Flying to Wadeye

I: FLYING TO WADEYE

I am flying to Wadeye with wary curiosity. They say it’s a community that lives in fear of its kids; and there are whispers of an uprising by childbearing women. 

I want to see for myself.

 II: HEY, MISTER MANDARINE MAN

At the airport, we are forty or fifty people waiting for the light plane to Wadeye. Aboard there is seating for sixteen. 

The gate lounge is a shed with one of its four walls missing. The missing wall would have faced the tarmac. An airconditioner fights noisily to cool the eight seated ‘inside’. The remainder sit near the tarmac, in intimate relation with the sun and the heat and the noises and smells of light aviation.

Coming from the southern winter, I am unprepared for the heat. I choose to sit inside. Seated along a second wall, two school-aged girls, an aged lady, and a pair of older men – all Aboriginal – share the cool with me. A Whitefella man and woman in their late twenties sit separately.

It is the aged lady who first takes my eye. She has a rich snowfall of hair, the caramel skin that would have seen her stolen in childhood as a ‘half-breed’, and an upright deportment that speaks of grace and authority. She looks just like my hero ladies, the Strong Women of Galiwin’ku. She is in fact, very good-looking, a judgement not diminished by the snowy bristle on her chin.

The old lady is cradling a newborn baby in its swaddling. The baby is quiet in her arms. The two teenagers next to her whisper busily to each other, drink Coke, send text messages and chew their gum. One girl wears cheap-looking Carlton Football Club merchandise, the other is a Brisbane Lion. I am trying to decide who is the baby’s mother. It is not easy: the girls seem too young, too slight, too innocently childlike; the old lady looks old.

The blokes are tall and thin, not young. One of them is a well-made man with long arms hanging loosely from his muscled shoulders. With his reach, he’d have made a formidable boxer. The man has abundant hair, great waves of charcoal, grey and white, falling in wild harmony about his head. He carries himself as a personage.

He rises and crosses the room in my direction. His gait is abnormal. He rolls as one on a ship’s deck, steadying himself against a tricky ocean swell; a step forward and another, a pause to sway and regain balance, then another flurry of quick steps, before checking his progress and regaining equilibrium. It’s a short passage of ballet, rhythmic, distinctive, somehow dignified. It is a neurological consequence of a toxin, possibly alcohol, possibly petrol.

In all his human wreckage, this man is arrestingly good looking. He sits down a metre from me and says: “Hello”. The voice is a rich, rattling baritone with echoes of tobacco.

My mouth is full of the fruit I’m eating. I return a fruity hello and proffer my bag of citrus. He accepts a piece of fruit, extends his neck and looks it over, then asks: ”What’s this?” 

I tell him, “A mandarine”.

The old man – I guess he’s fifty – gets up and flows into movement, negotiates the dance floor between me and the women and the baby and sits down. Wordlessly, he passes the mandarine to the Brisbane Lion, she passes him one of the cigarettes she’s been rolling, and the girls and the man step outside and have a smoke. Then they come strolling and waltzing back inside. The three sit down and my small mandarine is shared between themselves and my Strong Woman.   

***

A thin voice from outside calls us for the flight. Twenty-four people step forward to the cyclone wire gate. The pilots (I’m glad to see we have two) are young white men in pilot regalia – white shirts with the stripes, pilots’ hats. The aircraft they command is small. They could easily be ridiculous, but their informality and friendliness belie all pretension. They look smart.

We are to pass through the gateway only when we hear our names called. The younger pilot calls eight names, eight of us pass through to the tarmac and the promise of a seat. The first eight  are all Whitefellas. Why us?

More names are called and we are joined by another eight, including the girl in the Carlton shirt and the mandarine man. The Strong Woman and the Brisbane Lion are not among us. The Carlton girl cradles the baby. 

We climb aboard and choose seats at random. I have an aisle seat, immediately behind the young mother and the mandarine man. Deftly, gently, the old bloke threads the baby’s seat belting around the swaddling. We take off and for forty minutes I study one of Australia’s newest citizens in the sole care of one of our newest mums.

The baby has round black cheeks, pursed dark cherry lips, outlined by traces of drying breast milk.  The baby is a winning miniature of the mother, who wears his rounded features in leaner, linear form. Forty minutes is not too long a time to look at the baby.

The aircraft is not pressurized. We ascend and descend and the baby never stirs. The mother’s face is inches from the baby, her eyes fixed on the small face. When the brilliant sunlight shines onto him, Carlton girl shades his eyes with her small hand. At intervals, the mother’s slender fingers caress the air over the baby’s cheeks. The urge to touch the exquisite flesh wrestles with the wish to preserve his perfect rest.

We land and walk across the tarmac to the cyclone wire gate. The pilots heap our luggage onto a trailer. Passengers identify their belongings, and reach over and wrestle them free from encumbering cartons, packages, swags and suitcases. 

A young Aboriginal couple disembarks and claims a couple of packages. He’d be in his early twenties, she looks about eighteen. The two stand near the trailer with their packages and hand luggage.  A policeman is in conversation with them. The officer is one of two, both tall and thin, both wearing serious German pistols in their belts.

The officer addresses the pair quietly: ”You understand that we’ll take you and your bags up town with us to the station and we’ll unpack and examine the contents there.” The girl does not respond. The young man nods slightly.

We are well past the wet season but Wadeye is still cut off by flood waters from outside. A ‘dry’ community, Wadeye has been drier than usual over the long wet, with smugglers of drugs and grog disabled by roads still under water. Some people resort to flying in their own supplies.  By the look of today’s targeted interview, the officer is ‘acting upon information received’. Did the tip-off originate from a member of a rival tribe?  

*** 

The ‘Women’s Uprising’ is my own term for the quiet subversion of modern obstetric arrangements by outback women. Time and again I have dispatched Flying Doctors to remote locations to retrieve women in obstetric emergency. 

They are all supposed to deliver in larger centres, regional hospitals, where mothers and babies are safer. But time and again, the woman whom I flew out to the hospital last Monday is back home  today, Thursday; and there, in deepest Woop-Woop, she comes into labour, at great risk to herself and her baby. She has returned from a foreign place to give birth in her own place. But when I receive the call she or her baby is in danger.

The insurrection against obstetric policy is a phenomenon of the humble and the disempowered: teenage girls and mature women alike sneak back home to give birth. It is in Wadeye that the phenomenon has occurred frequently enough to be described and published in academic papers.  

***

Many Whitefellas have read of Wadeye but not many recognize the name when they hear it. It looks like “Wad-eye”, but it’s pronounced “Wad-air.” Its colonial name is Port Keats.

Port Keats was founded in 1934 by Father Richard Docherty. Despatched by the regional bishop, he arrived with Indigenous guides, looked around and chose a site for a mission. Promising locals he’d return and build the mission, he left. His parting gift was flour and tobacco.

Much of the fate of Wadeye is the unintended legacy of the Whitefella gifts of Catholicism, refined starches and tobacco. Seventy-five years after the arrival of Father Docherty, diabetes and heart disease occupy a huge clinic and a large tribe of nurses and doctors. I am one of the latter.

The Church built a school and taught an early generation to read, write and enter the twentieth century. The school continues to function under Church auspices and within its large campus resides Wadeye’s hope for the future. 

Whitefellas who have heard of Wadeye have read of the gang warfare on its streets at night. Youngsters in their teens gather with their weapons – generally sticks, palings, pickets – and posture at their enemies. Sometimes these real weapons are wielded to effect real bodily harm.

On the aircraft, I find myself seated next to a psychiatry registrar based in the Territory. I point out the headline on the front page of today’s newspaper. It reads: “MOZZIE KILLS TOURIST.”

My companion says: ”The press reporting about the Territory is not nuanced. They claim that Alice Springs has the highest stabbing rate in the world. Do you know Hermannsburg?”

I do.

“The stabbing rate there is four times higher than in Alice. They have only four hundred and eighty five people living in Hermannsburg, but they need a clinic with a fulltime doctor and a staff of twenty seven.”

Down south, the broadsheets read like tabloids: “Mayhem in Wadeye!” The papers explain that the different gangs are playing out ancient clan grievances in a sort of ritualized payback.  

Port Keats was a settlement in which twenty nine or so separate tribal groups were aggregated. With the collocation of groups that had always been mutually hostile, every Montagu found a variety of Capulets, Capulets found Montagus of all stripes; and all parties obliged the colonists with Payback without end.

The ‘papers describe a community whose elders have failed. Ruined by alcohol and disappointment, they have lost all self-respect and have failed to gain the respect of the young. The town abides in paralysis, terrorized by its teenagers. 

That is the story down I read down south.

Before I commence my term in Wadeye the Remote Health Service treats me to a session of Cultural Orientation. The doctor, a veteran of outback indigenous health, explains the gang warfare differently: “What happens in Wadeye is nothing like Payback. In communities as traditional as Wadeye, Payback is determined by due process, which is quite exhaustive. What happens on the streets of Port Keats is emphatically different. The Wadeye stuff is imitative of gang life, in the style of American movies.”  

Indeed, I read that the gangs in Wadeye style themselves Judas Priestand Warriors, and more latterly, German Punk.

My mentor adds: “These kids are out at night because there is no room for them in their houses. There might be thirty people in a three-bedroom house, with three sleeping shifts around the clock.  The teenagers grab some sleep during the day. Then there they are at night, awake, energized and presently homeless. They join gangs for something to do. An outlet for testosterone, a need to belong when they don’t belong at home.”     

***

The local doctor meets me at the airport and takes me to his house, which will be my house while he is away.

It is enclosed in a cage among a cluster of cages. We members of the aviary are the Whitefellas, our cages are residences with barred windows and enclosed verandahs. We cluster, I gather, for safety. The idea is that a worker – often a nurse or a teacher, often young and female – should be safe and should feel safe. 

I feel too safe for comfort. 

Appreciation comes later: towards evening and in the early mornings the stout wooden palings create a delicate sculpture of light and shade in my verandah; the penitentiary space of concrete and wooden bars becomes a resort, a place of serenity. In the mornings and before sunset I come out into this dappled light to recite my prayers – shacharit and mincha – in unexpected tranquillity. 

III: A SACRED SITE  

I haven’t been here long – in fact I haven’t yet reported for duty – when a banging and a thumping on my bars and the roaring of a voice disturb my Sunday quiet. The voice calls: ”Howard! Howard! Are you there?” 

I am. It is my boss, the clinic chief. He has a lot of hair, a shaggy leonine face and a warm handclasp. ”Howard, can you come to the clinic, now? We’ve got a woman about to give birth. There are complications.

I’m Stuart, by the way.”

“Howard. Good to meet you.”

It’s a short drive from cage to clinic, but long enough to learn that our patient is about to deliver, she has received no antenatal care at all and she is anaemic. The air medical service promised to send a doctor and a nurse, but only the latter has materialized.

We jump from the ute. Standing before me on a plinth, arms outstretched in welcome, is the outsized form of a tall bearded man with a beautiful face. He wears a robe and an expression of ineffable love. 

Do the Brothers still run the clinic, I wonder?

We enter the modern building, a monster. Passing rapidly through deserted rooms we head for the Emergency Room. I will find this clinic building to be the largest I have worked in – anywhere in the world. (I sense here the fruit of some spasm of Whitefella reaction; has some politician, embarrassed by reporting of disgraceful neglect, promised largely and spent wildly?)  

In Aboriginal Australia it is preferred that a man should not attend a woman in childbirth. It is women’s business; its private and secret nature transcends coyness but includes shame.

I stand at the rear of the room, the patient sheltered from my view (and from my assistance) by curtains pulled around her. A wrinkled white face atop a small frame smiles across the room at me and the lady identifies herself as Holly, the clinic midwife.  “I’m glad you are here. Her haemoglobin is only sixty percent. We don’t want a bleed.”

Between curtain cracks I witness the expert delivery of a baby that bawls its own birth announcement. I examine her. She is chubby, mature, perfect.

Meanwhile, her mother is haemorrhaging. The placenta is stuck and we must wait. A nurse brings me a mask, gown, gloves in preparation for an emergency procedure called Manual Removal of the Placenta. This, of course, is a manual removal of all dignity and privacy, invasive and painful; and it carries its own dangers. 

Highly competent Holly pulls patiently and gently on the cord. Nothing budges. Blood flows; how much of the mother’s sixty percent remains?

Her vital signs remain stable. We wait as the blood pools.

Presently, Holly’s patient traction is rewarded with the arrival of a complete and healthy placenta. The bleeding slows, then stops.

Soon a flying doctor arrives and takes mum and baby back to the city hospital, where mum will receive a couple of pints of blood.

I have witnessed one skirmish in the Uprising.  No-one lost. Did anyone win?  Certainly, the clinic, ostensibly a non-obstetric facility, functioned very well in an obstetric emergency.

All the equipment you might need for midwifery is here, stored discreetly away from public gaze. The clinic is not supposed to be delivering babies, but, in circumstances of familiar ambiguity, reality contends with policy. Half supported –there is no blood here for transfusion – stoic 

nurses quietly do their heroic best.  

IV: STRONG WOMEN

Night falls at the end of my first day here. My neighbour in Wadeye, a white lady who has worked here for years, calls me: “Don’t leave your vehicle parked outside overnight. The kids congregate for fighting quite close by. Your car will be a great temptation, an alternative to a fight for bored kids”.

Then she adds: “Come over to my place and meet the neighbours.”

I spend pleasant hours in the company of a couple of schoolteachers, a bloke who cooks for the kids at the school, some nurses and the woman who runs the Women’s Centre. As far as I can see, no married couples. The outback is hard on marriage.

At a large outdoor table, a large hospitality prevails. Liberal amounts of food and bonhomie, affectionate in-jokes, laughter and conversation relieve a difficult reality. We are gathered here, behind prudent fences, and not quite within the community we serve. The gathering is not dry.  

Conversation flows, shedding snippets of difficult reality: “cheeky dogs”; “school, hunger, houses”; “the Take Away”; “women, safety, fighting”.

“How long will you be with us, Howard?”

The question is prompted by need. I dash any hope with the truth: ”Five minutes.”

So, you’re not going to replace the doctor when he leaves us for good?”

“No, I’m just a locum.”

“That’s a shame. It’s hard to attract doctors to Wadeye. What made you come here?”

“I met a midwife in the Kimberley, named Rachel. She used to work here in Wadeye. She told me about the fifty babies born safely here. I didn’t know whether to feel excited or alarmed, so I came to see for myself.”

I tell them about the childbirth that I witnessed this afternoon, the calm teamwork, the expertise, the anaemic mother giving birth for the fourth time. 

“She had had no antenatal care at all.” 

This statement is received with a shaking of knowing heads. Fourth time around, a mother

would understand something of the risk. She’d have hidden herself from notice, determined to give birth in her own country.

I remark: “If Rachel is right, we could run a safe midwifery service out here for selected patients who had normal pregnancies.”

This provokes a passionate response from the midwife seated next to me. “I’m sorry – Rachel’s a lovely girl – but her paper is dangerous! Women will believe they can stay away from hospitals because it was safe for those others. But it’s not safe. Excepting for low risk pregnancies. And very few of them are low-risk!”   

This is one of a number of strongly felt views that I hear at my neighbours’. The strong opiners are all women. Wadeye is a place where I will encounter forthright opinions delivered by a number of strong women. Unfortunately, this cadre of Strong Women in Wadeye is all white.

I do come across one exception. Outside the store, I pass an aged lady. The lady has long white hair that falls to her shoulders like a nun’s wimple. Her face is a map of desert country, her spine is bent forward and to her left. As a result her gait is slow and spidery, her legs propelling her forward while her head and body face left. In the old measure, she’d be well under five foot tall.

It is not her physiognomy that strikes me so much as her expression of obdurate resolution: she knows what needs to be done and she will do it.

She leans on a stick as she walks and she holds the hand of a very small child, leading her, pulling her past the store with its blandishments, through the thronging idlers and smokers and the cool teens with attitude. All these make way for the old lady and her charge. The two proceed in the direction of the Women’s Centre. 

The Women’s Centre is a revelation. Here, women weave mats and baskets in traditional materials and paint and print in gloriously untraditional media. Beneath soaring rooves of galvanized iron, vast sheets of bold printed cloth hang from beams. Prints of great beauty hang on the walls.

All of this is the work of local women, some of whom are away at present, in residence at Bachelor College, where they are learning advanced printing and silk painting techniques.

The work takes me by surprise, its beauty and its ambition and – it’s not too much to say, its grandeur – all belie the sheer ordinariness of the building’s exterior. It is a tin shed. And it is a treasure house.

“But, some of the artists are too scared to come here” – thus the director, my neighbour of last night – “sometimes their menfolk are jealous and keep them away.”

“Why would they be jealous?”

“Their women gain confidence and independence here. They keep fifty percent of any sales. Some men resent that. They keep their women away through fear.” 

***

V: COLA

My house is the residence of the local doctor, whom I’m covering while he takes a short break. He’s been here for two years. Before leaving for his holiday, he speaks about the outstations here: “The people in these small outlying family clusters are an Aboriginal aristocracy. They are traditional owners – T.O.’s they’re called – with unchallengeable land rights. They choose to go and live in ‘cultural purity’, untainted by the corruption of the town.”  

He speaks softly, choosing words carefully, using them sparingly. He looks into the middle distance as he speaks, a small smile playing about his mouth as if he knows that any interlocutor is likely to jump to refute or trump him. Two years out here have prepared him for the cauldron of ‘expert’ opinion that prevails on everything indigenous. 

The doctor makes his observation. He smiles his smile and says: ”Pardon my cynicism.” In fact he is not cynical but the opposite – he keeps open eyes and an open mind.

Wadeye is said to be the largest Aboriginal town in the Territory. There are three thousand people here – some say more than that – of whom two hundred are Whitefellas. Three thousand people is a sizable population. I’ve lived in much smaller towns than this. And it is growing, the average age is young; soon they will number four thousand.

In the sunlit streets, there is a general dawdling. No-one over the age of five moves with alacrity. The elderly and infirm move slowly, so too the able-bodied, adult and child alike. No-one is in a hurry. What is more, no-one is going anywhere.

In this young town, kids are everywhere, the small ones skinny of limb, round of face, the teenagers tall and lean, all in AFL uniform. The uniform is footy club merchandise – hats worn back to front, oversized sleeveless shirts – all in shabby synthetics. The apparel of the teenagers of Wadeye is made of the cheapest materials out of China. The fabric is mean stuff, no cottons, no wool, every stitch of it authentic synthetic.

Hawthorn club colours are prevalent here. (Someone, I am sure, some sad and sour spirit must have woken from a bad dream and come up with the Hawthorn colours of drab yellow and drear brown. That someone – probably a Richmond supporter – imposed the colours on the club he most disliked.) 

I digress here for a purpose: the mournful autumn colours, powdered in red-brown dust, bespeak a state of desiccation, of life attenuated, of the draining away of sap. In Wadeye even the most vivid of footy shirts, the scarlet on white of the Swans, is dusty and spiritless.

Although we are in school hours, hundreds of children linger around the entrances of the supermarket and the takeaway. While school is open, children are not admitted to the shops. But they appear answerable to no-one for their absence from school. 

There is an abiding passivity. Three thousand people live here. I locate the hairdresser’s shop. It has closed down. The gym is barred closed. The town has no taxi, no drycleaner, no internet café, no café of any sort. In this verdant coastal  wetland no-one  markets or processes fish, no-one runs an orchard or a market garden. 

In two weeks in the community, I fail to identify a single Indigenous enterprise. 

A spasm of energy on the main street. Two teenage boys and a younger brother erupt in a flurry of activity. A splash of rainbow colours moves up, down, sideways between their stomping feet. A parrot, its plumage glorious in its emeralds and turquoise and ruby, is desperately trying to evade three young hunters. Six quick feet, six fast hands, contend with two flashing wings. A foot stamps, feathers float to the footpath, the bird takes flight, but winged, it circles into the hand of one of the bigger boys. 

What will follow? I lack the stomach to watch. I look away.

Above me, a pair of parrots, swooping and swerving towards a high tree, scream the news to the congregation of parrots. Ruby, turquoise, emerald, flash and squawk vividly. 

A moment passes and torpor descends upon the street once more.

I walk the sad streets and the passivity overtakes me. I am in the slough of despond. After three days, I call my brother back in the city, down south. I tell him what I see. He catches the pain in my voice. Desperate, he shouts into the phone: “Why don’t they fix it?” 

I explain, wearily, almost apologetically, that they try, that we try; that none of us knows how to “fix it”, that we cannot fix it; and that we do not know how to desist from trying.

My brother sounds sorry. He has caught the sound of a pain that is not really my own, but which I have appropriated.

***

VI: HUNGER

I am taken by the body habitus of the locals. No-one is fat. The small children delight the eye. Human miniatures, everything about them is small excepting for large smiles and abundant hair. Their adolescent siblings are slender and erect. They flow in movement, poetic, delicate. 

It is difficult to behold the young of Wadeye without a shock of delight. But a cruel reality hides behind the beauty.

In the shops people line up at the checkout. At the checkout they set down their groceries – frozen meat (the coast is close but no fish is sold here), bags of white bread, packets of chips, bags of white flour, bags of sugar, bottles of drink. While I wait I count the cola buyers: five out of every six customers buy cola drinks. The store sells all types of sugary soft drinks as well as diet drinks. But the full sugar cola, the authentic one in its classic livery, remains the overwhelming favourite.

Frequently the customer’s plastic card lacks the funds to pay for all the goods. The purchaser then returns items one by one until the card can accommodate the total on the tab. I stand in line behind her and watch as a mother sets aside staples – bread, meat – but not the cola. Never the cola.

Why then are the people so slim? How can this community achieve such enviable body shape? Despite the sugary drink from America, Wadeye people are skinny.

The answer is infant starvation.

This is not my opinion. In fact it is no-one’s opinion. It is declared as manifest fact by nurses, by teachers, by community workers – all of them women – all angered by starvation on our own shores. They speak of a literal food chain where children do not sit high. 

A senior teacher explains: “Some of these kids get no reliable feeding except at school. We feed them breakfast, morning tea and a cooked lunch. That’s the main reason school attendance here is so high.”
“How high is it?”

“Thirty percent. Nine hundred kids are enrolled and on any given day three hundred come to school.”

Food for thought. On these figures the majority misses school. But thirty-three percent attend ‘on any given day’. 

(For some reason the bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to my mind. In the story, Abraham pleads with God to spare the wicked city of Sodom for the sake of its few righteous people. God will save the city if there be as few as ten righteous there.  

Could it be that Wadeye will be saved by its thirty-three percent?)

“Who comes to school? What age groups?”

“All ages – from five to twenty-one. Some will come one day, some another. One will come for an entire week, then disappear for weeks. Sometimes I’ll notice that one of my regular girls hasn’t been here for a while and I’ll enquire, ‘Where’s Josie?’ And her friends will say: ‘Josie has a boyfriend.’  From that I am to understand that Josie’s schooling is over. The girls stop coming to school as soon as they have a boyfriend.”

VII: AT THE SCHOOL

I arrange to visit the school. I want to see what happens at a school where the way to a person’s mind is through his stomach. It is the senior children whose lunchtime I witness. These children are 12 to 15 years old, not yet married, not yet matriculated into a couple or to coupling. 

The food looks nourishing and appetizing. The kids line up, each holding a bowl. Cooked white rice is dolloped into the bowl, then a lashing of chicken curry. Every child receives starch, fat, protein and flavour. After this they eat sliced orange segments. 

There is order here. Children wait their turn, they line up, many are coaxed into saying ‘thankyou’ audibly. According to Teacher Betty, a forthright idealist, this is one of the longer sentences in English she’ll hear from her students.

I ask Betty: ”How many of your senior class can converse in English?”

“None. Perhaps one. Sentences are one word.”

After lunch every student scrapes waste into the bin. A monitor, selected for the task for some recent infraction, washes the dishes while another delinquent wipes down the tables with studied accuracy. All this takes place under the hard, clear eye of Magdalena, who might be the Vice Principal. Magdalena says she is fifty percent Serbian and fifty percent Scottish. I watch her in action: she is one hundred percent tough love.

Magdalena informs me that I am to return tomorrow to give the senior boys and the senior girls a health talk. Separately.

I will comply.

Next day, when I arrive in the boys’ classroom an AFL footballer is talking to them. ”Now if you write down your sentence about footy on the entry form, you’ll go into the draw for a brand new Sherrin. That’s worth a lot of money.” 

He talks on a little. The kids talk across him. He is a detail. The pupils and the athlete do not meet. 

If a real genuine footballer from Richmond doesn’t get through, I don’t expect I’ll do better.

Magdalena wants me to teach them about sexual health. The rivers of venereal pus flow deep and broad up here (as they do back in the whitefella south). If one-word sentences are to be the go here, that one word would be condom.

I walk to the front of the class. The Whitefella teacher introduces me. The boys take no notice: Pandemonium fights with Apathy. Apathy wins. One boy, seated immediately beneath my nose, keeps his back to me. I am getting the John Howard treatment. Is it because of my name?

The teacher retreats and returns with reinforcements. His reinforcers are two Aboriginal men, one in his forties, the other in his fifties. They stand at opposite sides of the class and berate the boys. And berate them. And berate them again.

During a lull in the berating, I make to start. More roaring from the berators; I’ve jumped the gun. I wait, and after fully fifteen minutes of laying down the law, the older man nods. I may begin.

What should I tell them? I decide to ask them what they want to know. “What do you want to know about sex?”

Silence.

I ask the question in sign language. This is a hit. I have chosen a sign that bridges the seven languages of Wadeye and trounces the Queen’s English. 

Uproar. Pandemonium beats Apathy pants down.

The berators quieten the class.

The school is called OLSH. I decode this. It means “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.” It is against school policy, it seems, to use the word condom. From my bag I draw a banana. I have a condom from the clinic supply. The condom is black. I produce a banana, purchased by means of a Personal Loan. I have their attention now. I apply the condom to the banana. I do not speak of contraception, not of respect for women, nor of responsibility. Instead I say: ”This one” (indicating the condom) “keeps this one” (indicating the central part of the front of my pants) “strong. When you put on this one (pointing again to the condom), that one (pointing at my pants front) doesn’t get germs.  Stays strong.” 

Now I pull out a red can of cola and a bottle of water. “Which one is the healthy one?”

“Water!” – in one voice.

“What’s wrong with the red one?” – I ask.

“Sugar!”

To which I add: “If you drink the red one every day, you can get diabetes. If you get diabetes, one day, this one (indicating the same area at the front of my pants) is not strong. Doesn’t work. No sex. Never – no sex.”

A pause for dramatic effect. 

“Too much red one – no sex.”

A voice from one of the bigger boys, addressing the body of the class, not the guest: “I drink the red one. Do plenty sex.”

So much for my attempt to improve sexual health among the boys who will be men in Wadeye. 

“Without a change in male behaviour, women will contract their men’s diseases endlessly.” Thus the women’s health doctor, a tall tawny lady like a great dane, who pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, especially not from this southern pipsqueak. I ask a question – “What if a woman were to say ‘If it’s not on, it’s not on’”? 

This isn’t an assertion, not an opinion, just a diffident question – and the doctor jabs the air at me as she gives me THE FACTS. “Women here are completely objectified. They could never demand that their partner use a condom. They mightn’t even be asked for consent. They have no power. It is the men who have to change!”

Back at the school, I visit the girls’ senior class. The girls sit in ladylike stillness, a larger group than the boys, all attentive. They too are copping a double-barrelled berating. Teacher Betty is giving it to her class for being so rude as to keep their guest (Doctor Howard) waiting. Magdalena is foaming about the girls teasing a schizophrenic man who wanders onto the campus in search of girls. This is a tricky one.

After the berations it is my turn. I anticipate that the girls will not want to hear from me – a male, a Whitefella, and old – about sexual health. Instead I produce four bottles – one of water, one of orange juice, one of full-sugar cola, the last a sugar-free cola.

I ask them to grade the bottles for goodness. Perfect silence from the young ladies. I reiterate the question, breaking it down to its elements. No response.

They are not talking; I have their attention. But they are shy.

So I tell them that the sugary drink is bad. “This one is a death drink.” I am careful not to use the language of a previous doctor who called sugary cola “Black Death.”

He was asked to leave the community.

Of course, I believe he was right in fact and right in imagery: sugar kills far more people here than alcohol; and far more insidiously than death in custody. He spoke up, spoke too bluntly.

That doctor has gone. People in Wadeye still queue daily for their prized sugary drinks. What will it take, I wonder, for the community elders to ban them? To replace them with the sugar-substitute drinks? The same people who banned alcohol from Wadeye acted then with courage and resolution. Why not ban sugary drinks?

People would still be able to feed their caffeine habit; diabetes might decline. Life expectancy might soar above the figure (forty seven years) I was quoted when I arrived. 

I want to leave the girls with something useful, something that can help them when they matriculate to boyfriends. Magdalena passes me a piece of paper on which she has written: NO CONDOMS!!!

This is OLSH. I am forbidden here to talk about contraception. Bananas and condoms are out of the question. What will I talk about? Then it hits me – sex is secret. It is secrets that I must talk about. Standing next to me is Roxanne, the Sexual Health Nurse, who has come with me from the clinic. 

I start: “A woman’s body is her secret. I cannot talk about that secret. The nurse – pointing to Roxanne – can talk about it. She knows secret things. She can see you alone, at the clinic, with the door closed. She will keep your secrets.”

The girls seem to be listening. I want to talk about sex, about consent, about feelings, and of course I cannot.

I continue: “Sometimes a boy wants sex with a girl and she doesn’t want it. Maybe he does it anyway. He makes her do sex. Then that girl can see the nurse about those secret things. 

Maybe a boy hurts a girl, maybe she gets sick in her woman’s parts, inside her body. The nurse knows about all those secret things. 

If a woman wants a baby, the nurse can help. If she doesn’t want a baby yet – maybe she is too young – the nurse can help her. 

At the clinic. 

All that secret business.”

I’ve finished. Three women are nodding emphatically, meaningfully.  The three are Teacher Betty, Magdalena and Lucy, the activities officer. The schoolgirls have been polite and attentive. I cannot know whether I have been useful or just another old Whitefella who comes, speaks incomprehensibly and goes away.

VIII: THE LAST COMING HOME

The oldest nurse is a lady named Wendy. She addresses her workmates in our clinic: ”Lesley is flying back to the community tomorrow. She’s coming home to die.” 

The nurse’s face is soft and round and sad, but you can see the daughter of a smile at its edges. It is a face that doesn’t show the years. 

Wendy knows that there are worse things than dying. She knows her job, which is to gentle Lesley’s passing.

This oldest nurse is a veteran. She has worked in remote places all around the country, often long stints, frequently as director of nursing. 

Our patient, Lesley, is well known to this remote clinic. She has a long, long love affair with alcohol. She has loved the grog and the life in the long grass, loved the commonwealth of drinkers, the open air, loved the grasses that concealed and sheltered and welcomed her.

Nurse Wendy tells me: “You can lie in that long grass and it will form a canopy over you, shading you and keeping the strong winds off.”

When Lesley’s kidneys failed some years ago, the hospital doctors explained that a dialysis machine would do the job her kidneys could no longer do. The machine would keep her alive. She would need to visit the hospital three times a week.

This suited Lesley well. She’d visit the city for dialysis, and between treatments she’d return to her long grass friends and to her lover, the bottle.  

She’d often miss her dialysis treatments. Then fluid would build up in her body and make her sick. Fluid would fill her feet and legs first, then her abdomen, finally her lungs. At some stage in the rising tide, Lesley would surface, sometimes at the hospital, other times back in the community, and the doctors and the nurses would race to her rescue with their kidney machine and save her from drowning. 

It got to the point where they’d fly Lesley in from Wadeye to the city for her familiar emergency, and she’d get off the plane, bypass the hospital and go straight to the long grass. 

Lesley’s community decided to go dry: no alcohol. Home didn’t suit her anymore, so she spent less and less time in her own country and more and more in town with the grog. Instead of routine dialysis three times a week, Lesley would turn up at the Renal Unit once in a few weeks, sometimes only once a month.

At the Unit, the nurses and doctors were frustrated and amazed. With her tiny surviving kidney function, Lesley should have been dead. Many times she nearly was dead. Sometimes they thought she’d die right there, on the end of the needle, through which they were injecting lasix and rizonium and other hero molecules, with all their anxious, exacting care.

Nurse Wendy resumes: “The hospital phoned today. I spoke for a long time to Lesley’s kidney doctor. She said the Unit decided last week they would not treat Lesley again, not until and unless she’d attend a family meeting. And Lesley and her family would have to commit to dialysis.

“Apparently that meeting never took place last week, not until today. Lesley came in again last night, near-dead. This time she has kidney failure and heart failure and pneumonia and a septic infection in her blood.

So the family and Lesley and the hospital people had their meeting earlier today.”

“The meeting included me as well as family in Darwin and her relatives back in the community. We did it by teleconference. There were sixty people in the meeting, some leaving, others coming in. More than sixty people close to Lesley listened and spoke.

The meeting was all ready to start when Lesley said she wanted a smoke. She struggled to her feet and took tiny frail steps to the wheelchair. They took her outside and she smoked her fag. She loves a smoke.”

“Back inside again, Lesley spoke. On the screen you could see how swollen she was with fluid, rattling and gasping her few words before taking a long time to catch her breath and talk again. 

But she was quite clear in her mind. When the doctor told her she was critically ill and that she could not be cured, she said she understood. 

The doctor said only she, Lesley, could save herself. Lesley knew she was not going to change. 

She understands this means she is going to die.

She is ready. She accepts the decision. In reality the decision was hers. 

At the end of the meeting, family members in the hospital room came and stood close. Most touched her. Young mothers lifted toddlers to kiss Lesley’s lips.”

“In the last year or so, Lesley has been more peaceable. Before that she’d fight us. She’d spit and shout. Now she’s calm.”

The nurse’s face glows with feeling, with reconciliation. She sees before her the dying of an old struggle that became a partnership and ends as a friendship.  

The nurse lifts her face, and looks at her workmates for a few moments. She is composing her thoughts, separating them from her feelings. There are practical steps she will have to take, things which we all need to know. 

“Lesley is coming home. She needs to be home, among her people. Her husband Gerald says he’s prepared to look after her. The hospital has explained to him what he’ll be facing. He understands what it will be like.

The hospital has chartered a plane to bring her home. The family have morphine mixture for Lesley’s pain and for the feeling of panic when she can’t breathe.”

”The kidney doctor thinks we won’t have to wait for kidney failure to kill Lesley. She thinks the toxins from her blood infection will take her first. Maybe within a day or two. 

The daughter of a smile on Nurse Wendy’s face is is now full grown: ”Then again, Lesley being Lesley, she might live for a week or longer.”

***

The next morning, Lesley’s plane arrives. During the afternoon Nurse Wendy and I visit Lesley at home. I’m familiar with the clamorous grieving of Aboriginal families, but I cannot imagine what a house will be like with sixty close relatives waiting for a death.

We walk down the slope to a house of contemporary design. Curious angles, plenty of shade, interesting colours, a house fabricated of metal. Nothing here speaks of welfare housing, nothing organic either. Nothing grows in the grounds: no-one is raising a garden here. Cheeky dogs stir and follow us, sniffing.

I follow Nurse Wendy inside. The front room is quiet, nearly empty. On our right as we enter is a low, narrow bunk. On our left there is a small flat-screen TV that speaks in incessant banal English to a near empty room. Lesley lies quietly on the bunk. She does not move. Is she alive? 

A silent toddler plays here, attempting to assassinate a cardboard carton. A portly grand-daughter, perhaps fifteen years of age, possibly the mother of the toddler, glides into the room as we enter. She carries the bottle of morphine mixture and confers with Nurse Wendy about dosage. 

Of the husband Gerald who ‘will care for Lesley’ there is no sign.   

Lesley stirs. She recognizes Wendy, wants to converse with her, pulls the nurse’s mouth close to her deaf ears. Lesley’s grasp is vigorous. She props herself into half-sitting, a difficult posture. She breathes normally, no crackling or frothing of lung fluid. Lesley conducts a negotiation with me: she wants the complicated central venous line removed from the great vein in her chest. This, the hospital had previously refused to do, reckoning it to offer nought but the chance of uncontrollable bleeding. I am not Lesley’s regular doctor; I temporize, speaking words that are not strictly untrue; but my intention is to deceive: “Lesley, Doctor Morton will be back in a few days. He knows your case. You should ask him about this.” 

Lesley’s mind, although narcotized beyond fear, remains clear enough to accept the compromise. Does she see through my lie? 

The weekend is here; Lesley has been home three days. I will see her next week. She looks far from an imminent death. 

The weekend passes but Lesley does not.

When I visit again it is her fifth day out of hospital, her fifth in the care of the young woman I saw last week. 

We approach the house solemnly, ready for Death’s preliminaries, the coma, the rattling of final jerky breaths, the terrible look of a face that does not know itself, a body struggling without a mind, the last battle before the final peace. 

Cheeky dogs lying in the shade do not stir. Not cheeky today. We cross the threshold into the quiet room. As we enter, a young woman with a babe at the breast slides silently away. Another enters, stands at Lesley’s bedside, face turned to the old nurse.

Wendy takes Lesley’s wrist in her hand. The arm is slender, still shapely for all its withered flesh. Wendy is feeling for the volume of the pulse, its rate and rhythm, the warmth of the limb, the tone of her muscles. And she is giving her touch, that intimacy of woman to woman, so much the story of Wendy’s forty years as a nurse.

Wendy speaks into Lesley’s hard ear. “Are you comfortable, Lesley?” No words from Lesley, but her head lifts and she gazes long into the nurse’s face. What will pass between the women?  

I am glad for the nurse’s confident intimacy. The proximity of death calls for something in those professionals who come close, a something that I always fear I will lack.

After some moments Lesley’s gaze empties, becomes drained of intent. Lesley had roused herself to register Wendy’s presence. The effort has exhausted her strength and she sinks back now into Death’s antechamber. No fighting for breath, no fever, no cough.

Gerald has materialized at Lesley’s side. His face is opaque, his bearing gentle. He stands at his woman’s side, erect, silent, stationary, a rock or a tree in Wendy’s country.

Wendy has outlasted her pneumonia and outwitted her sepsis. Her ‘dead’ kidneys have made a trickle of urine that looks like gravy.

We came here for a death. It has not been admitted. Death must await its day.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

IX: COUNTRY 

It is Sunday and the clinic is closed. Early in the morning, Jonathan and I go for a run. Jonathan is a fit fifty year old Englishman, responsible for maintenance at the school. He certainly maintains himself in working order. He leads me on quiet tracks out of town, away from the pack dogs. The red dirt is firm but yielding underfoot. The forest is green around us. Leaf meal and sticks lie everywhere. They crunch with our footfalls, setting to flight feeding wallabies. Some stand about a metre tall, on their toes. Others are diminutive. In the light of early morning their skin is grey with a hint of green. “Agile Wallabies”, says Jonathan. Little taller than chickens, they are the most graceful movers I’ve seen in the bush.

We turn a bend and a noisy languorous flapping overhead makes us look up. A body length from us, an eagle takes reluctantly to the air.

The sense of privilege, the feeling of blessed good fortune is intense. Among all Australia’s twenty-plus millions, this beauty, this pristine harmonious forest, is ours alone.

We run on and on, now up and up. We reach Airforce Hill and climb to the peak. Here a wartime radar station protected northern Australia from attack. No harmony then. The view rewards us. Three hundred and sixty degrees of forest, sea, sky. Of isolation.

In its isolation Wadeye is paradoxically a hopeful place. Just as in the incapacity of its young people with English there resides the germ of a cultural vitality.

The less English, the better local languages can survive. The greater the isolation, the less the cultural contamination. In all its backwardness, might not Wadeye hold on better to its culture?

I try, without success, to take the cultural pulse in Wadeye. Sometimes at the bedside of a patient I’ll feel for a pulse and be unable to locate it. I move my finger higher up the wrist, then lower; I press down a little softer, a mite harder. No pulse. On the opposite wrist, I grope without success. But the patient is smiling at me, talking, manifestly alive.

Just so with the pulse of culture. As Nicolas Rothwell confides:” You might look about for ceremony and find none. That might mean there is none, or it might mean the opposite.”

I realise that the seers and the men of degree and the healers of Wadeye are not rushing to show themselves to me, to share their secrets. Why should they? What have I done to earn that trust, that honour? Rothwell assures me that Wadeye is richly, intensely alive with intact spiritual practice. He concedes that the community’s backwardness could be its salvation. In the spiritual sense.

I recall the papers down south, declaring, “The elders have lost all respect”. Really? 

We want to visit the beach. At every hand, everyone we ask – Whitefellas and Blackfellas alike – all say, “You better ask permission. Find Leon and ask him. He’s the owner of that beach.”

The clinic staff want to initiate new community health policies. “We’ll need to talk to Boniface. It’s his land.”

I’ve been here for twelve days and twelve nights. On the third night, I heard a lot of wild boy noise, but next day we treated no-one for injuries. By the time my twelve days have passed, I realize that I have not seen or treated a single person for human-inflicted injury. And I haven’t seen a single intoxicated person. 

In a community of three thousand or so, it’s un-Australian.

It is the ‘disrespected, disempowered’ elders who have negotiated the prolonged armistice between the gangs, just as it was they who decided that Wadeye would be a dry community.

***

On the Sunday, I follow directions given by my running companion. I drive with some colleagues and my guest for the weekend – a rabbi who wants to learn his country – to ‘the waterfall’. I look down from the vehicle to the meagre stream that meanders in shallows between rocks, beneath and beyond the bridge. We park and beat back bushes on a narrow track that winds down to the falls.  The ‘falls’ look unimposing. Was ever a smaller flow of water dignified with the title ’waterfall’?

Thinking wary crocodile thoughts, we regard the plunge pool beneath the falls. I decide I will not swim. But crocodiles do not inhabit waterfalls, so someone told me. So I climb back up the track and descend into the falling water. 

There are any number of footholds and handholds within the falls and the water plays around my neck and shoulders, over my head, and on to my stiff old runner’s spine, and I am receiving a massage in nature’s Jaccuzzi.

The waters are clean and gloriously warm, carrying heat that they absorbed from the rocks that they caressed, as they meandered towards the falls.

All five of us find niches and luxuriate in the falling water.

A feeling overtakes me of extreme pleasure. 

Ambushed by this delight, in this secret place of humble, simple pleasures, I splash and move aging joints against the small torrent. 

I recognize this joy. I am like my newborn grandson as he splashes and kicks and squeals in his bath. 

At sundown my friends and I return to the peak of Airforce Hill. As the light mellows, the leaves dance in the gentle air, now emerald, now light green, now golden, ever aflutter. Far below, below the canopy of honey-green, lean tree trunks reach down, down to their foothold in the sloping earth. 

The distant sea is flat, pale, a misty mirror. An inlet winds its silvery way inland to a landing stage far below. The wetlands stretch out and glow with abundance. The living land and the living waters are still. The sun bleeds into the horizon, staining the ever-smoky air in spectacular blood reds.

There is quiet. My companions and I are visited by a deep peacefulness. 

The rabbi and I recite our afternoon prayer and give thanks.

We five hail from different corners of the world, from Nigeria, from Zimbabwe, from Adelaide and Leeton. We are guests here. Soon we will leave. Little is our understanding of Wadeye, but today we learn one big true thing, that this land, this swamp, is rich and beautiful, a place of treasure, a sacred place. 

We five are foreign, here at the pleasure of the owners.

X: UNTIL DEATH

Outback Australia is the Land of Marriage’s End.

All over the outback, I work with veteran nurses and doctors and community workers, people who devote careers to Indigenous wellbeing. Few of them are there with spouses. Most are dismarried, half-married or never yet married. I wonder at the personal cost of their work.

For some, of course, remote work is not the cause but the remedy for a lost marriage. One of these tells me: ”I came outback to recover myself. I needed work and quiet. I needed to find a purpose. I did and ten years later, I’m still here.”

There are intact couples, most of them younger. They will never dismarry, if only because they are ‘partners’, not spouses. Most of the young ones are tasting outback life for a few months, perhaps a year. They will leave in time, before their union corrodes. 

Love might wither, relationships crumble, but I see no sign that motivation wears out. My outback colleagues, perhaps alone among Whitefella Australians, somehow create an enduring marriage of perfect realism to constant respect for the first people of the country.

XI: ONE BIG TRUE THING

It is my final morning. I go for a run before work. I take the dogfree trail leading out of town into the bush. The track winds between the trees. Ancient vehicles lie half-hidden, wheels upward, like so many dead cockroaches, rusting in the enveloping green. 

I round the bend of last weekend’s Agile Wallabies. There they are again, bouncing into air, bounding silkily away, weaving untraceable paths in the undergrowth. Now the eagle flaps into flight, does a lazy circuit and allows me to pass. 

I am the guest of this country, a happy and blessed visitor. I turn and run back.

My visit has been brief. Apathy, endemic, assailled me, but the circumambient life redeems me. 

The children at school radiate energy. Even the  Fight Club congregation carries its energy, all curled up, held latent: I fight,therefore I am.

The land, its waters, its gleaming flora, the leap and soar of animal and bird, these leave me uplifted.

And its people who know One Big True Thing, live here and know their own land.


5 thoughts on “Flying to Wadeye

  1. Thank you Howard for sharing your experiences of 12 days in Wadeye. I am moved to tears for the plight of the youth, yet somehow you still carry hope in that big heart of yours. And thank you for introducing us to the people who live and work in this community. And thank you for the beautiful descriptive language of the surrounding country.

    Like

  2. I could not stop reading. My wonder of it told through a whitemans eyes…. All seemed wrong, not easy to stomach, yet your deep regard for the human spirit set out here in this 12 days. I salute what you took into your heart.

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    • Anna, you are a faithful reader and a believer

      i will reconsider, as you suggest

      i don’t know what appetite there is for this…

      Like

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