The beautiful, lively spirit of the children in the Jawoyn communities had a profound effect on the group of booksellers, publishers, authors, Ambassadors and Fred Hollows Foundation staff who visited them in August as part of the ongoing work of the Indigenous Literacy Project (ILP).
The field trip included visits to the Wugularr, Barunga and Manyallaluk communities where the group were able to see where the funds raised by the book industry have been spent. They were also able to hold conversations with community members and Fred Hollows staff about ways to support the communities and improve upon the work we are doing. Fred Hollows staff and Karen Williams coordinated all aspects of the field visit, which was much appreciated by all.
The greatest impact of the trip came from having the chance to gain first hand experience of the daily reality of life in these communities. For instance the Indigenous Principal of Barunga School, Anita Camfoo described for us the huge delight felt by the community when five children in the school with an enrolment of seventy eight reached the literacy bench mark last year. Anita’s statement inspired much discussion amongst the group. While recognizing the sense of achievement that the school felt from this result it only highlighted for us the differing expectations regarding literacy success in remote communities. We discussed strategies of support that could be used to help raise the numbers of children reaching the benchmark.
Visiting the new school at Wugularr was a particularly profound moment. The beautiful new library that was accessible to the community as well as the school was a lovely space filled with books, many of which were supplied by our project. The old school had very few books and no library. It was exciting to see that many classrooms now have beautiful book displays; and the presence and access to books in the school has markedly increased.
At Wugularr the school organised a special assembly for their visitors at which they sang; our Ambassador Andy Griffith did a reading; and some of the older girls gave a (very shy) thank you speech expressing their appreciation for our support for their community. The beautiful smiling faces of these children and their gentle spirits had a profound effect on our group. Discussions were made later in the trip about how we could build upon and provide even richer input during these field trips. Andy Griffiths and others had some terrific suggestions about story-writing workshops which will be followed up on in coming months.
Further reflections on the work of the project and the complexities of the challenges facing the communities were made as the trip progressed.
Robyn Huppert from The Australian Booksellers Association Office whose job it is to coordinate the orders and delivery of books into the communities commented on the importance of first hand experience in understanding the challenges that staff faced, which books were more effective and how the distances out to the communities impacted on the whole process. It is not uncommon to hear remarks being made in the top end about “Territory time” which is a kind of euphemism for getting things done at a more relaxed pace, one that takes into account unreliable internet communication and the tyranny of distance.
Gabrielle Coyne, CEO of Penguin Books commented that visiting the communities helped her understand that the issue of continuity was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. At one school, five out of the seven teachers had only been there for two weeks. The project could see that there were a number of small things we could do to support the extraordinary souls who take on the challenge of working in these remote areas.
The issues of continuity were seen as being one of the most significant for everyone in the community to face – continuity of staff, continuity of learning, in particular ‘reading support’ between home and school, and sustained and continuous health care support. A community elder described the isolation and lack of support that the Wugularr community experienced in times of regular natural disasters as being frustrating and outrageous in the context of the support provided to foreign countries facing similar situations. The wet season each year regularly cuts off the community from the rest of the world. A small number of men take on the huge responsibilities of moving the families by boat to higher ground, organising for food and health supplies to be kept safe and the coordination of the cleaning of houses after the floods. These floods can happen three or more times each year.
Another of the schools we visited had a large number of children absent because the bus driver had not picked them up that morning. Some children were able to walk to school but others were too far away. Another teacher described the situation where the community cow had made herself comfortable in his classroom during his first week at school – his teacher training hadn’t covered that scenario.
Following our visits to the schools, our group had the privilege of attending the Walking with Spirits Festival. This festival brings many of the communities in the 50,000 square km Jawoyn region together for a celebration of their culture through music and dance. The setting for this event was overwhelmingly beautiful and was a privilege to attend. The contrasting experiences of this trip had a profound effect on our group. The richness of the Indigenous culture and the natural beauty of their country provided a stark and confusing contrast to the appalling health and education realities.
Our group was left pondering the challenges of providing practical, meaningful support for the people of these remote Indigenous communities that recognises and demonstrates our deep respect for their culture and country.
Suzy Wilson (Founder, Indigenous Literacy Project)