The many abandoned cars in Lajamanu (bought with mining money).
Since we started working in rural and remote communities, I've been asked many times about the challenges of working in indigenous health. Whether what they see on television and in the media is true, how I cope with living so remotely etcetera etcetera. Often, the media portrays the vast majority of Aboriginal population as uneducated alcoholics who are prone to domestic violence and are beyond help. The Howard government's intervention was aimed at 'closing the gap' between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians life expectancy and its method was to throw money and resources at it, something that some (usually white) Australians feel is grossly unfair.
When I went remote, I wasn't sure what to expect, nor what my feelings on it would be. Now that I've been doing this for over a year, I've drawn some of my own conclusions, based on my own observations. I've worked in both small towns and very remote and very traditional Aboriginal communities and while the figures vary from community to community there have been some common themes running through both settings.
Firstly, the stereotype of the alcohol and domestic abuse in Aboriginal communities runs rife in many people's minds. Certainly, the media perpetuates this with its reports. And yes, stereotypes exist for a reason. Alcohol and domestic abuse do exist. They also have a concept of 'payback', which allows violent retaliation against a member of the population if they have wronged another. In days past, this was a form of justice. It was approved through a court-like proceeding by a community elder and once performed, was considered finished. For example, the punishment for murder was a spear in the thigh. It was performed by the elder, with family members for both parties present and then it was over. The problem now, is that payback is often used as an excuse for drunken violence and results in an escalation of violence, rather than cultural justice.
However, its important to remember that alcohol and domestic abuse also exist in the Caucasian population. When I work at home, a mostly white population, I see drunk people who have been in fights or assaulted their partners every night of the week. To say that this is an Aboriginal issue alone is just inaccurate and defamatory.
Secondly, the housing issue. This part is mostly true. There is an overcrowding issue in remote communities. As many as twenty people might be living in one house. On my visits to houses in Lajamanu, I would typically see maybe 3-5 filthy mattresses on the floor in one room. There would be unwashed linen, camp dogs, litter everywhere and the houses would be full of dog and human faeces, vermin etc. They were revolting. Completely third world. And subsequently a breeding ground for disease.
When I looked at Aboriginal men and women of around my age (32), I found that many of them had multiple children, some being cared for by the state, were battling problems with alcohol and/or abuse, were dependent on welfare and plenty were illiterate. Now this can also be found in low socio-economic areas in Caucasian populations, but in very remote communities I worked it was sadly the norm. Health issues such as STD's, diabetes and diabetes related complications, obesity, renal failure and chronic skin, dental and eye issues were the primary complaints.
Their parents and grandparents on the other hand, were predominantly better educated, perhaps as a result of the stolen generation, which I realise is controversial. Whatever we think about the stolen generation, and the atrocities that occurred because of it, most of the community members I spoke to who had been affected by it conceded that they appreciated the education and skills they had acquired, despite the method being less than appropriate. Nearly all Aboriginal community members I looked after above the age of sixty were literate, had skills such as midwifery, carpentry, mechanics, cooking and hunting. They were tough old sticks. Their knowledge however, for whatever reason has mostly been lost on their sons and daughters.
So how can we fix it? There is no easy answer, and I don't expect to see it in my lifetime. The solution will take generations. Education, rather than simply money is the key I think. Aboriginal communities don't need money per se. Many of them are extremely wealthy. Millions of dollars is paid to communities every year by mining companies in the form of royalties. But what doesn't happen is wise spending of it (much like most governments!). Instead it gets divvied up amongst the individual families, who spend it on new cars, food, alcohol and mobile phones rather than pooling their money and spending it on infrastructure. And there is no concept of care for possessions or ownership. If the car breaks down, or gets a flat tyre, often they are just abandoned where they are, rather than fixed. It doesn't matter, they will just buy a new one next time royalties are paid. And if another person asks for it, it will simply be given away.
What needs to happen, I think, is two fold. Firstly, we need to focus on getting all children into school. Truancy is a huge problem. The Lajamanu rate of kids going to school regularly was only around 40-50%, other communities maybe up to 70%. Children need to be literate and they need to learn the basics of managing money and their households, respecting one another, the importance of disease prevention, gain skills that will help their communities and their job prospects. And there needs to be repercussions for the parents if their children are not attending.
Welfare across all of Australia needs to be weaned (and not just in Aboriginal communities), and if it is given, needs to be in the form of a BasicsCard. (BasicsCard, by the way is a card that Centrelink pays a proportion of the payment into and can only be used for utilities such as power and water payments, as well as food and clothing at certain shops and education and health costs. Unfortunately it is a bit of racist deal, it only applies to the Aboriginal population. I think everyone receiving welfare should have to have it. By singling out indigenous welfare recipients, it just further divides us.)
Secondly, change has to happen from within. Those educated children then need to mentor others in their community, and their own children in time. Too much happens from the white population. The majority of people running these communities are white. Thereby their culture becomes more lost every year. Its rare to see indigenous working professionals which is sad. Here in Port Hedland however, I have just met my first Aboriginal doctor, which is wonderful. She tells me that she feels a sense of responsibility to encourage other young indigenous Australians to achieve and strive for change. People like her need to celebrated. But ultimately, people will only change if they want to. We can throw money and our opinions at them, but unless the community and the individuals within it, want a better life and realise the incentives for change, they never will.
Eventually, we need to give control and responsibility back to the community and appropriate elders in it. The populations need to take responsibility for their own actions and prosperity, care for one another and provide support to those who need it in a culturally sensitive manner. Some communities I've been in, have already started. But Australia has a long road ahead of it to close the gap. But it won't happen without full support and commitment from both sides.