When Lawry Mahon made a trip to an Aboriginal community 240 kms north-east of Alice Springs in 1996 he made a striking discovery.
“When I first visited Atitjere”, the Victoria University education lecturer writes, “I noticed there was an absolute lack of Aboriginal faces in class books and kids’ stories. Most of the school books contained only white faces, white kids, white stories. They were all about non-Aboriginal culture, but in the middle of a remote Aboriginal community. That’s when I got the idea for SWIRL”.
His idea was to fill the cultural gap in school reading materials with what became the Story Writing In Remote Locations project.
In a new report Supporting Indigenous Australians, Mahon tells of the school books with only white people, ignoring the kids’ interest in watching the sky which linked with their own mythology, how they saw the Southern Cross as an emu, their own cultural lore. He was not surprised they were not enthusiastic about attending school.
Few Aborigines were employed in Alice Springs or remote communities, a big problem being difficulties with spoken and written English. Mahon was also concerned about ear infections, which interfere with learning, so was campaigning to have salt-water swimming pools installed in every Aboriginal community.
Mahon returned to the region the following year with Aboriginal Field Officer Rodney Baird to work out a scheme in which children would describe their daily activities. From there he involved Victorian university students in helping the children record these yarns. It is now an annual event and there is an archive of many hundreds of local stories capturing events like building a garden, making a sculpture, playing sport, hunting and gathering, rock art and bush medicine.
When Mahon’s students took classes, which were based on the children’s own world, attendances leapt from 30 to 100 per cent. In one case 20 children registered for a course and 40 turned up. Youngsters could speak in their own tongue but later were encouraged also to use English, usually a requirement for employment.
Nicky, a primary school girl in Areyonga, is asked to say what she can buy in the local shop with a $5 note. She tells her story:
I could buy two packets of bangles for $5. The baby food at the shop costs $2.90. Canned vegetables, I can buy them for less than $5. I am holding the tray of vegetables, they cost $4.85 so I could buy them. I am pointing to the golden syrup at the shop, it costs less than $5, rice for less than $5. I am sitting on the floor with the five packets of noodles, they cost $1 each so I could buy five packets with my $5. Pancake mixture at the shop, I like to eat pancakes, I can buy this with the $5. I’m trying the dress on. It costs more than $5, I would need six $5 notes.
Theresa and Daphne write about a small bush with a beautiful smell called "Irmangka-Irmangka", found in the desert near Areyonga. They explain the procedure for making it into bush medicine:
This what we do with it:
We gather just as much as we need to make the medicine. We take it back home and dry it out in the hot sun. When Irmangka-Irmangka is dry and crunchy we get the grinding stone ready. We place the dry Irmangka-Irmangka leaves on the large flat stone and grind them with a smaller stone until they turn into a fine powder.
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