How can I explain to you what it was like at Mäpuru. This is possibly one of the most difficult things I have had to do. There is so much that language cannot begin to explain and if I try, it is as if I will do an injustice to the experience. If I begin to try, I will no doubt categorize and quantify something that fits into a realm that is diminished by such an interpretation.
One of the most interesting parts of the trip was being able to gain a very slight understanding of Yolngu culture and the way they perceive the world. I realised what a huge part language plays in how people relate to the world, other people and their relationship with place.
One night around the fire John was talking to us about Yolngu language and counting.
Yolngu don’t actually quantify much. Rather things are measured (if measure is the right word) by relationships. Yolngu languages counts to two, and after that there is few, some, many and heaps. That is all. When Yolngu people explain distances, they don’t talk in numbers; rather, they talk in relationships to that land. For example, our land, their peoples land and those people beyond their peoples land and so on. I was so struck by this. Western discourse assumes rationalisation and quantification are the only ways to make sense of the world. From this it is evident that our language restricts the way we can perceive and make sense of things.
But I digress; my intention was not to provide you with a philosophical rant about language. I will start the rest of this story at the beginning.
From Darwin it took us 2 days on a long and dusty corrugated road to get to Mäpuru. We camped our first night on the side of the Arnhem Highway, road trains roaring past. From our campfire, beyond the Woolly Butt trees, we looked out over the escarpment. Behind us in the western sky, the moon was an impossible sliver, our city eyes struck by the starry sky. I began to feel my thoughts sink into my heart.
The next day we turn off the red highway with rivers reaching to the top of our tyres, onto a track that takes us north. Three boys from Mäpuru have caught a lift home with us from Darwin. Lionel sits in the front with me, directing me across the bumps with simple had gestures. No words are spoken.
At Mäpuru we spend most of our days under the weaving shelter, the women guiding our stiff hands with smiles and a gentle “yo… yo” (yes). I sit next to Linda, it is impossible to tell how old she is, she could be anywhere between 50 and 70, her hands are long and strong with large curved nails hardened by stripping pandanus. Her hands alone seem to tell a whole story shaped by how she uses them.
One day we go to the mangroves fishing and collecting worms. I follow the women through the mud carefully navigating the roots of the mangroves which they break up to pull out the mangrove worms. They taste a little like oysters if they are small.
Other days we collect pandanus for stripping and “colour” for dying. But what is most memorable about the trip are the little conversations we have with the women, the smiles and the strong hands.
In a quiet moment I tell Roslyn about CERES. I explain how the park in the middle of the city was once a rubbish tip and how it has now been regenerated into food gardens and native bush providing employment, environmental education and a place for the community. I tell her of the return of the Kingfisher and the Platypus in the area. It’s a lovely story to share together because we realise we are seeking the same thing – to look after country and people.
Many times over the course of our stay, Roslyn sweeps her hands in front of her saying, “this is our dream, this here.”
I had been struggling to explain what it was that was so special about the women of Mäpuru, until one day under the shelter. I was sitting next to John, trying to explain what I felt. We both had tears in our eyes when he said, “it is grace, these women are full of grace”. And that is exactly it.
When we leave, there are big warm strong hugs. Roslyn starts crying when I hug her and says, I will miss you my waku (a mother’s child – my kinship relationship to her). I tell her I will be back in a week with the next CERES trip and new visitors. She laughs and says, “I will miss you waku”.
Story by Sophie Edwards