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The original world nomad "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." - Confucius.

Light and Dark

AUSTRALIA | Sunday, 12 August 2007 | Views [2739] | Comments [1]

A clear night in the remote desert, ochre red dust howls as children and dogs run wild, lit by lots of flickering open fires, people lounging on vehicles in various states of disrepair, like a scene from an indigenous version of Mad Max. On TV it would look anarchic and threatening, but down on the ground in among those same people, everyone was having a great time enjoying the final concert at the Garma festival 2007.

Perhaps this is precisely the point of Garma: perception and reality are demonstrably poles apart.

My mob were sprawled on the red earth while on stage was a five foot nothing dancer from West Papua dressed in a short grass skirt and not much else solicited shrieks of glee from the local teenage aboriginal girls every time he wiggled his hips and the grass skirt flew up. You had to be there ...

Light or the dark? Lets start with the light.

While Garma is inevitably political, it is also a festival and one from which you take home many priceless moments as well as a lingering something else.

Moments such as my two boys happening upon a music workshop which turned into a Yothu Yindi rehearsal.

Moments such as the four tiny young kids wandering up barefoot out of the darkest bush as though they'd just popped out to the shops. The eldest was perhaps four years old.

Moments such as the dude in the shades who lead the Yidaki (Digeridoo) Masterclass and his grandson of less than two who was able to play it really well.

Moments such as the impromptu rock 'n roll jam where a local guitarist provided the lead to 'Shake' and the local kids go nuts with the drums. In their eagerness they could incredibly change drummers without missing a beat and these are kids of perhaps 7 or 9.

And moments such as arriving at midnight with two knackered children and being told to "... find the sea of tents and pick one." Stumbling around the tents opening one after another only to find people already asleep we eventually found an empty one: the most shabby, smelly, and dusty one on the whole site. We then pitched our own and hefted in our two already asleep kids.

Great organisation guys ... just great.

But five days. Is that really all it takes to bridge the cultural divide? The change in comfort level between two groups that rarely interact with each other in this huge land was really noticeable over the five days. When we travel, our two young children are usually a great social and cultural introduction no matter the language or society, but here at Garma on day one we got not a nod, a smile or a greeting. Just blank indifference, which was a little unsettling, even if it is the same blank indifference with which the indigenous population has been treated these last 200 years. However by day three we were getting nods and a few "G'days" and by day five we had kids drumming madly, kids leaping and hurtling, a little girl of perhaps 7 showing us what you can eat in the bush (small berries close to the ground the size of a pea and tasting like ... lychee), and family groups letting us wander in and talk and ask questions and photograph. You have to hand it to the Yothu Yindi Foundation, organisers of the festival: in the face of a tragic lack of understanding of indigenous issues by mainstream Australia, they seem intent on changing peoples attitudes and educating them by example one at a time.

Now for the dark.

But if you arrived at Garma not quite sure what to expect and perhaps with a mild level of disquiet regarding the current governments indigenous policies, you could only leave with a sense of absolute outrage and disgust. There were many excellent speakers at the Key Forum and time and again the message from very experienced people was that the only solutions that will work are those that come from within the community.

Personally I found the most damning evidence presented was that given by the very two authors of the report on indigenous health that you see John Howard waving around. It was so compelling that I'll try to get a video of it posted to YouTube so you can make up your own minds. They stressed that the very first thing they wrote in this report was that whatever approach was to be taken, the solution had to be driven from within the community for it to work. So what does the government of the day do? Send in the army.

A Director of another company turned to me and said it reminded him of this quote from Albert Einstein:

"This brings us to the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result".

I look for vision and integrity when I vote, both hard to find characteristics these days it seems. But when you look at the personal behaviour of John Howard, regardless of his governments record, and Rudd has it right: Australia deserves much much much more.

Alan Ramsey in the smh has his measure better than I. Tragic, and not just for the indigenous population.

Now back home, we are left with a palpable sense that we experienced a very real Australia, one born of dust, ochre, stringy bark and stars. It makes 'mainstream' Australia look and feel like some temporary aberration perched on the surface of the land.


More reading on Garma:

Shadows cast over Garma, The Australian

Tags: aboriginal, children, culture, experience, family, festival, garma, health, indigenous, politics




I too had the privaledge of attending Garma and feeling the magic of the red dust and the spirit of the land and its people. My special moments happened amongst the traditional women, while they quietly sat and weaved their baskets and shared stories.

I wish that all middle class Australians had an opportunity to feel that spirit. We cant begin to understand a culture, so complex, so intricate
so ancient'

I too have come home unsettled, and appalled at John Howards treatment of Indigenous Australia. To abolish the permit system in Arnhem Land will effectively be a fast track to eroding the culture and self determination of a proud people.

Please Please vote him out.

  Caroline Harris Aug 21, 2007 11:40 PM

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