Andrea Hanke joined several members of the Australian book industry on a trip to the Tiwi Islands to visit some of the schools involved in the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF). She shares some of her trip diary here.
Participants in this year’s ILF ambassador field trip arrive in Darwin from across the country. There are 10 of us in total: ILF’s Karen Williams and Tina Raye; authors and ambassadors Andy Griffiths, John Danalis and Leonie Norrington; Gleebooks’ co-owner and ILF board member David Gaunt; Fremantle Press’ Claire Miller; National Library of Australia’s Maureen Brooks; student teacher Jemimah Bowan; and myself.
Some of the team, including comedy duo David and Andy, are veterans of numerous ILF field trips. However, many of us are first-timers, unsure of what to expect over the next few days. Karen and Tina have helpfully supplied us with ILF goodie bags full of useful items for our remote experience, including our uniform (navy blue polo shirts with ‘reading opens doors’ emblazoned across the back), paw paw ointment (suitable for insect bites, burns and other assorted ailments) and a map of Indigenous Australia.
ILF goodie bag
Our first team activity is a briefing with Ian Smith, principal of Tiwi College, and Geoff Perry, principal of Top End Group Schools. During our stay on the Tiwi Islands we will be living at Tiwi College and working with the students there, as well as with two primary schools in the area. Both Ian and Geoff speak passionately about their work in remote Indigenous communities, about the importance of building long-term projects and partnerships, and about the benefits that the experience has brought them personally. Ian tells us that whenever he’s having a tough day at work, he reminds himself of what a privilege it is to live on the Tiwi Islands—a place that few white people will ever have the chance to visit.
Top: Ian, Andy, David, Andrea, John, Karen; Bottom: Geoff, Jemimah, Tina, Maureen
This morning we board two small aircrafts and fly 80km north of Darwin to the Tiwi Islands. When I first learnt the destination of our field trip I had to pull out a map. The Tiwi Islands comprise two main islands: Bathurst and Melville. Bathurst is the smaller, more densely populated of the two, with around 1500 people living in the town of Nguiu. Melville, our destination, has two villages of around 450 people each. The islands are governed by the Tiwi Land Council and the majority of the inhabitants are Indigenous.
Our ride to the Tiwi Islands
When we arrive at Tiwi College there are no signs of the school’s 70-plus students. Due to its remote location, the college operates as a boarding school; the students are collected on Monday mornings and dropped back home on Friday afternoons. We begin with a tour of the college grounds, which include a much-loved football oval, a basketball court that is primarily used for football practice, and an impressive kitchen garden.
Tiwi College football oval
In the afternoon our group splits off into different activities: beach walking for Andy, barra fishing for John and Leonie, and a hunt in the mangroves for mud-mussels and longbums for the rest of us. These activities turn out to be great preparation for our classroom visits over the next few days, as fishing and hunting feature heavily in the students’ stories and drawings (along with croc and shark attacks).
Hunting among the mangroves
We also experience our first and only flat tyre of the week—but it’s a spectacular one! Luckily our drivers are able to replace the tyre with a little assistance from David. With no phone reception on long stretches of the island’s roads, it’s a reminder of one of the many challenges of remote living.
A spectacular flat
Today is our first day with the students at Tiwi College. Our three authors, Andy, John and Leonie, are each assigned a classroom and several ‘helpers’.
I start off in Andy’s classroom where Andy is teaching his students (year 7-9 girls) how to create stories with images, labels and dialogue boxes. He presents a slide show of his treehouse stories and encourages the students to come up with their own Tiwi-style treehouses. The results are a delightful combination of local experiences (croc-infested watering holes) and images inspired by Andy’s own fantasy world (shark-infested swimming pools).
Andy at Tiwi College
In another classroom Leonie is creating storeyboards with the primary school students while John begins his ‘owl project’ with the year 7-9 boys. Over the next few days John’s owls (originally purchased from Bunnings) will travel all over the island. They will be photographed on trampolines, in waterholes and with other birds, and on the final day John will work with some of Tiwi College’s senior students to create a storybook about the owl’s journey.
John (and owl) at Tiwi College
After a long day in the classroom we head to the local waterhole for a quick dip and a swing (the kids assure us a crocodile hasn’t been spotted here in years).
Day four and five:
Over the next two days we visit two primary schools on the island: Milikapiti School in Milikapiti and Pularumpi School in Pirlangimpi. After some initially shy introductions the students are soon lapping up the attention (as you can imagine, they don’t get visitors here very often!). I notice that the kids switch easily between Tiwi (which they often speak among themselves) and English (which is used in the classrooms). The level of literacy among the kids is varied but the enthusiasm is constant—and catching! Some of the kids will eventually go to Tiwi College, while others may attend secondary schools in Darwin or even further afield. Many of them dream of following in the footsteps of famous Tiwi Island footballers Michael Long and Cyril Rioli. Hopefully, our visit will encourage some other dreams as well.
Students at Pularumpi School
After classes are over the kids take us on a tour of the village. At Milikapiti School we visit the local arts and crafts association, where we get our faces painted and watch the kids perform some traditional dances.
Andy gets his face painted at Milikapiti
At Pularumpi School we go for a walk along a beautiful stretch of beach; the water is, of course, off-limits because of the crocs. We also stock up on soft drinks and snacks from the village’s one-and-only store, which gets its supplies shipped in once a week from Darwin.
Beach walking at Pirlangimpi
On our final day at Tiwi College Ian presents us with school caps and books on the history of the Tiwi Islands. He describes us to the students as the books and literacy equivalent of elite sports stars. It’s very flattering, and much of the praise deserves to go to Andy, John and Leonie for the incredible sessions they’ve run with the kids this week.
After assembly Karen and Tina meet with the Tiwi College staff to discuss what books and literacy resources the school might need in the future. They also discuss ways to continue the authors’ work beyond the week. ILF describes its ambassador field trips as a two-way learning experience, and it’s through these visits that the foundation is able to determine how to offer each community the best possible support.
Even though classes are over, I notice that most of the team are still wearing our ILF polo shirts. It could be because we’re out of clean shirts, but I also think it’s out of pride. After spending a week with the ILF team I can say that the Australian book industry should be very proud of what it has achieved.
Claire, John, Karen, Jemimah, Maureen
To find out more about ILF visit the website here. And don’t forget to take part in Indigenous Literacy Day on Wednesday 4 September.