couldn’t help her. Then a man arrived. He had clap sticks and he tried to teach the children to dance. He told them it would help them learn the words. But the children were too shy and the dog wouldn’t stop barking, they couldn’t feel the rhythm and the words blew away. Then the teacher turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I felt so helpless. And angry too. Enough to take up arms and join the resistance. I went home and read the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Mandawuy Yunupingu, the entire History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory and various articles on the related politics. Then I wrote down step by step instructions for how to organise a socio-political movement to bring back bilingual education. By the time I’d finished it was late at night. I was sitting in a candlelit room clutching my marching orders between clenched fists, listening to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. I made it to Track 3: Dress Rehearsal Rag.

"It’s come to this, 
Yes it’s come to this,
And wasn’t it a long way down, 
Wasn’t it a strange way down?”

Full of taunts and tenderness that song is written to a man on the verge of suicide. Its a chilling reminder of just how quickly a broken heart begins to lust for blood. When the song finished I shivered and chuckled to myself. How close I'd come to joining a war. Then I folded my marching orders and held them to the flame. 

I may be a missionary, a misfit and a madman, but watching that paper burn I made a promise to myself that I would not become a martyr. But instead remain a dreamer, with stories to tell.

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