Maningrida, Arnhem Land, AustraliaPosted: September 10, 2012
Maningrida is a small settlement of around 3000 people sitting on the edge of far northern, tropical Arnhem land and the Arafura Sea. Arnhem Land was declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931 and has been occupied by indigenous people for tens of thousands of years. Wikipedia tells me “it is the location of the oldest known stone axe, which scholars believe to be 35,500 years old.”
Maningrida is remote! A permit is needed to visit! 500 kms from Darwin, roads are closed for up to 5 months during the wet season; the barge delivery of groceries can take two weeks from order to arrival; the most common form of entry is in a small plane (3 seats wide,11 seats long) which takes one hour from Darwin.
The environment is as stunning as it is wild and dangerous. Long white beaches merge with scrub that turns into parched, red, dusty bushland, meeting billabongs and wide brown rivers edged with lush, green, broad leafed ferns and palms.
Tropical storms are common in the wet season and unpredictable. The area suffered Australia’s strongest cyclone, Cyclone Maria in 2006. Excursions into this landscape need to be carefully planned and thought about. Ants and snakes are the least concerning predators. Wild buffalo, dingo and crocodile encounters are not rare. The salted tanning hides at the Maningrida rangers office of two large salties remind us that these prehistoric style reptiles are fierce, killers and everywhere!
This land that can kill is also a generous benefactor! Rivers are teeming with Barramundi, billabongs filled with Mud Crabs. Rocky outcrops provide shelter, sunsets provide beauty. The variety of mammals and birds create diversity.
Socially the township of Maningrida still appears to be a hothouse in a clash of cultures – there is shrapnel on either side. Aboriginal traditional ceremonies and rites of passage are still a part of Aboriginal daily life and threads of many aspects of traditional culture struggle to survive. Yet much of the magic, mystique and phenomenal survival skills of the nomadic aboriginal seem all but lost.
Housing is provided and wanted but aboriginals just don’t use houses like “white” people! Its natural for them to sit together every night, outside on the ground, with their dogs, around their fire. Ownership and possessions are still foreign concepts to a tribal race who for many thousands of years carried very little, their home and livelihoods provided by mother earth and spread over vast expanses of country!
The Aboriginal concept of family, tribe and kinship is complex, resulting in “relatives” moving from house to house, outstation to outstation, stronger aboriginals taking from or “humbugging” on weaker “family” members, bickering and jealousies, pecking orders!
Many Aboriginals have been negatively effected by “white” man introductions. A tendency for addiction to substances, alcohol (which is strictly limited in this community) petrol, marijuana, and gambling create social problems and conflict.
We are told it is difficult to encourage individuals to turn up for work on a regular basis. Opportunities abound for local enterprises to bring wealth to the community. It is said that the Mud Crab industry alone could bring $25,000 a week. Yet, tribal bonds are the prime concern and full time employment is not a priority ……. it only takes a few hours work to earn money to “recharge” a mobile phone. This often seems to be enough with workers who arrived in the morning, disappearing by lunch time.
Childrens education is not seen as important or valued. The school bus traverses around the township every morning, screaming top 40 music through loud speakers attached to its roof in order to alert or perhaps, wake up sleepy children whose parents are not prodding them to get ready and attend school.
Basic health messages are not being heard or adhered to. Although cases of leprosy, still documented in the 1960’s, seem to have abated, children have beyond average amounts of ear and hearing problems through a lack of blowing noses; eye sight issues due to not washing flies from little faces; scabies in epidemic proportions due to lack of good washing facilities and the aboriginal liking to have almost a dog per person living with them.
Enter the Balanda (white people) riding in like the cavalry in their government issued 4 WD’s (a necessity if working further afield in outstations.) The Northern Territory government works closely with the Aboriginal Maningrida management group, Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation and places a continuous stream of “Balandas” in the community to provide a wide range of services.
Many “Balandas” just don’t make it. This government funded “white” community is not necessarily a cohesive group and conflict can occur through incompetence, self righteous ideals and a lack of complimenting skills, values and philosophies. An elderly desert aboriginal woman once quipped that “Balanda are like Toyotas. When one breaks down we just get a new one!” It is also quipped that the well paid positions vacant in Maningrida attract Missionaries, Mercenaries or Misfits.
Certainly there seems to be no lack of funds or resources put in to trying to resolve the issues of a misplaced race in an a white, affluent country. Each new Balanda brings a fresh faced enthusiasm; new projects and plans are drawn; funding is arranged and machinery is purchased, often only to lay rusting in a hot and dusty yard when that Balanda has lost enthusiasm and purpose in the face of overwhelming hurdles and problems. This and just becoming fed up with the lack of citystyle “niceties”, a good cafe, streets and sidewalks free of litter and marauding packs of dogs!
Our friends Bob and Sharon have taken up the challenge and together, are equipped to make the most of and contribute to Maningrida. Attracted by a job description requiring travel in 4 WD and light aircraft, Sharon is employed in a program to coordinate child safety services and is realistic and pragmatic about what can and will be achieved. Bob is retired and socializes and volunteers his way into the community seamlessly. It’s an adventurous learning curve, a unique and rich experience where supporting each other, and maintaining a sense of humor is vital.
Despite the issues, we loved our brief immersion into the tropical north and the opportunity to witness first hand the problems that are as old as white settlement. It was interesting and stimulating to observe and wonder! Aboriginals and Balanda each doing their best, each wanting whats best for two cultures widely separated by thousands of years of disparate genetic imprint. Conflict and struggle must exist. To me, its like trying to download Apple software into Microsoft computers. It cannot happen easily!
There is something captivating about life in Maningrida. Perhaps an unwieldy sense of hope, a lay back, hot, bare foot kind of place that embraces a old black pig and a big old black cow, and allows them to live free range and unhindered in their community.
Given time, maybe Dreamtime, cultures will merge, health will flourish, and the mystery and magic of an ancient tribal race may return.