How Kate Senior experiences the world through the lens of anthropology.
As a child, Kate Senior was not familiar with the traditional concept of work. There were no nine-to-five jobs in her family and a commute meant thousands of kilometres in a 4WD rather than hours in traffic. Each winter, Kate, her brother and her parents, both geologists, would set off from their Canberra home on their next expedition, where they would spend months immersed in the sights and sounds of the Australian landscape.
“When it got cold in Canberra, my parents used to head off and do fieldwork,” Kate recalls. “My concept of work was one where I got into a Land Rover, drove several thousands of kilometres for several months, and then came home again. That was the lifestyle I was accustomed to. The thought of sitting in an office was horrible to me.”
So it seems only natural that Kate would eschew the trappings of an office in favour of something more exciting: medical anthropology. Now an Associate Professor in the University of Wollongong’s School of Health and Society, Kate has spent the better part of the past two decades embedded in Indigenous communities, exploring the residents’ relationships with their health and wellbeing and their access to health services. She came to the field by way of archaeology, which she studied as an undergraduate, but it wasn’t quite the work for which she was searching.
“I was interested in people, but I wanted to be out in the bush,” Kate says. “Archaeology didn’t quite do it for me. Then I tried biological anthropology, which at the time had a real focus on the body and on primates, but that also didn’t tick all the boxes. When I discovered medical anthropology, I realised that was exactly what I wanted.”
Anthropology – a term that means the study of humans – seems a rare area of interest in this modern day and age. The practice of studying the norms and values of societies stretches back centuries, but Kate says the time needed to truly understand a community doesn’t often lend itself to our fast-paced world. Indeed, how many anthropologists have you come across in your daily life?
“There are places where anthropology is very strong, but there has been a period where anthropology has been very critical of itself in thinking about its past and its colonial implications, which can be off-putting for people coming into the field,” Kate says.
“I think it’s great that the discipline has been so thoughtful about its origins, but it doesn’t make it an easy place to go. There’s also the commitment to a long-term placement in a particular setting, which can be very confronting. It’s not a field in which you get quick answers.”
As a medical anthropologist, Kate’s interests have always lain in Indigenous communities, which she believes extends from her childhood spent in remote regions of Australia. She has spent more than 20 years connected to the remote community of Ngukurr, in the Northern Territory’s southern Arnhem Land, where she first ventured fresh out of university.
Anthropology can be very lonely and isolating. But gradually you start to make those connections.Associate Professor Kate Senior
Kate describes the work as challenging and confronting, but says it’s also deeply rewarding to become a part of the community’s fabric, to gain a sense of trust and belonging.
“Anthropology is difficult because it requires you to immerse yourself in a community. You can spend a long time thinking that no-one’s talking to you. You don’t know what’s going on, don’t understand the language, people don’t trust you. It’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s all part of the process, and it’s a gradual process,” she says.
“I remember before I went out to Ngukurr, an eminent anthropologist, who was a friend, said ‘You will feel really lonely, so take lots of books’. She was right, it’s very lonely and isolating. But gradually you start to make those connections. You have to go through that process.”
Kate’s passion for Indigenous communities – she also spent time in Cape York researching the residents’ understanding of chronic disease – stems from a desire to give a positive voice to people who are often defined by what they lack. She spends months each year in Ngukurr, and has helped restart the Ngukurr News, a newspaper produced by the community, for the community, and a beloved local resource. However, the health angle of her work, in particular, can add a layer of pathos, as the friends she has made are often directly affected by the very issues she is researching.
“I spent a lot of time in Indigenous communities as a child, so it was something I really wanted to know about and experience more of,” Kate says. “It’s a fascinating place to work, but it’s also deeply challenging. The things that are confronting Indigenous communities right now are distressing to me. I see the results of things like the Emergency Intervention and see the effect on people I’ve known for a long time, and see how their decision-making has been eroded. It’s hard but it gives you the will to keep going.
“My work in Ngukurr is around understanding the health issues the community faces. What does it mean if you’re a young person and you’ve got a statistically shorter life expectancy than everyone else? How does that impact your life planning?”
Kate recalls a moment in Ngukurr 15 years ago that truly brought this home.
“My two friends and I were at the Ngukurr airstrip and we were hiding from the old women in the community because they had been chasing us around all day, wanting us to do things for them. We were about 26,” she says.
“I said, ‘One day we will be old and then we can boss everyone else around’, and we giggled. And then my friend said, ‘But we won’t be old together because we don’t live as long as you’. It was a really chilling moment that really took me outside myself. To think that you’re all having fun, but at the age of 26, that’s what the statistics are saying.
“And one of those friends died last year at the age of 42, of rheumatic heart disease. She had rheumatic fever as a child, which is a disease that doesn’t exist anywhere but in Indigenous communities. It was horrible that she lived out the prophecy.”
It is moments – and friendships – like this that inspire Kate. She is determined to draw attention to the rich family life and overwhelming beauty of Indigenous Australia.
“If you talk to young people, their stories are actually full of what is good in their lives: their families, their engagement with the country, their knowledge of hunting, fishing and bush medicine. It gives them a huge sense of quality of life, but we don’t hear about that. You don’t get the positive stories that say, ‘This is what makes us strong’.”
Kate has also spent time in Cambodia, introducing social research to young students at the University of Battambang. For the past three years, she has been embedded in the northwest area for six weeks at a time and says despite the tragic history of the Southeast Asian country, she discovered a generation eager to look to the future. It is a lesson in anthropology’s power to challenge one’s perceptions of the world.
“I went into Cambodia expecting this real legacy of trauma, but it wasn’t like that at all. There are constant memories of what happened [during the rule of Pol Pot] and there are places where there are piles of skulls, but in the work I did I found the students were really interested in how the nation could move on and make things better,” Kate says. “It’s incredibly real though, it’s very recent history. In the area around the university, they hadn’t finished clearing all the landmines, so there are many people who have lost legs there. It’s an absolutely fascinating place.”
Since embarking on her first posting as a medical anthropologist, Kate’s personal life has also undergone a shift. Now, she takes her family along for the ride, much like her own childhood spent in the back of a 4WD heading off to places unknown. In Ngukurr, her three children are cherished members of the community, and can often be found hunting, fishing and embracing life in the outback.
“It changes the dynamic being embedded in a community when you have a family. It makes it better because I take them with me,” Kate says. “They have the complete anthropological experience. They are part of the group of children out there and they’re very happy with that.
“I actually found out I was pregnant with my youngest son while I was in Ngukurr. They’ve given him a traditional name and they treat him like their own, so every time we go back now, he’s treated like a little king.”
So does she imagine that her own children will grow up to be anthropologists and forgo the traditional office job? Kate laughs at the thought.
“I hope so. They don’t think anthropology and living in a community for months at a time is work, it’s just what you do.”