The Indigenous Literacy Foundation is committed to providing books and resources to help foster literacy in remote Indigenous communities, and those remote communities don’t come much remoter than Warburton. Located in Western Australia, 1050 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs—and 1500 kilometres north-east of Perth—Warburton is home to around 700 members of the Ngaanyatjarra people.
Last week I had the great pleasure of travelling to Warburton with three other members of the Indigenous Literacy Project team to help launch Book Buzz—the ILP early reading program—at the Warburton Playgroup.
It took five hours to travel from Alice Springs to Uluru on bitumen, and then another seven hours by dirt road from Uluru to Warburton. Trip leaders Deb Dank and Maddy Bower were expecting the road to be a lot worse and had packed not one but two spare tyres in anticipation. As it turned out the road was better than it had been when they’d last visited in June and, fortunately, neither spare was needed. As an added bonus—at least for us wimpy white-skinned Southerners—the weather for this time of the year was unusually mild, hovering around a relatively balmy 25 to 29 degrees. (Deb, however, was wishing she’d brought a coat!)
Travelling through the unusually green desert was continually amazing. We saw camels, kangaroos, goannas, thorny devils, pink galahs, falcons and seemingly endless rivers of fast-moving ants flowing in all directions across the fine red sand, but the highlight for me—apart from the bizarre sight of a tree festooned with old tyres—was the silence. Like a sort of effortless meditation, all we had to do was to get out of the car, listen and there it was. Or perhaps more accurately, there it wasn’t. (At the Uluru visitors centre I’d been struck by the following piece of Anangu advice about not climbing the rock: “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. Listening and understanding everything.” I don’t know about understanding everything, well, not yet anyway, but I’m starting to get the hang of listening.)
The Warburton Playgroup is run by the dynamic and passionate Anne Shinkfield with assistance from her husband Rohan. This intrepid couple have lived in and around the Warburton region for many years and were thrilled with what the resources provided by the ILP have helped them to achieve in the past year.
The playgroup runs for about two hours each morning. It recently moved from a corrugated iron shed into a modern building and is attracting many mothers and their young children. While bike-riding, playing in the sand-pit and finger-painting have always been popular activities, Anne has made great progress over the past year introducing the children—and their mothers—to books. A part of each morning now involves the unrolling of a mat, which is the signal to come together for reading.
Most of the children—until now—have grown up without books in their homes and for many children in remote Indigenous communities their initial exposure to books is in their first year at school. It’s hard for people who have grown up with books to appreciate how much we take for granted about how books work: which way to hold them, how to turn the pages, how to read and discuss them with others and how shared reading is an opportunity to grow closer together.
These are all the skills that Anne has introduced to the members of her playgroup and her eyes were shining with pleasure as we watched the mothers and children sharing the books. ‘This wasn’t happening six months ago!’ Anne told us.
The ILF Book Buzz program aims to provide all Indigenous children under the age of five with a bag of ten board books—including Eric Carle’s evergreen ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’—for them to own and take into their homes. An initiative that Anne had requested was that five of the books contained translations of the English text into the local Ngaanyatjarra language. The translations are printed on transparent stickers that sit alongside the English text and allow the parents to feel much more comfortable with the books. Anne stressed how important it was for the members of the community to be able to use their own language as a familiar base to become confident with both written and spoken English.
Every time we go on a field trip we are reminded that not all Indigenous Communities are alike, which is why trying to adopt the sort of ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach so favoured by Western culture rarely works. What works in one community is not necessarily going to work in another because so many different factors—historical, geographical, cultural—come into play. Being willing and able to respond to the unique requirements of each of the communities that the ILF is trialling Book Buzz in is part of the unique strength of the project. There is no magic bullet or fast fix to the challenge of helping to increase literacy in remote communities: the ILP’s approach is about implementing long-term incremental sustainable changes responsive to the unique needs of each community.
After the playgroup we visited grade 4/5S at Warburton Community School and invited them to create their own small books. Despite only having an hour and a half, the kids embraced the challenge enthusiastically and came up with a range of wonderful stories. One of my favourites told the story of a group of girls who go out bush to tell stories to each other and in the process draw a picture in the sand of a terrifying ‘Mamu’ which then comes to life and chases the girls home. Another story told of a yellow berry collecting expedition which went really well except for the fact that they forgot to bring the yellow berries back home with them.
The trip to Warburton is the third of the ILF field trips for 2010—the other two being to Wilcannia in July and the Kimberleys in August. Thanks to Deb and Maddy for another incredible feat of organization, for being such great travelling companions and for patiently answering my and Karen’s millions of dumb questions (‘What if we break down?’ … ‘Yes, but what if we do …’ etc. etc.).
Each time we go on such a trip we learn a little bit more about our different cultures and how we can more effectively build bridges between them. And it is always inspiring to see first-hand how the ILP is making a real difference in the lives of people in remote Indigenous communities.