Saturday, March 22, 2008

2 worlds

Over the holiday, we’ve tried to understand a bit more about the Aboriginals and their place in Australian society. We saw very few Aboriginals at all – none in Sydney or Perth, just a few in Geraldton.

Alice Springs had a good few, but they all looked drunk or drugged, sitting under the trees in the town centre. A tour guide we overheard said that the Aboriginals in Alice Springs have been kicked out from their own community, because of alcohol abuse, and they are relying on government welfare. A lot of Aboriginal communities are dry communities – no alcohol allowed. They have an agreement with bottle stores so that no alcohol is sold to Aboriginal people, and the elders ask tourists not to buy alcohol for them. That said, we saw 2 Aboriginal ladies in the back of a taxi (driven by a Sikh, strangely enough), buying plenty of supplies from the Bottle Store in Alice Springs!

The Aboriginals we saw in the shopping centre in Ayers Rock resort were very different – laughing teenage girls, smiling baby looking straight at you (the Aboriginals in Alice Spring looked right through you like you didn’t exist), ladies painting in the Cultural Centre (the sale of Aboriginal art is a big thing over there) - they looked quite absorbed in their painting, until one of them chipped in to something that the white shop assistant was saying to a tourist).

We didn't see a real indigenous community anywhere, though - I think that in most cases, you can only go into Aboriginal communities by invitation. There are vast areas in the Northern Territories for which you need a permit to enter.

It’s hard to get a straight answer from anybody we asked about the relationship between Aboriginals and white Australians. Our Aboriginal Tour guide in Perth, Greg Nannup, was clearly well educated, well spoken, confident and able to navigate his way between the 2 worlds. He said that there are Aboriginals who live a Western lifestyle, and that there are mixed marriages (His mother is part Scottish and Irish, and he had very pale skin and pure blue eyes). He was a very entreprising young man, full of enthusiasm and plans for his business. By the way, I highly recommend his Kings Park Aboriginal Tour in Perth - we learned a lot about indigenous history, traditions, bush tucker medicine, use of plants, etc., and he answered all our questions thoroughly. It was a newly established tour, and there were only the 2 of us on the day, which gave us a very personal experience. He was well prepared, had a lot to talk about, and we felt that the 90-minute tour was extremely good value for money. Plus Kings Park is the best location in Perth! We wish him well.

On the other hand, our taxi driver in Alice Springs said the relationship between the 2 communities wasn’t good – that the government was trying to help the Aboriginals but that they didn’t help themselves. The tour guide we overheard yesterday said that life expectancy for Aboriginal women is 45 years!

A couple of articles we read in the papers here indicate that living conditions in Aboriginal communities are poor. It’s hard to imagine that a modern country like Australia is OK with letting over 1 million of its population live like this, with poor access to education, health and employment. I read a very interesting article about 2 teenage girls (cousins, 16 & 17) from the Northern Territories sent to a friend's house in Sydney for a few months. They came from a good family, and a dry community. Their parents had sent them to school every day and only wanted the best for them. But school was poor - there were only 2 classes, so a 12-year-old would be in the same class as a 6-year-old. The teacher only got them to copy the same old books over and over again, so they could write, but their reading skills were poor (they read the 1st letter of a word and guessed the rest). Maths was even worse - they could not do any multiplications. And that was on the days when school was running for more than 2 hours. The school had tried to bring in teachers from outside but nobody wanted a job in the middle of nowhere. The parents had sent one of the girls to an Aboriginal boarding school to try and improve matters, but there was such a large gap in her level of education and the girl was so miserable there that she couldn't stick it. The friends in Sydney helped the girls study for the few months that they stayed with them, and found that they made huge progress. One of the girls wants to become a teacher. Will she ever catch up enough to fulfill her dream? It's hard to imagine how that would happen. This article was a full page in a daily newspaper - how can a Minister for Education read this and not do anything about this dire situation?

On the other hand, someone told us that the government has had to withhold unemployment benefits for families whose children don’t go to school – it was the only way to improve school attendance.

My impression is that of 2 different worlds – one for the white Australians and one for the Aboriginals, with different expectations and different dreams. But surely every parent wants their child do be healthy and to live a good life? And surely the Australian government is not comfortable with one million of its population living in third world conditions? But who am I to comment? We were only tourist there for a few weeks, and we didn't even spend time in Darwin and the Northern Territories.

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