Ten social science students headed north to spend two weeks in the heart of Arnhem Land and develop a greater understanding of Aboriginal culture and community. It was an experience that would change their lives.
Nalawan outstation is a world away from the typical university experience. The remote Aboriginal community, nestled deep in the heart of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, is only accessible part of the year due to the threat of flooding.
It is a place of deep spirituality and family ties. There is no internet connection, no pubs, no lecture theatres, no shops.
For a small group of students from the University of Wollongong, this tiny community was the catalyst for a life-changing experience, one that transformed their perspective on their own world and the world around them. That might sound like hyperbole, but it is a word constantly used by the students to describe how they felt about the trip.
The students, from the fields of education, health, and social work, spent two weeks in the Northern Territory, most of the time based at Nalawan and the nearby town of Ngukurr. It was part of a Reciprocal Learning Program by the Faculty of Social Sciences, aimed at increasing students’ cultural awareness and developing their empathy for and understanding of Aboriginal people, their culture, knowledge and practices. It took the students outside the classroom and into the rugged, breathtaking landscape of Australia’s outback.
For Associate Professor Kate Senior, a medical anthropologist who has been visiting the Ngukurr community for many years, seeing the students immersed in the environment and the culture she knows and loves was “amazing”.
“This was the best trip I’ve ever had to Ngukurr,” says Kate, who over the past two decades has spent time embedded in Indigenous communities, exploring the residents’ relationships with their health and wellbeing.
“I loved seeing the absolute pride the Nalawan community had in their home. They really rose to the challenge of welcoming the students into their home. They didn’t just want to have the students in the community, they wanted to make sure they were engaged and were learning.”
Kate’s connection to the community is born from her connection to Daphne Daniels. Daphne, an elder in Ngukurr and the editor of the Ngukurr News (in addition to being the town librarian and holding a seat on the local Roper-Gulf Council), has been friends with Kate for many years, and has been involved in numerous research and academic workshops with UOW.
But this was the first time Daphne had let such a number of students into her community with the sole purpose of finding out more about Indigenous culture.
Close to 60 students from social sciences applied to take part in the program, which was offered for the first time this year. Kate and PhD student Julie Hall, whose research focuses on Ngukurr, whittled it down to 10 students, all of whom were passionate about getting the most out the experience and enhancing their knowledge of Aboriginal culture. The students came from diverse educational backgrounds, but the common thread was a desire to work with people.
“Most cultural awareness programs focus on us versus them,” Kate says. “There is a sense that you are being told what to do and how to feel. But the students really had to engage with the cultural learning in Ngukurr, they were immersed. They had to participate and it really opened their eyes.”
‘It was a chance to be stripped bare of what you know’
“From the moment we got off the bus in Ngukurr, and started unloading our bags, we were surrounded by people from the community and started to feel really welcome,” says Alex Parker Newlyn, who is in his second year of a Bachelor of Social Sciences, majoring in Public Health.
Ngukurr, with a population of 1700, is located more than 600 kilometres south-east of Darwin. The town is on the banks of the Roper River, with a thriving arts community and a deep connection to country. Alex, who is based at UOW Shoalhaven, says he was drawn to Ngukurr because it offered the chance to learn about Aboriginal culture and add greater context to his studies.
“There has been so much misrepresentation around issues affecting the Indigenous community and what always struck me was that Indigenous people were being spoken for, not spoken with,” he says. “I wanted to better understand everything – the people, the culture, the context.”
Ali Kroger echoes Alex’s sentiments. “I loved it,” she says, quite simply. “It was brilliant.”
A third-year student in a Bachelor of Social Work, Ali says she relished the bare-bones nature of the experience, the chance to get back to nature and connect with the people and the earth.
“I am someone who generally lives a pretty basic life,” she says. “I’m not materialistic. I like to travel with just the things I need on my back and that’s how I live most of the time.
“Not everyone is like that though,” she says with a laugh. “It was a chance to be stripped bare of what you know and what you’re comfortable with.”
‘Women run everything’
During their week at the outstation, the students took part in traditional activities that are essential to the functioning of the community. They made damper, searched the bush for wild honey, and travelled the 22 kilometres to Ngukurr, where they attended Kriol language classes and visited Ngukurr Arts Centre.
The first day, they spent hours bumping across the harsh back roads of the region, hunting for turtles in the mudflats of Roper River.
“They were some of the worst roads I’ve ever experienced, and that is saying something,” Kate says with a laugh. “We only got one turtle and some of the students were disappointed, but they got the chance to see the country and be exposed to Indigenous heritage and Dreaming sites.
“And we saw the biggest crocodile I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Daphne, her husband, Colin, her sister Denise and Denise’s husband Lindsay led the activities and were joined by a flock of children that seemed to grow larger by the day. (Daphne’s way of keeping the children busy and ensuring the education students were exercising their skills every day, Kate says with a laugh).
A number of the activities were divided along gender lines, which Kate says was met with offence by some of the students who were more accustomed to modern social norms.
The men were assigned to task of building a shade shelter from branches they found, while the women were responsible for making the damper to feed the community.
Kate says some of the women were affronted at being left out of the men’s work, but soon realised that by participating in a traditionally female-orientated activity, they were being invited into the fold by Daphne and her peers.
“At first some of the girls were really annoyed, because they thought the boys were getting all the fun jobs. But then they realised that being in the female group meant they were let in on a secret world. They got to spend time alone with Daphne and hear all the women’s thoughts and secrets,” Kate says. “It was a really special moment for them.”
While Alex says the male students were keen to show off their strength and skills in building a shelter, then soon realised they were the ones who had missed out.
“We went out with Colin and Lindsay and found the trees, and built this shelter, but really it didn’t serve much of a purpose and it was probably just to keep us busy,” he laughs. “I think they were just trying to get rid of us. But the girls were taught how to make damper by Daphne and Denise, and that then fed the community that night. They were taught something essential. It made me realise how much the women run everything.”
‘It really changed my perspective’
Sarah Young, who is in her third year of a Bachelor of Primary Education, has spent time volunteering in schools in Cambodia and Africa. She was drawn to the program for the chance to immerse herself in Aboriginal culture. The experience has fundamentally changed the way she views remote communities.
“It was really raw and authentic. It really opened my eyes to how the community are attempting to maintain their cultural ties, but at the same time be successful in a modern society,” Sarah says. “It made me realise that the Western way of life is not better than any other. It’s just different. I learnt so much from my time in Ngukurr. It has really changed my perspective.”
The somewhat fluid concept of time in the community really jarred against many of the students’ ingrained concept of a schedule. They had to get used to not having every moment accounted for; rather, they were forced to simply sit back and see how the day unfolded.
“A lot of the time it felt like we weren’t doing anything,” Sarah says. “But then I realised that while it felt like we were sitting around a lot, we were having these really deep and meaningful conversations. We were connecting with the community and with each other.”
Justin Stech, a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Social Work, says he relished the lack of scheduling, and, combined with the lack of access to the internet and social media, it forced the students to be really engaged with the experience.
“It was so peaceful at the outstation. There was not a lot of structure to the day, so it felt like a real paradigm shift,” he says. “We spent a lot of time sitting around the fire chatting to each other. It encouraged us to be really present and embrace the slower pace. We had to learn to just be.”
Justin, an American originally from Indiana, says a comment from former prime minister Tony Abbott was the catalyst for his decision to go on the trip. In 2015, Mr Abbott said the decision to close 150 remote Indigenous communities was not unreasonable, because the government should not “subsidise lifestyle choices”. Justin says he was struck by the narrowminded view and felt compelled to learn more about people who live in remote communities.
“I don’t think there is enough focus on the people who live in these communities, and as an American, this wasn’t something that I know a lot about. I am an outsider and I guess I come to it with a bit more distance than others. I wanted to learn more,” he says.
What he found was a community with incredible “depth and richness”. He loved the way children were such an intrinsic part of the fabric of daily life; they weren’t excluded from taking part in activities simply because of their age.
“Everything was done with space for the kids to be included, and I don’t think you find that in Western society,” Justin says. “They were never excluded. They were always allowed to try every activity and encouraged to be involved.”
‘I was blown away’
For Ali, the trip was a chance to “educate myself, to become a better social worker”. She relished being part of the community, and was overwhelmed by the generosity of the residents, in sharing their time, knowledge, and resources with the students. But what truly resonated with her was the deep spirituality of the culture.
“I never realised how much spirituality and their spiritual connection with the outstation affects everything they do. The spirits affect their way of being,” Ali says.
Daphne and her friends and family shared Dreamtime stories with the students and visited Dreamtime sites along the nearby Roper River. One day they went hunting for wild honey, which can be found in the bush surrounding the outstation – “look for the tree with the big knot”. But there was little honey to be found.
“We returned to the station, and Denise, Daphne’s sister, said the reason we couldn’t find much honey was because she had forgotten to ask the spirits for permission to hunt,” Alex says. “I was blown away by that. To me it really illustrated the importance of spirituality to the community.”
‘You don’t get that in a classroom’
By the end of the trip, Kate was amazed at how confident the students had become. It was not a glamourous experience. There was no phone, no social media, none of the mod cons that we’ve come to expect from modern society.
Most had to learn basic survival skills – such as how to build and light a fire – and carried their own water to wash their dishes and used the outhouse toilet. But they relished the chance to unwind, be present, and give back to the community who had so generously taken them in for the two weeks. They gave Daphne’s house a new lick of paint, they built a shade structure, they organised a disco for the whole community that raged well into the night.
“By the end of the trip, the students were comfortable approaching Daphne and the elders and sitting around the fire chatting at night. They were comfortable having fun and engaging with the kids,” Kate says. “They got along so well as a group. They all learnt so much about themselves and each other.”
The students who took part says the experience was forever imprinted on their memory. In fact, they are all yearning for the chance to get back out to Ngukurr again. There was no textbook or classroom in sight, but every day felt rich with the opportunity to learn.
“It was so much fun, but all day, every day we were learning things,” Alex says. “And often if they were teaching us something, like Colin teaching us how to catch, kill, cook and eat turtles, he was telling us Dreamtime stories while he was doing it. You don’t get that in a classroom.”
Justin believes the learning was reciprocal in every sense. He says the community were just as curious about their lives as university students. At the end of the trip, each student received a “skin name”, which in Aboriginal culture indicates a person’s blood line and place in society. It was a moment that will stay with them for a long time to come.
“To receive a skin name was incredibly special. I think the connections with the people of Nalawan will continue for a long time to come,” Justin says. “The trip was for anyone who wants to understand other people and other contexts, anyone who wants to make space for other perspectives. It was such a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”