Reflections on Yuendumu
I stumbled across this today. I wrote it about 8 or 9 years ago and thought I’d post it.
After returning from a funeral in Melbourne of a Whitefella who used to live in the community I was greeted by two Nampijinpa ladies. They wanted to talk to me and I offered them a cup of tea and we sat on the grass outside. We each sat looking in a different direction. We talked for a little while about my trip and the insignificant details of travelling 3000 ks in a Toyota. It soon became clear that the ladies wanted to discuss the funeral.
I did not realise the affect this persons death had had on the community. One of the ladies, who people had begun calling my ‘mother’ after her only son died, took my hand in hers and told me that if I should ever feel like that man – if I should ever stay away from Yuendumu and feel sad or alone – I should know that I had family here in Yuendumu. I looked at the other lady who smiled in agreement. Not knowing what to say, I replied ‘Yuwayi’. I had already told her that it had been good to see my family down south. But, that man had family down south and he was still sad. I told those two ladies that I was not sad. People used to call that man Wajampa, which is Warlpiri for sad.
When the ladies left I started thinking about how I had become close to some of the people at Yuendumu. I remembered back to the time when I was just a youngfella standing on the cracked pavement of a basketball court with kids going through boxes of coloured jumpers looking for their favourite number. I umpired short offensive games dominated by little kids that launched the ball off their shoulders with both hands and somehow managed to get it through the hoop. After the kids games, the young men would come to play on their court. I collected the jumpers and whistles and threw a ball over to them. We didn’t really know each other at that time, the forty or so young blokes on the other side of the court and me, the whitefella who didn’t know much Warlpiri and was about the same age as a few of the older players. For the first time in my life I was challenged with the feeling of being very much out of my depth and knowing I was being watched. I didn’t understand what was being said, or what was going on; even the body language was different.
It’s hard now to remember exactly why I had trouble understanding these blokes – now that they seem more familiar and I know their names and we have lived together. But, I do remember feeling very isolated, intrusive, and self conscious. I don’t feel so much like that now. I’ve lived here long enough to have seen older kids become young men, and young men become fathers.
There are all these other stories that are part of my experience at Yuendumu:
Driving into Yulara with a truck covered in red dust stuck to diesel, the result of a leaking fuel tank. People covered in red ochre walking from the truck to buy cigarettes, leaving smudges of colour wherever they went on the white washed walls of the resort. Sitting waiting for the fuel line to be fixed wondering if the tourists who were watching us realised that the desert had just got into town and would soon pass them by. Then driving out of town and picking up the old men who were sitting under a tree.
Being at the side of a man who just passed away. Sitting with other men my age as a brother and son of the deceased. Sitting confused and crying with women as they walked behind us, embracing us one by one. Going to the clinic and lifting his body into a black bag. Putting the bag into the back of a car of a man we had just met, a man we did not know. Sometime later, driving through the scrub looking for a gravesite with the backhoe following. Watching the hole being dug, thinking that it’s a crappy place to end up, in a hole in the ground, even if it is just your body. Then celebrating the man’s life, speaking some words to his family and friends, laying across the coffin and finally dropping a handful of sand before decorating the place with plastic flowers and a white cross. Eating sausages at the church when we arrived back at Yuendumu, wondering if the image of a man is stronger in our minds when we don’t remember him in photographs, as we took some of each other.
Creeping up on a sandhill way out west at Yininti-walku-walku with an old man, two youngfellas and two friends. Looking suspiciously at a area of water on the salt lake that Japanangka said is where the Warnayarra lives. Listening to his stories of when he walked there as a child while I made spinifex resin on the head of a shovel under a large desert oak. Desperately pulling things out of the back of the Toyota when we thought the goanna we had just caught set off the emergency beacon. Then getting bogged in a claypan with rain coming in, a long way from the nearest road.
Travelling to a group of low lying hills to the south of Mt Theo with an old man and his family. Digging out a soakage that the old man had drunk from with his family as a child. Collecting the water in a green Sprite bottle. Keeping that water for four years before finally giving it to the old man’s grandson who was yet to visit the site of his own country.
There are many other stories. Stories that I think about now and then. They make me laugh, make me think, make me sad, but ultimately, make my life richer for having been a part of them.
My experiences at Yuendumu have revolved around relationships built with people within the community. A constant daily occurrence; interaction was not a choice. I was forced to communicate, to understand and seek to be understood, and to cross barriers. This has been difficult and one of the biggest challenges of my life; to be uncomfortable, develop a greater sense of family, have the patience to sit and listen to old people, and have the humour and humility to (like them) learn another language and attempt to use it. I have learnt to allow language to break down barriers; to laugh at mistakes and enjoy drinking really strong, milky sweet tea.
Bouncing along a dusty track out bush I learnt to accept country music as a legitimate genre. I even considered barracking for Collingwood. I discovered the currency of boomerangs, blankets, kangaroos and firewood. I spent most of my 20s at Yuendumu; I feel like I grew into a man there, and I did not do it on my own. Maybe one day I’ll be that old man sitting on a bed, keeping myself company by closing my eyes and recalling these stories.