trip to Gunbalunya, Arnhem Land

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: trip to Gunbalunya, Arnhem Land
From: Denise Goodfellow <>
Date: Thu, 24 Nov 2011 14:27:15 +0930
Earlier this week a friend, Sue, and I drove to Gunbalunya in western Arnhem
Land.  We were carrying an iMac, a Christmas gift from Michael and me to our
relatives.  My daughters-in-law Stephanie and Una accompanied us.
Fording the East Alligator was a little hairy.  The water was high enough to
wash over the bonnet, of our twincab, and the runout was swift.  Luckily we
got through that, delivered Stephanie and Una to Una¹s home, picked up our
keys and went to the guest house where we¹d be staying.
Amy, to whom we were delivering the iMac, is a smart, strong woman.  She¹s
had to be. Her mother and aunt both began to drink while in Darwin training
as teachers.  Soon they were living in the long grass, and within a few
years both were dead.  The heartbreak this caused their mother, Esther, my
sister, was immeasurable.  Most of Gunbalunya refused to attend Amy¹s
mother¹s funeral, and that caused even more heartbreak.  But Amy struggled
on refusing to give up.  Her children won¹t attend school regularly, one not
at all and I can¹t help but think part of that is due to their mother and
auntie¹s sad history.  But with the computer Amy can teach them various
skills at home.  
Anyway, Sue and I are standing there talking while two of my teenage
grandsons, Josephat and Kyle, are playing with Garageband.  Kyle is Amy¹s
nephew, and the son of the other teacher who ended up in the long grass.
When he was only a baby his mother turned up one night outside our place
screaming that she would kill him if we didn¹t let her in.  It turned out
she had alcohol-induced psychosis.  She abandoned Kyle, and then she too was
killed.  Esther, now in her mid-eighties, brought him up. He¹s a really
smart kid and Amy now wants him to go south for education.
I was lost in thought, when I glimpsed, out of the corner of my eye, what
looked like a chess board on the screen.  I wasn¹t wrong ­ these two
³uneducated² (to some) teenagers were now playing chess.  They had been
taught on Baby Dreaming, a remote outstation, by another young relative.
They told me that they made chess pieces out of bits of wood and torn up
milk cartons!
The boy¹s families, along with Una and Stephanie, Esther and others, were
part of the Baby Dreaming project, a little tourism project we set up on
that country.  This was in large part due to an emergency. Elders were
singing my male relatives to death, believing that in this way they could
scare young people into staying safe on their land (instead of ending up
like Kyle¹s mother and auntie). The killing didn¹t stop until the old men
realised that we were seriously trying to turn this around.
Instead of treating my relatives like blank slates, I built upon their
existing and substantial skills and knowledge.  When they felt competent
they then trained others. I looked for particular markets that would fit in
with them eg American birdwatching couples, students and Australian families
and individuals interested in both birds and other wildlife and/or making
friends.  It worked very well.  Apart from anything else their confidence
grew to the point where they felt able to report (in one case) police abuses
to the ombudsman.  Visitors were coming, and best of all  the old fellas
stopped killing my relatives.
It was too good to last. An international operator wished to donate a couple
of thousand dollars, but we weren¹t incorporated.  I asked Birds Australia
to help, but was told that the amount was too small for them to handle.
Still we had a little government funding.  Then the NT government agency
handling the funds decided that none of us accredited to train (we didn¹t
have a certificate 4).  The death of an important elder was the last straw -
a lot lost hope after that.
However, some are keen to start the project up again whether we¹re funded or
not.  Stephanie, now paralysed and dying, can no longer help, but Una wants
to start showing people birds again (she accompanied  Jon Franzen and me to
Spirit Dog Dreaming when he was here).  She also wishes to start a community
newsletter (I taught her how to put a newsletter together under the Baby
Dreaming project). Michael and I aim to buy her an iMac next year.
Outside Demed, the organization that looks after outstations, I met
Jeremiah, my son (Djedje).  I¹d heard he was ill ­ and he looked terrible.
He has a lung disease, but what disease is not known yet.
He told me he was smoking too much, and that the reason was worry for two of
his sons.  School holds no interest for them and he is concerned they will
get into trouble.  He wanted to take them back to Baby Dreaming, but because
work on access needs to be carried out at the outstation he can¹t return
till next year.
His children were very enthusiastic about showing visitors birds.  I¹ve some
great photos of them showing an American birder how to better view a group
of Grey-crowned Babblers by crawling on his stomach through the grass.  And
on speaking with the boys it seems they¹d very much like to be involved
again.  So I¹ve asked them to start putting a list of bird names together,
in English and Kunwinjku, and to work with Una on the newsletter.  Then next
year we¹ll see if we can start something. Djedje was one of the key guides
in the Baby Dreaming project and he wants very much to help.  But will he be
well enough?  Will he still be alive?
Sue used to visit Baby Dreaming with me and caught a sense of how important
that country was to the traditional owners.  As president of the Country
Liberals she joined with Opposition spokesman for Indigenous Affairs, Adam
Giles, to convince the party of the importance of funding outstations.  Also
she and another friend, Sally Thomas, our new Administrator, were great
supporters of the Baby Dreaming project.

Can we start it again?  How could I not at least try?
Back at the East Alligator the water was even higher and faster ­ there¹d
been a huge thunderstorm over the Arnhem Plateau the day before.  However,
two 4WDs one in front, the other behind, shepherded us across to safety.

Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow B.A. Grad.Dip.Arts
1/7 Songlark Street, Bakewell NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 04 386 50 835

Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
PhD Candidate (Southern Cross University, NSW)
Interpreter/transcriber, Lonely Planet Guide to Aboriginal Australia
Vice-chair, Wildlife Tourism Australia
For copies of Birds of Australia¹s Top End or Quiet Snake Dreaming, visit

"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him
to hold in higher regard those who think alike
than those who think differently."


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