There are moments that, four months on, I remember vividly from Mäpuru in June 2011.
Mangrove mud oozing between my toes, the women’s colourful baskets swaying in the wind and Linda’s thumbs up when I’d finally understood how to weave a dilly-bag. Then there was the happy gurgle of baby Tiesha as she was passed between the Mäpuru women and girls, the sudden cackle of laughter underneath the paperbark shelter and the echo of dozens of kids singing ‘my island goaty-oaty-oaty-oaty-oat’ from the school building.
I am grateful for the generosity of the Mäpuru women in taking the time to teach our hodgepodge group of balanda (Western) women about Yolŋu culture.
Our group was made up of a wonderful array of ladies, mostly from Melbourne and Sydney. We quickly got to know each other within the first two days, travelling by troopie across Arnhem Land. While it was sometimes challenging, I would never dream of trading the drive for a flight. The country was beautiful, the trip gave me time to breathe and it was good fun digging the vehicle out of the umpteenth bog, covered in mud, singing muddy songs. Still, it was a relief to be greeted by Angeline and some of the men and boys an hour from the homeland.
I think most of our group was a little nervous the first couple of days, chatting busily and asking lots of questions…the way that we are used to communicating. But over the days a quiet calm gradually wove its way under the hut. It felt comfortable to be silent, sitting next to each other. I was alone with my own thoughts and still connected with the women around me.
Over the week we wove day and night, swam in the crystal-clear waterholes, helped out in the school and ate buffalo. I was adopted by Marceil -my sister or yapa- who I hope to meet again over the coming years.
Clara leading the way to the mangroves, where we went fishing and ate mangrove worms.
The Mäpuru women and girls shared with us their culture: how to fish, be still, collect pandanus and weave with the stripped, dyed and dried leaves. I left with an appreciation of the depth of knowledge that these women hold.
There is a depth of meaning and interconnectedness in every thought and decision that is both beautiful and hard to grasp. It was only when I spoke to a friend (who had done the men’s group) that I realised I had made a mistake. Margaret had indicated that I should weave with yellow then green, yellow then green and so on. I didn’t understand why she seemed disappointed with me when, on a whim, I decided to include a band of white pandanus. I didn’t know that the women choose your colour carefully, thoughtfully, based on your character, your relationship with your adopted sister, mother, grandmother etc.
I recently heard Wade Davis, the ‘explorer in residence’ at National Geographic, remark that all of his travels have taught him one thing: that the wealth of community is best measured not on physical possessions, but on the cohesion and harmony of the group. I felt the sense of belonging and care at Mäpuru: from the way that Tiesha was held to how food was shared with all.
I also learnt what it means to be strong. I fancied myself as a fairly capable, resilient young country woman until I heard some of the ladies’ stories. In the 1960’s Elder community members had cleared the airstrip by hand. There were no bulldozers, wheelbarrows, graders or heavy machinery. Instead they had cleared the trees from the airstrip with axes, removing stumps with iron bars and, to fill holes, they had carried soil from the creeks on paper bark sheets. I imagine it also took considerable strength of spirit to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and establish a school that respects and strengthens Yolŋu culture.
I have many funny memories from the week at Mäpuru. Balanda women digging the troopy out, covered from toes to tonsils in mud; playing games around the campfire and Linda laughing at my re-enactment of a cane toad’s unceremonious death and then acting out her own amphibious story. When I ate a latjin (mangrove worm) without squeezing the mud from its bowels, learning quickly from my mistake (Yolŋu education is refreshing, empowering and truly heuristic). Then there was one afternoon when Danielle, the lovely balanda teacher, looked up mid-explanation and inadvertently began teaching a Mäpuru lady a Yolŋu word. There was a moment of confusion and then everyone burst into laughter. And finally, I remember noticing some of the young girls shaking their bodies and making strange noises, suddenly realising that they were mimicking my laugh! Brilliant.
The trip was supported by a number of non-Indigenous people. Sass, from CERES, was an incredibly selfless and perceptive group facilitator. Bojan and Meg drove the troopies from dawn til dusk. John Greatorex was patient and generous, both with his time (helping us travel to and from the homelands in one piece) and with this knowledge, answering our questions with diplomacy and kindness. Linda and Danielle were wonderful company and helped everyone to feel at ease.
Finally, I thought I might share a gentle lesson I learnt on letting go.
One afternoon, I was helping Roslyn to strip the pandanus that we had helped to collect. Characteristically, I was determined to do a good job, perfect even. I sat with Roslyn, the ever-kind and motherly Yolŋu teacher, as she showed me how to gently, firmly separate the fibres: “like this (bend, halve, strip), like this (bend, halve, strip), like this…” It looked easy enough. But I continuously split the fibre (too thick, then too thin), rendering the whole strip useless.
I apologised, “Argh! Roslyn, I’m sorry. I keep wrecking them!” I felt frustrated and guilty for ruining the pandanus; pandanus that had taken some time to collect and prepare.
Roslyn touched my hand and, without realising the significance of her kind response, said simply, “it’s okay, you’re just learning.”
I feel I have much to learn…about Yolŋu culture, Indigenous issues closer to home, how to comprehend what has happened in the past and to understand my part in what is happening now. The Arnhem Weaving women and girls shared their knowledge with such love and generosity. It still makes me smile thinking about Mapuru: Linda and Margaret and the girls teaching me how to weave, Roslyn enfolding me in her bosom when I was saying goodbye and the manymak balanda women who I was fortunate enough to share the Arnhem Weaving trip with.
Photos from Camilla Strang and Loredana