Matthia Dempsey was invited to accompany several members of the publishing industry on a recent visit to some of the schools involved in the book industry’s Indigenous Literacy Project. She shares some of her trip diary here.
Like many visitors to the Kimberley region, our journey begins with the flight into Broome, coming in over blue water and a line of white sand rimming the land. Dozens of small sightseeing planes lined up on the tarmac are the first indication of the scale of tourism in the area, and the hot one-room airport, fans turning, is full with visitors from overseas or, like us, from distant parts of the country.
The first familiar face I see is Robyn Huppert’s. As communications officer at the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA), Huppert is responsible for processing orders for books and other materials from communities involved in the book industry’s Indigenous Literacy Project (ILP)—the reason we are both here. (Later, in the four wheel drive, hours out into the Kimberley, Huppert will point out the many place names now familiar to her from these orders. At last count, the ILP supplied material to over 200 remote communities in the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia.)
From left: Suzy Wilson, Malcolm Edwards, Debra Dank, Michael Moynahan, Robyn Huppert, Libby O'Donnell, Karen Williams, Maddie Bower, David Gaunt, Andy Griffiths and Juliet Rogers.
We are soon joined by Fred Hollows staff Maddie Bower (ILP coordinator), and Debra Dank (ILP development facilitator), ILP project officer Karen Williams; ILP founder, and Riverbend Bookstore owner, Suzy Wilson; ILP chair, and co-owner of Gleebooks, David Gaunt; Murdoch Books managing director Juliet Rogers; Hachette Australia CEO Malcolm Edwards; HarperCollins CEO Michael Moynahan; the Australian Publishers Association’s Libby O’Donnell and author Andy Griffiths.
This collection of publishers, booksellers, authors and ILP staff gets along well, which is fortunate, because for the next four days we’ll be seeing a lot of each other: part of the ILP’s annual ‘field trip’, we’re all lucky enough to have been invited to visit some of the students and schools receiving materials and support—to observe first-hand some of the factors that can come into play in remote schools.
One of the first factors to confront us, after a quick lunch, is sheer distance. We’re on the highway, bound for Fitzroy Crossing. It’s a mere four-hour drive away, incredibly short by local standards, but nonetheless a very real reminder of just what ‘remote’ can mean. (And really, this drive is nothing; even tomorrow’s six hours to Wynham is easy, compared to the distances it takes to reach some communities supported by the ILP. To get to Warburton, for example, you drive to Uluru ‘and then keep heading west along a corrugated dirt road for eight hours’, according to Dank, who has done just that as part of her ILP job.)
Along the way we see maybe two roadhouses, the rest is rocky red and green, with big-bellied boabs gradually showing themselves amid the other trees and the occasional road train rocking past on its way back to Broome. We’re trying to beat the sun but darkness has fallen by the time we approach Fitzroy River and so it’s easy to spot the bright bands of fire—perhaps deliberate and controlled but just as likely not—showing through the trees. The Kimberley region is prone to fires, with vast tracts burned each year.
A group meal enjoyed at the Fitzroy River Lodge and it’s an early night tonight—darker and quieter than many of us have experienced for some time.
When Andy Griffiths doesn’t appear at breakfast the next morning, those of us familiar with his jogging regime assure others he’s probably off on a morning run. But David Gaunt is missing too and it’s not long before it’s established that both need to be taken to hospital (don’t’ worry, they survived).
Conveniently, though perhaps not unexpectedly, in a town of around 1500 people, the hospital is next door to the community centre where the group is due to meet a class of students who have come in for a day trip from Yakanarra, around 140 kilometres away. Less convenient is the fact that those of us in good health are somewhat under-qualified as star authors.
Under the guidance of former school teacher Suzy Wilson, we manage to facilitate the book-making workshop without Griffiths and, with a ratio of one adult to each child, aren’t too overwhelmed by the experience. We are no Andy Griffiths, but are assured by the teachers and students that we’ve done okay.
The subject matter of the students’ books points to the experiences they share with their city counterparts, as well as to their own unique local experiences—and to some impressively strong imaginations. Stories to come out of the session range from spotting sawfish, to tales of being chased by a (very impressive-looking) sabre tooth tiger, to the anticipated glories to come at an approaching sports festival.
As the students talk among themselves in local languages, we are reminded of how much more impressive their English written and reading skills are for being achieved in a language that may be the students’ second, third or even fourth. And, as Dank explains, English is not only a second(-plus) language, but is also one that, based as it is on binary oppositions, does not often take into account ways of seeing the world that are inherent in ‘matricies’-based Indigenous languages.
These observations give us much to ponder on the six-hour afternoon drive to Kununurra, some thirty-odd kilometres from the NT border.
In the rosy self-image many Australians have of ourselves, the idea of equality—fostered in direct opposition to the class systems of other countries—is an understandably cherished characteristic. One result of this can be a kind of wilful indifference to difference in others—an (on the surface) admirable ‘I treat everyone the same’ attitude.
The problem, of course, is that within Australia exist a whole range of cultures that at different times and in different places require a moderation in behaviour. The protocol documents we visitors are given with advice on dress and behaviour in remote Aboriginal communities point to this consideration. Most people, as Dank points out during one conversation, would go into a foreign culture overseas listening and watching for different behavioural expectations; yet Australians coming from outside an Aboriginal community will often not approach this in the same respectful way.
Andy Griffiths in action at St Joseph's Catholic School, Wyndham WA.
These are the thoughts that are with me as the group visits two schools in Wyndham, a community of around 800 people located 100 kilometres west of Kununurra. At St Joseph’s Catholic School (K-7), we get to witness, up-close-and-personal, just what a superstar Griffiths is. Not long into his workshop with the students and kids and adults alike are laughing uproariously. At Wyndham District High School (K-12), he is greeted by a ‘Welcome Andy Griffiths’ montage and we are again privileged to watch him at work.
I am aware, through these visits, of the delicate balancing between differing cultures that is required of Aboriginal students and—if they are to be successful—of their often non-Indigenous teachers.
‘The cross over between black and white culture and community, which Indigenous Australians are continuously expected to [adjust to] means that adaptation is a very real skill for Indigenous Australians,’ Dank tells me later. ‘Our kids may have some trouble reading books but they are experts at reading their environment, they may not speak SAE [Standard Australian English] but they articulate their needs brilliantly within our own languages.’
ILP development facilitator Debra Dank.
Dank acknowledges that the ILP has a role to play in ensuring these skills are recognized in the wider community. ‘Let’s build acknowledgement and respect for Indigenous kids as capable learners,’ she says. ‘Let’s build that through a new dialogue which recognises differences as differences and not as deficiencies.’
As we all prepare to say goodbye to the region and each other, Indigenous Literacy Day 2010 (September 1) is fast approaching—the major fundraising day that provides resources to these remote schools. ‘When we consider where these schools are situated; so much money is eaten up in the general running of the school,’ says Dank. ‘ILP can and is suppling some of the special things that make schools a nicer place for teachers and students—beautiful books that celebrate Indigenous faces and culture and activities which are not always available, for any number of reasons.’
It is also providing funding for community-identified projects (CIPs) including support for the Junjuwa Women’s Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, the GurrindinDalmi Community in Katherine; a Maningrida book project with author Leonie Norrington, support for the Central Australian Honey Ant Readers and the Barkly Tablelands Ringers Project.
‘Several of this year’s CIP’s do not have an obvious literacy look but they are creating an environment where SAE literacy and language acquisition can grow,’ explains Dank. ‘Contexts which articulate purpose and need for SAE literacy acquisition.’
You can read more about the ILP’s approach in this post. See www.indigenousliteracyproject.org.au.