December 19, 2006

Research assistant

I need a research assistant! Can anyone help me out with the Tiwi word for European/whitefella/munanga?

December 18, 2006

what's Ngukurr like?

I went to a party in Darwin on Saturday nite and there were a few Important People there. While mingling and making small talk I was asked a few times, "What's Ngukurr like?". I found myself completely incapable of giving a decent answer.

Any suggestions appreciated... I just don't know how to answer that question...

December 11, 2006

bad health

It's common knowledge that health in remote communities is in a bad state. Good then, to read a couple of stories calling for action. Read this and this.

There's no doubt that this mob here aren't very well off when it comes to health care. Just today, one of the language workers came to me cranky because he went to the clinic and the big blister on his foot from a scalding wasn't treated. Later, another of the language workers nearly collapsed in pain and has been at the clinic all day. He'd been scheduled in for an urgent colonoscopy and gastroscopy but of course the process takes a couple of weeks and he has to have it done 320kms away in Katherine. He's really quite sick now and me and all his family are very worried.

But how much can you expect when there's only two nurses here today. That doesn't seem like much for a community of over 1000. And there's no doctor here til tomorrow.

I don't know anything about health care but would a regular town of over 1000 have a permanent doctor stationed there? Would a town of over 1000 with such major health problems have a doctor permanently stationed there? There just doesn't seem to be much of an investment in health here to try and improve the situation. And it's not just more money for white nurses and doctors, it's investing in health education, training local people in health and investing in traditional health practices such as bush medicine. It can be done, but doesn't seem to be happening.

The ABC article is right - for a wealthy country, there's no reason why things should be the way they are out here.

November 09, 2006

school excursion

Today was scorching hot. It hit 41 degrees (at least). Luckily me and some of the language mob were joining in with a school excursion to the Wilton River, a nice little swimming spot about 30 mins away.

The excursion was for the transition class - all five year olds. They have excellent local teachers and I brought along 4 language teachers. There was a lot of swimming as well as some language classes (the kids broke up into 4 different language groups and the assistant teachers joined in very well too). Plus one old lady showed the kids how to make a coolamon out of paperbark and their regular teacher made a paperbark raft and floated one of the students on it. We all had lunch, a cup of tea and it was quite a relaxing day and definitely a good way to pass time when it's 41 degreees. Here's a couple of pics. The first one is all the kids and their teachers at the Wilton River crossing. They're laying down like crocodiles. And then there's me with a bunch of them. Awww.

November 03, 2006

Roly who?

I've mentioned before that I'm a bit of a fame whore.

And so I'm rather pleased with myself that a little article I wrote is currently appearing in a Melbourne street rag. But what is really neat is that the mag is not something I would thought I would ever be asked to contribute to. It's the inaugural issue of 'The Design Papers', a street mag put out by the National Design Centre in Federation Square. A designer called David Lancashire contacted us here and asked for a few 'pidgin' words. When I explained that what we speak here is Kriol and it's not a pidgin, they asked me to contribute a piece. So David Lancashire did some graphic design to illustrate the Kriol words I gave him, a wrote a piece about Kriol at Ngukurr and Peter Muhlhausler wrote a piece about pidgins.

What I didn't get was what a design magazine had to do with pidgins and Kriol, but the story goes is that design can be used find common ground when language can't bridge the gap and that is something shared with pidgins and creoles.

So anyway, if you're in Melbourne, next time you get a coffee look for 'The Design Papers'. And if you're mates with Roly Sussex or Kate Burridge, try and put their mind at ease because I'm sure they're getting a bit concerned about this up-and-coming pop linguist... hehehehehehehehe...

November 01, 2006

payday, cards and nappies

Today is payday and that means it's time for the big card games to start while everyone's cashed up.

After school program today I was driving around with the two guys who teach Waagilak. We drove past one camp where there was a big group of people playing cards.

"Gardi, bigis kadgeim jeya." (Woah, big card game there). I said.

My waawa, W, said, "Thei nomo sabi gu la toilet wen thei la kad". (They don't go to the toilet when they're playing cards). "Maitbi thei gu la toilet jeya igin." (They probably go to the toilet right there).

And we all chuckled.

Then my maari T goes, "Thei maitbi plei garri kimbis". (They probably play with nappies on).

And we all chuckled even more.


October 21, 2006

the proles

George Orwell's 1984 was written in 1949. I first read it 12 years ago and am re-reading it now. One great thing about the science fiction genre is that by stepping outside the world we inhabit it lets you look at things from the outside and can offer clarity when you relate the fictional world back to your own.

Here's an except from 1984 that is quite striking:

"The Party taught that the proles were natural inferiors who must be kept in subjection, like animals, by the application of a few simple rules. In reality very little was known about the proles. It was not necessary to know much. ... They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming-period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumours and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous; but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice."

Remind you of anything?

October 19, 2006


Let me digress and leave Arnhem Land for a post, while I go back to the place where my interest in language was first sparked - Iceland - where I was an exchange student after I finished highschool.

Now, Iceland has hit the news because it plans to start commercial whaling again, with a quota of 30 minke and 9 blue fin whales. The Australian government (my favourite thing in the world!!) responded with this criticism from Environment Minister Ian Campbell (thanks ABC News website):

Senator Campbell says its a very irresponsible move.

"I think it will raise doubts right around the world about Iceland's commitment to environmental issues," he said.

"It is really a very sad day for the world, when a first world, developed country like Iceland should effectively tear up one of the great environmental achievements of the world from the last century, that is the moratorium on whaling."

Okay, so I'm not into whaling as much as the next guy, but for Australia to criticise Iceland is a big call. This from a country who refused to sign the Kyoto protocol and is taking no action to cut down greenhouse emissions, all the while Iceland is one of the world's cleanest countries with nearly all its power produced from geothermal energy. Countries like Iceland should be bagging out Australia, because they are doing the right thing in terms of the Greenhouse effect and we're the idiots stuffing it all up.

And yes, Iceland is intending to hunt endangered species... not a good thing, but hang on... Australia's record of extincting or endangering its native wildlife is about the worst in the world! (I don't really need to say anything about Australia's record of extincting or endangering its 300 native languages either, do I??).

Pull your head in Senator Campbell.

October 17, 2006

bush tucker 101

The other day old BR asked me to drop her down at the local billabong. This is just the kind of humbug that sometimes annoys me, but as a peace offering BR gave me the biggest yarlbun I've ever seen! (Which made it all okay.)

Yarlbun is the Marra name for this bush tucker - it's the fruit of the water lily, a big seed pod that you get by going into the water and feeling around for under the surface. And these pictures show you what you can do with it.

The first pic shows the giant yarlbun intact. Next, I've peeled the skin off, revealing the inside part bulging with lily seeds. Now, you can eat it just like that, like an apple, but as you'll see in the third picture, I've actually emptied all the seeds into a bowl. And that's how I ate it, just like cereal. Very tasty, and I'm sure very healthy. And the last pic shows a row of yarlbun that had been roasted on the fire - another good way to eat it.

And thus endeth your first lesson on bush tucker. Acknowledgements to old BR (and all the other people out here that have taught me about this kind of thing).

And for a bit of language lesson: this bush tucker is called yarlbun in Marra and Alawa, dattam in Rembarrnga, dhatam in Ritharrngu/Waagilak, ma-dhatdam in Ngandi and ayag in Nunggubuyu.

October 14, 2006

more about our cold-hearted government

Jane Simpson wrote some sad and sobering thoughts about what this government is doing to Aboriginal communities. Please have a read.

And please think about voting for a government that has a heart and a brain.

October 12, 2006

a good but tired day

I’m tired. I find myself moving through each day here at Ngukurr with not much energy. Not really struggling, but just going through the motions, even though the motions are far from boring and repetitive.

If I wasn’t so tired and in need of a good break, I would be really enthusiastic about my day today. Today was a really good day and most days we are still doing lots of good stuff, but I’m tired and am finding it hard to be inspired.

But can I tell you about today?

The first good thing that happened was a visit from Ted Egan, who is the administrator of the NT. (He’s is the Queen’s representative here, same as a governor, but only states have governors.) He’s been visiting Ngukurr for a couple of days and yesterday happened to be at the school when we were doing language classes. He was very impressed with what he saw (good job Marra mob!). He met the Marra teachers and asked if he could sit down with FR, our deadliest Marra speaker.

So this morning Ted Egan came to Language Centre, chatted to me and the language mob, then I went and found FR because Ted wanted to interview her and record some of her story. Ted’s idea is that old Aboriginal people like FR should be getting a lot more recognition nationally for their skills, knowledge and for what they represent. So me, Ted and Freda sat down and Ted asked her to tell a little bit of her story, speaking only in Marra.

It was only a short session, but it was great listening to FR busting out her Marra. (Only bad thing was my mobile going off in the middle of it.) We took some photos and we’ll work on the story, which Ted is hoping to use as a tool for people like FR to gain greater recognition.

After that, some of the language mob and me went to the Batchelor Centre to do a bit of work on their Batchelor course. For their course, they need to learn some basic computer skills, which I’ve been reluctant to do because the language mob’s computer skills are nil to poor. But they were keen to learn. With 4 students and 4 computers, we gave it a go and it worked great. ET and AG have basically never used a computer before and there they were booting up, typing words and sentences in their languages and printing them off. RG and JJ were also doing it but they already know a bit about computers. For me it was a magic moment sitting back watching them quietly working away on the computers.

After that JJ listened to the recording from this morning with FR and Ted Egan. He was playing it (using the minidisk capably on his own, good man) while I was deep in conversation with someone else. Then my phone went off again (my John Legend ringtone), so I apologised and dug in my pocket for my phone. I looked at my phone but was very confused because nobody was calling me! Then I realised it was coming from this morning’s recording being played on the other side of the room and I felt rather stupid. Oh well, it’s nice when everyone gets to laugh at me.

September 25, 2006


a few weeks ago, an old lady passed away and she was probably the last full speaker of Ngandi, bless her soul. She was a deadly old lady who had done lots of language work in her life and contributed so much to all the work that has been done on Ngandi. She will be missed.

After her death, one munanga here said to me ‘Ngandi is extinct now’. But is it really?

We are still teaching Ngandi here at Ngukurr. My anggurl ET knows a bit of the language and is working hard to learn more. Twice a week, he teaches Ngandi at Ngukurr school and is doing his best to pass on what he knows. So for a few hours a week he is teaching the words and phrases he knows and the Ngandi kids are slowly learning. Can you still call Ngandi extinct when that is happening?

My mami CD can understand Ngandi really well, although she is not a ‘full’ speaker in that there are things she doesn’t know and she hasn’t really grown up speaking Ngandi. But she can easily produce plenty of fluent sentences and knows a lot of the language. Can you call Ngandi extinct when she’s still here with that knowledge?

Another mami of mine, RG, also knows Ngandi pretty well. The other day, me and ET were trying to work out some Ngandi words. I asked RG, ‘what does barru-bak-bolk-dhungi mean?’ and she said, ‘thei bin kamat na’ (they came out/arrived). Can you call Ngandi extinct when we are still talking like this?

Today RG said to me ‘Nga-rudhung gu-rerr-gitj’ and I understood her perfectly… she told me she was going home. Is Ngandi really extinct?

Of course, there is no one left who is sitting around speaking Ngandi all the time, but it hasn’t gone away. I don’t think calling a language extinct is quite as black and white as it would first seem.

September 16, 2006

i did it

I finally did my census the other day. Now I can stop whinging.

Plus I missed a chance to be on ABC radio (again!) talking about our problems with the census. I was out bush at the time. Oh well, my celebrity status is still on hold for now. :)

September 12, 2006

maidi sta bin buldan

I was sitting quietly on the language centre steps this arvo after a noisy afternoon of language classes and my 4-year-old neighbour wandered over and started chatting (all in Kriol of course). After a while she pointed to the hill in the distance behind language centre and said,

"yu gin luk shainiwan ting jeya?" (Can you see the shiny thing there?)
"yuwai, wani tharran?" (Yeah, what's that?)

I reckon it was just an aluminium can reflecting the sunlight, but she says,

"maidi sta bin buldan." (Maybe a star fell down.)

I asked her if she'd seen any stars fall down and she said no, she went to sleep last night and got up early to go to school.

How beautiful is that?

But then, I couldn't help think that when this little girl is at school, her white school teacher will not be able be access this child's observation skills, communication/language skills and imagination because this little girl's classroom is a predominantly English classroom and she doesn't speak English. What a shame.

August 28, 2006

bush trip!

Numerous meetings. Lots of 'community consultation'. Permission forms. Buying food, fruit n veg, camping gear in Katherine. Hiring a troopy from Darwin... I'm exhausted and the trip hasn't even started yet.

We're going on a big bush trip tomorrow. 4 days and 3 nights at a place called Towns River. There'll be about 30 of us in 4 troop carriers. It's pretty huge. I've been left with most of the organising (my main co-organiser recently became a widower and hasn't been working) and I'm buggered already. My situation hasn't been helped by being on the verge of anxiety attacks for the past week because I've been irrationally fearing the worst (like no one will come, everyone will starve and complain, we'll get lost, everyone will have a terrible time etc. etc.)

But I'm looking forward to it now. And so I should, I've put lots of work into it. The trip is for Marra people. It's for old people to go to Marra country with young people to teach them about country, culture and language. It should be good. My job is also to document the trip (audio, video) and I'm sure it'll be great. I'll be the only munanga too, which isn't too unusual, but being out bush for most of the week will be different. I think it'll be a bonding experience and I'm sure I'll learn lots. And I'm sure I'll be absolutely exhausted when we come back on Friday. (Which is when I have to work out how to get the rental troopy back to Darwin for Saturday morning!)

August 15, 2006

What census?

Was there a census last week? If there was, us mob at Ngukurr know nothing about it.

I know thismob here already get a pretty raw deal but no census? I thought they had a referendum about that in 1967 making it illegal to leave Aboriginal people out of the census.

John Howard, your government is shit.

August 03, 2006

to English

I don't like discussing the various 'curiosities' of Kriol because historically creoles are plagued by being noticed for the 'cute' things they do with the superstrate language. Or in otherwords, creoles are always mocked for being 'cute' or 'bastardised' versions of their derivative languages, and not appreciated in their own right.

But I noticed something great about Kriol today. You can use 'English' as a verb, meaning to speak to someone with English.

Today my wawa A was outside talking away to two munanga he used to work with and his wife comes in and says, 'yu wawa jeya ingglishbat' (translation: Your brother is there 'englishing'). She was giggling about it, because her husband's English isn't all that flash, but he was there having a good old yarn to these guys.

After I heard that, I realised I'd heard it before. I remember my banji telling about a white girl being interested in him, but he couldn't go talk to her "dumaji im mait Ingglish-ingglish na mi" (translation: because she might English-English to me).

It's interesting... to 'Ingglish' is more than to just speak English, it also incorporates the aspect of making Aboriginal people step outside their linguistic and cultural comfort zone.

July 27, 2006


Hey all. Sorry I’ve been slack with my blog. I was away from Ngukurr for a few weeks. Part of my time away was spent in Brisbane going to my first ever linguistics conference. 8 days of conference! Well, 3 days of conference then 5 days of linguistics courses. It was pretty full on, interesting and fun and very much a different scene from what happens here at Ngukurr.

The main thing that struck me while at the conference was how different the two worlds of linguistics are – one world being the on-the-ground, community-based, community development, applied linguistics stuff I do here at Ngukurr and the other world being the world of academic linguistics which is what dominated the conference.

While I find that world interesting and it definitely has a lot to offer, sometimes I couldn’t help thinking what little relevance it has to people like the guys I work with at Ngukurr – especially things like historical linguistics and typology… I can’t stop myself from thinking sometimes ‘yeah that’s all very interesting, but really… so what?’. Each to their own I suppose.

One of the other things I thought about was that by having such a focus on academic, theoretical stuff, all the good stuff that linguists do on the ground, working with Aboriginal people is usually backgrounded, which is a shame, because personally I think it’s more interesting and important. I mean, I listened to people talking about various grammatical features of languages and comparing this language to that language and re-analysing this-that and the other, but I know that some of those same people have done amazing things in terms of producing language materials, dictionaries, training Aboriginal people, language education etc., but that just wasn’t what the conference was about. I found myself imaging what the Australian linguistics scene would be like if linguists weren’t being competitive about analysing a certain grammatical feature or reconstructing proto-What-have-you but instead were competitive about who’s making the most user-friendly dictionary, who’s implementing the best training programs for community-based language workers and who’s creating the best educational resources for Aboriginal languages. Ah, that would be great… then I would really be engaged! And the two worlds of linguistics would be much more aligned.

June 17, 2006

Go Roper mob

A few weeks ago, most of the people I work with started a Batchelor course (Batchelor is the college/university based in the NT specifically for Aboriginal people). The course they’re doing builds language work skills: reading and writing language, recording, teaching – all the same stuff we do here anyway. But I encouraged these guys to do the course so they can get accreditation for the training they’re already doing.

And so a lecturer came out to get these guys started and we’re continuing meeting twice a week for tutoring sessions to get through the course.

Yesterday morning only three of the students came but we got some good work done. They practiced using the minidisc to play recordings and then make their own. I helped make sure GB was doing it right and then off they went, all recording each other in Marra saying the bush tucker names they’d written down the day before.

After that, we listened to the recordings and then transcribed FR’s recording. Well, I shouldn’t say we. GB did it all on the board, I only had to help a couple of times – the other old ladies were helping him too. This is the short text that FR recorded on minidisc and GB transcribed:

Blackcurrant gana warr-iwiganji gumirr.
Nanggaya gayi white currant blanggangga warr-iwiganji nana nanggaya.
Blackplum gana warr-iwiganji gulinja.
Nana nanggaya conkerberry warr-iwiganji jinggulili.
Lilyseed warr-iwiganji yarlbun.
Nana nanggaya lilyroot garnaya gana warr-iwiganji.
Green plum gana warr-iwiganji yurrmuru.
Lilystalk warr-iwiganji jawjaw.
Jabay guda.

The only words GB needed help spelling were 'warr-iwiganji', 'jinggulili' and 'jabay'. We didn’t even translate it, which I love – a Marra text standing on its own.

But for those who don’t understand Marra (hehe), here’s a rough translation:

Blackcurrant, we call it gumirr.
That other one, white currant - blanggangga we call that one.
Blackplum we call it gulinja.
That conkerberry, we call it jinggulili.
Lilyseed we call it yarlbun.
That lilyroot – garnaya, we call it.
Green plum we call it yurrmuru.
Lilystalk we call it jawjaw.
That’s about it. (Lit: maybe that’s all).

Oh, and there's pictures of blanggangga and gulinja already on this blog... try look at Feb or March postings...

June 14, 2006

Language workshop at Numbulwar

I've already blogged about the workshop we had at Numbulwar a few weeks ago (see below) and now here's a photo of everyone at the workshop. Biggest mob, hey? (And I've already sent it round with a press release... hehe...)

June 13, 2006

baby steps

To put it very simply, my job involves revitalising as many as 7 endangered languages, which is … well … pretty huge. And it’s a job that can only be done in baby steps. And sometimes I see some of the baby steps… and on one hand, they’re not much, but on the other hand, they represent something quite significant.

A few weeks ago, we put up some signs at the shop showing the names of eight animals in five different languages. This could easily be perceived as a fruitless activity – firstly, because hardly anyone is literate in their language and wouldn’t be able to read the words and secondly, the vast majority of people here seem pretty uninterested in their language. But four weeks on, two of the five signs are still sitting there at the shop and today I looked at the Ngandi one and someone had graffitied ‘Thompson’ at the bottom of it, which is the surname of the vast majority of Ngandi people here at Ngukurr. It’s only a little thing, but it means that that language, and the fact that it’s on display at the shop, is important to someone.

Last week, I went to Urapunga community for the first time in a year and a half. I didn’t do any language work there last year because they had no funding and I had no time. It was a shame, especially because there a few ladies there that are really keen. The language there is Ngalakgan and those ladies know a few words but there are no full speakers left there to teach them more. But they are keen to teach what they know and to learn more. So I finally went back there and had a meeting with them and the school. They are dead keen. The ‘baby step’ that really surprised me was when one of the ladies produced from her pocket a dirty folded piece of paper. It was a short Ngalakgan wordlist I’d written for her 18 months ago. If you know anything about communities, you would know that for something to last 18 months is pretty significant. I couldn’t believe she was carrying around that same bit of paper.

Today during language class, I sat with the Ritharrngu and Waagilak kids for a bit. They were learning those animal names. If they got it wrong, their teacher BW would say yaka (nothing, no). Then I heard a little boy, FH, all of 8 years old, pipe up with yaka, bayangu (nothing, no in two different yolngu dialects).

Earlier I was there when the assistant principal sat with the Ngandi kids briefly. One of the little girls (all of 7 years old) taught her how to say a-walpburrunggu (bustard, or bust turkey). Keep in mind that this language Ngandi is basically never spoken anymore, yet here was a 7 year old girl teaching her assistant principal a Ngandi word.

Baby steps. But then people are always excited to see a baby learning to walk.

June 03, 2006

two big weeks

We've had two big weeks and today is the first day I've had to relax (and try and make sure I don't get sick from too much work... and play).

Last week, the Education department held a Language Revitalisation workshop. It was at Numbulwar, a community about three hours away which is actually on the saltwater giving it a stunning location. The workshop was pretty mega. The Ngukurr contingent totalled 13. Go us. Monday was our travel day and we waited and waited for the troopy to arrive from Katherine (carrying another 8 people headed for the workshop). Finally at 4pm they arrived. By then I'd already recorded old F saying a few words in Marra and then adapted our little computer game into Marra. And five of the men were long gone as they were travelling by plane. We set off before 5pm so it turned dark on the way. A few pauses and some water in the fuel line was nothing compared to the troopy getting bogged not far from Numbulwar. Our little Hilux had to act as the anchor for the winch and luckily we dragged them out as opposed to being dragged into the mud too. Ah, the joys of top end travel.

Anyways, the workshop was good. We checked out the deadly Language program at Numbulwar school. They've been teaching daily for 16 years and really have it together and it's a great model for us to follow. Again, I was pretty proud of the Ngukurr mob who participated well in the workshop and are beginning to impress a few ppl in the Education Department. The NT minister for Education, Syd Stirling dropped in and we got to show off and lobby him for some decent funding.

What I loved about the week at Numbulwar was that I got to be 'one of the guys' much more than usual. I was just one of the workshop participants along with the rest of the Ngukurr mob and I was camping on swags with the rest of the guys down at the 'billabong anga' (billabong camp). I just felt that little bit more accepted and apart of these guys life which makes being here that much easier.

The other funny thing that happened that week was seeing the Numbulwar kids react to me speaking Kriol. I was a total freakshow I tell you! It one stage I was surrounded by kids who were really putting me on stage and testing me out... I was no longer a person, but just this weird whitefella who sounds just like everyone else (except for other whitefellas). Too funny.

After Numbulwar I ran off to Darwin for the weekend for some R'n'R which was great but again, not all that restful. I needed to be back here for first thing Monday as we had a lecturer here from Batchelor college who is putting a lot of our language workers through courses. So this week, we had a weeklong workshop (interrupted only by running the school program) and it went well. The guys I work with have already picked up most of the skills needed to get them through the course so it's just a matter of some practise and assessment and we'll have a whole bunch of graduates on our hands.

So it's been a big couple of weeks and things just keep on building here at Ngukurr. I just have to make sure I look after myself. My glands are swollen and I'm on the verge of getting sick.

May 17, 2006

ai bin gulijap krai

"Ai bin gulijap krai" means 'I nearly cried'.

Here at Ngukurr, middle aged and older people all have stories about being banned from speaking Language at school. I don't hear the stories that often, but I know they're there. I don't push them because I worry they might be painful or make people feel no good.

But in the press release I sent around a few weeks ago, we approached the issue. Here's what I wrote (it was published in the Koori Mail):

Once banned, Elders now teach children language

"Older generations of Aboriginal people in the southern Arnhem Land community of Ngukurr were banned from speaking their traditional languages at school when they were children. Decades later, a dedicated group of the same people are putting their languages - now endangered - back into the classroom and teaching new generations.

Now in its second year in its current form, the language program at Ngukurr Community Education Centre incorportates five langauges - Marra, Ngandi, Ritharrngu/Waagilak, Rembarrnga and Nunggubuyu. Each of the 200 or so students learns one of their traditional languages through weekly classes run by teams of Elders and language teachers.

"It was hard when I was young because white people wouldn't let us speak our language in the class," says Ngukurr Langauge Centre chairman John Joshua. "We had to speak at home with our parents. Now we're lucky, we have a language centre and we hope to keep going while our Elders are alive, speaking their languages strongly. Kids are really enjoying our classes, especially the younger ones."

Through the language program, students at Ngukurr CEC not only learn their traditional languages but also strenghten their cultural identities. They gain valuable opportunities to learn from Elders and their languages are given a better chance of being passed on for future generations.

The current program was developed and implemented in 2005 without any funding from the Education Department, instead being supported entirely by Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation (Katherine Regional Aboriginal Language Centre) and its annexe at Ngukurr.

From the dedication shown by community members involved in the program, the local school was able to source funding to pay the language teachers."


And so today I cut out the article and stuck it up at the Language Centre. My anggul E, who's about 50 or 55, read it and said to me, "That's true."

He told me that one time, his teacher heard him speaking his language, Ngandi. His teacher took him into the store room, got a stick and belted him 15 times. After that, his teacher made him write lines. He had to write 50 times, "I must not speak Language at school." He reckons he was about 8 or 10 years old at the time and he remembers the name of that teacher.

When old E told me that story today, I nearly cried, but all I could say to him was, "That's no good, hey".

I felt silly putting meagre words to his story, which I think is just absolutely shameful and criminal.

May 09, 2006

Ola langgus mob

Believe it or not, but this motley crew is responsible for the revitalisation of Ngukurr's endangered languages. And they're deadly. Standing left to right are my mami (mother) R, baby M, and my wawa (brother) A, who are the Rembarrnga mob. Then there's my maari (mother's mother's brother) T, our Waagilak teacher, then me, then my nephew D, who works on Ngandi and my magarra (uncle's daughter) B, a Marra teacher. Sitting down are my anggul (uncle) E, our Ngandi teacher, my anti F, a Marra teacher, and JBJ, our chairperson. Thank you to my mami Sophie for the photo.

May 05, 2006

media whore

I'm too vain to not be excited by being mentioned in any kind of media... and I'm doing okay at the moment.

You can see me on two blogs: bulanjdjan talking about the opening of the Community Language Library last night, and the other bulandjan talking about me dancing (performing more like) and the big disco at Ngukurr last weekend.

Apart from that, I was interviewed by ABC radio and the opening of the Language Library last night. I just went to air around the NT and might be on Radio National too now. And a press release I sent around about the Ngukurr School Language Program has got a response. The April 26 edition of the Koori Mail has a colour photo on page 2 and the story on page 28. But my name isn't mentioned on that one... so I can be a bit humble. :-)

April 29, 2006

Thenkyu main boi

Last week, someone new joined in with teaching our language program – but this time it’s someone young! And not only that, he’s really good and seems to be enjoying it so far. He’s only about 20 and helps old E teach Ngandi. Ngandi is really endangered so D, the young guy (my nephew), doesn’t really know the language but he has good brains and is picking it up really quick and running with it. Best of all, he is pretty outgoing and a naturally good teacher. Pretty exciting really.

But what was surprising to me was finding out how different it is to be working with someone young, someone who I can relate to a bit more. I didn’t think it would have such a noticeable effect. It felt really good to be working with someone who naturally understands me a bit better (and I don’t mean in terms of language, I mean in terms of interests, attitudes, values etc.). But then I started feeling a bit sad, because I realised how I am always working hard to understand and relate to the older people I work with (and for them to relate to and understand me too). I realised that without working with younger people I'm that little bit lonelier. It’s just naturally easier for me to work with younger people, we just understand each other that little bit better.

So I’m happy that my nephew D has started joining in. I hope he keeps going. I’ll be happy to have him here plus he has an awful lot of potential.

P.S. Here are the Ngandi words that D and E have been teaching the last couple of weeks: a-dhirrk (kangaroo), a-wurrpparn (emu), a-walppurrunggu (bush turkey), a-yarraman (horse), a-muri (buffalo), a-gawirh (dingo), a-bidjay (goanna) and a-nanggurru (saltwater croc).

April 28, 2006

playing around

I slept very badly last night, even though I was very tired. I thought I would collapse into bed and go straight to sleep, but instead laid there watching telly until I got sleepy at 11pm. But that’s not the end of my story. Sometime later, my mobile phone woke me up. I thought someone was sending me a text message. I woke up and looked at my phone but there was no text message and no missed call. It had definitely made a noise because the phone was lit up too. But whatever noise my phone was making was totally unexplained. It was just after midnight. I fell back into sleep easily but woke up a couple of hours later and couldn’t go back to sleep. I sat there awake for a while, getting eaten by mozzies. Eventually, I sat up and reached for the fan switch to turn it up. At the exact moment I turned the fan up, the touch lamp on the other side of the room went on. In two years, this touch lamp has never turned on for no reason.

So this afternoon, I told this story to my two brothers and one gagu (grandfather) who were here at the language centre. They automically said it was something of significance. My baba said someone or something was playing around. He thought it was a little person. I’m not sure what it was, but it was definitely strange.

I’ve always been intrigued by ‘little people’. I was an exchange student in Iceland and lots of people there believe in them. My best friend when I was there was a mexican-american who knew stories about little people from California and Mexico that were remarkably similar to those of the Icelanders. And since then I’ve heard plenty of stories from Aboriginal people about little people. Similar stories from three parts of the globe is a bit of a coincidence and I still can’t explain what was happening last night.

April 22, 2006

still here

Hello to anybody still looking at this blog. I'm still here at Ngukurr. I just haven't felt like writing much lately and haven't had anything I wanted to get off my chest and on to my blog. I suppose the longer I'm here the more ensconsed I am in life here and the more normal life here becomes for me.

But yes, I'm still here and not going anywhere. Literally. The roads out of here have been cut for a couple of months now. Luckily, I got to fly out of here a month ago for a week or so, but since coming back I haven't been able to leave. Which is fine, but it's now four weeks which is about my limit before going a bit stir crazy and spending too much time fantasising about being able to go to a cafe and pay someone to make me a nice coffee. Don't ever take those things for granted!

I'm hoping to be able to drive to Katherine in a week or two, but there's another stinkin cyclone hanging around which might have plans of thwart.

March 15, 2006

feeling proud

Since last week, I've been noticing that I've been becoming more and more proud of the language mob here at Ngukurr and that my love for them has been growing. And today was a bit of a pinnacle, with two politicians coming to visit us here at Language Centre. Not that anyone did anything special today while they were visiting, but just that they're here doing what they do makes me proud.

The main reason I've been feeling this way lately is because I've been having a lot of problems with the main office in Katherine - rock bottom staff morale and poor management. In the face of those problems I've been really grateful for this mob here and the support they give me and the consistent good work we do together.

But it's funny. Their support isn't revealed through sitting down and talking about things and them telling me everything's okay and I'm alright. It comes through them just being them, being happy to keep working with me, an implicit expression that they value me and the work we do together. And sometimes I realise how special that is and it makes me proud - of myself and of them.

So today our local NT member and the Labor Senator for NT came to visit. They turned up and old F was reading the Marra dictionary - we'd just finished checking the new Marra picture book we'd made. A and T were playing the new Ritharrngu language game on my computer (T had only learned to use a computer mouse an hour before). My mami R was inside typing out a Rembarrnga story. And JBJ talked to the senator about our work. Too deadly this mob.

Things are going well here. I just wish I could say the same for the Katherine office. I guess you can't have it all.

March 01, 2006


Here's another bush tucker. This one is a white currant. In Marra, it's burlanggangga (or 'blanggangga' when it's said quickly). In Rembarrnga, it's gorrowon. Mmm... tasty n sweet.

February 28, 2006

bush tucker time

Now that wet season has happenend (sort of) there's lots of little fruits growing around the place. This one is a kind of black plum, or in Marra: gulinja, or in Rembarrnga: wujal. Tastes good.

February 22, 2006

Funding time

At the moment, I’m feeling very uncertain about the future. Worst case scenario for our funding is a disastrous one where Ngukurr Language Centre wont be able to have a linguist working there and it’ll basically close, like it did for two years a few years back. Best case scenario is that there’s nothing to worry about and that we’ll keep going the same way, but even still, we can never be sure from one year to the next what’s going to happen.

When it comes round to funding application time, these things weigh on my mind… what if there is no funding. What do this mob do then? What do I do then? What has been the value of the past couple of years if it’s just going to fall over again? It’s not a good way to work, always with the knowledge that it could all be over soon. How are you supposed to achieve anything in terms of community development when things can only develop ‘subject-to-funding’. It’s a big reason a lot of Ngukurr residents grow tired of hearing about the latest scheme, idea or ‘solution’.

Wish us luck. I’m hoping everything will be fine.

February 17, 2006

something satisfying

Last year I blogged about giving some of the language workers here spelling tests. Well, I’ve continued doing some work with two of the language workers trying to explicitly teach them about writing down their language, Rembarrnga (which doesn’t have a completely straightforward spelling system). I made them a big syllable chart and have been giving them tests on writing down just syllables. Then I’ve been giving the spelling tests, writing down some simple words. It’s pretty amazing. Really, these two are still at a pretty low level, but they’re learning. They’re thinking about breaking words down into syllables now. And they seem to actually enjoy doing the work. But the coolest thing is that yesterday after giving them a syllable spelling test and a word spelling test, they sat there and kept practising on other words and even sentences. For instance, my mami R, she wanted to write down this sentence:

Re-ngœnœ nga-nguna (I’m going to eat my meat, which sounds better in Kriol: ai garra dagat main bip)

She got stuck on ‘ngœnœ’ but got the rest right, working out how to spell ‘nguna’ with the syllable chart.

It’s the little things like this that make this job satisfying.

Unlike being hung-up on by someone who does an important job in the community, which also happened to me yesterday.

February 14, 2006

'the man' is getting me down

Anybody seen that movie 'School of Rock'? ... where Jack Black's character is talking about sticking it to 'the man' and talking about 'the man' being any kind of oppressive force - being a specific person or just a general force.

Well 'the man' beat me hands down today and it's getting me down. 'The man' came at me from a few sides too, which makes it even harder.

I shouldn't really go into details for fear of getting too bitchy but just wanted to say that I don't feel so great right now.

I just want to learn, work with, teach, record, transcribe, write down, speak, listen to the endangered languages here and the people that speak them. But it's just not that straight forward. It never is I suppose.

Bobala mi.

In other news, I got an anonymous Valentine's Day card today, which is quite funny.

February 09, 2006


I haven’t written about this on my blog before because I didn’t know where to start and I still don’t really feel like going into details.

But at the end of last year, two days before I left Ngukurr for my Christmas break, there was a tragic and hugely significant death here. The entire community was, and still is, in shock and disbelief about it. The man that died was an old song man, a very important culture man and someone that everyone looked to for anything to do with ceremony and culture. He was also a completely unassuming man, always happy and smiling and never caused trouble for anybody. He was a cute little oldman too, which really belied his knowledge and strength and importance.

And he died in a tragic way before his time. It’s awful.

Anyway, today, after two months, his body came back to the community. I joined the procession towards the end and it was really moving, really sad, but there was also something really matter-of-fact about the ceremonial aspects to the procession.

Needless to say, it was emotional for me and for many people there. As has everything to do with this old man’s death. It’s really full on.

And like my wawa (brother) A says: ‘You won’t find another man like that’.

February 07, 2006

two 'ordinary' days compared...

Today was an extraordinary day – but in a strange way: it was extraordinary in that it was a completely ordinary day, but it was quite manic and exhausting for me. There are some things about this job that I just can’t get used to and still fight against or stress about which only succeeds in tiring me out.

One thing that I just can’t deal with, without getting cranky or stressed, is the way that some people I work with will just interrupt me when I’m already talking to somebody/ doing something and ask me something or ask me to do something else. Sometimes it’s just ludicrous! The short-tempered voice inside my head just wants to say ‘Can’t you see I’m already talking to someone!!’

The other thing I’m still struggling with is that coming from my worldview it sometimes looks like the mob I work with spend most of the day doing not very much and don’t seem to want to do very much. It conflicts so badly with the endless list of jobs I have running through my head and my determination to get through them. My analogy (courtesy of Namij) is that it’s like running through water: I know how to run (the ‘running’ is me working hard and getting through tasks) but the way that this mob work is like putting me in waist-deep water but I’m still running and trying to get somewhere.

But where is this ‘somewhere’ that usmob Munanga are always trying to get to?

People talk about the fact that for thismob, all interactions are about maintaining relationships or based on kin relationships (as opposed to Munanga who can base relationships purely on work). This seems to make intellectual sense to me, but that doesn’t mean that it suddenly gives me that understanding in my heart and allows me to move through my day in that way.

I don’t know what the answer is. But something that one old lady (main mami C) said one time is something that I need to remember. She said ‘I can’t be a Munanga, and a Munanga can’t be me’.

It seems to be just a constant struggle, where I swing between me 'wanting-to-work-in-a-blekbela-wei' and me 'wanting-the-mob-I-work-with-to-work-in-a-Munanga-way'. And then again, when I’m comfortable working in a Munanga way and I’m comfortable with the mob I work with working in a blekbala wei, then there’s still going to be a whole lot of tensions. Seems like a lose-lose situation and I’m caught right in the middle of it – stressing out, but dealing with it best I can.


Today was another ordinary day. But unlike the day I just described (yesterday), I got through it without ever stressing out or bordering on having a panic attack. And what a difference it makes! I actually had a good day, and I feel good. Not like yesterday, you should have seen me! (The tone of what I wrote above probably gives you a good indication.)

And the main thing I take from comparing the last two days is that it all comes down to me… it’s not the people I work with, they seem to be pretty much the same all the time – it’s me. If I’m stressed, I see things through stressed eyes and all I see is the things not being done and the things that are being done ‘wrong’. If I’m not stressed, then I happily carry on with my work, and happily help others with their work. I have patience and reasonable expectations, and I get to see that things are getting done or that progress is being made.

So today, I sat with A and R for an hour and a half, trying to teach them how to spell and write their language better. Their literacy skills are really quite low, but they’re trying and they’re learning. They seemed to actually enjoy the work, even though it was a struggle all the way and literacy still holds many mysteries for them.

N filled out her application form for her Diploma of Interpreting and sent it off. Her and JBJ sat down and sorted all the school students into their language groups. Later on, I worked quietly on the computer, while N and E sorted out the community meeting they’re planning.

I walked to shop to get myself some lunch and to my surprise, L - who is the school groundsman and has never said a word to me even though I see him every second day and he knows exactly who I am – he stopped and gave me a lift to the shop (it was stinking hot as per usual). I said thanks and said something friendly and stupid sounding to break the awkwardness and he asked me ‘Do you know who I am?’. I said ‘Ai sabi hu yu, bat ai nomo sabi yu skin’ (I know who you are, but I don’t know your skin i.e. my relationship to you). He said ‘Wamut. I’m your brother.’. Shortly after, he dropped me at the shop and I said ‘Thank you braja.’

There was something about that exchange that made me unexpectedly happy. It felt I was being accepted by someone who in the year or so I’ve been here hasn’t seemed interested in me being around.

Actually, since I’ve been back, I’ve noticed quite a few people talking to me / approaching me / saying hello that never really did before. It’s given me a good feeling about being back, like that I’m quite welcome here. I think in some ways, the status of a munanga working in a community is governed fundamentally by the amount of time spent in the community. Things like work ethic, methodology, benefits brought to the community - these are all important too, but if you’re a decent person, and you hang around long enough, your acceptance will be greater and greater. Essentially, it comes down to time.

February 05, 2006

good ol reflexive writing

Here’s some more reflexive writing a la my anthropology university courses…

Sunday afternoon and I’ve had a pleasant day pottering around home on my own, cleaning, doing washing, whatever I like… doing my own things in my own time in my own space – times that I treasure here at Ngukurr.

Then a guy that I sorta know and 5 other people arrive (2 I also sorta know) asking to buy and burn some CDs. I do this occasionally for people – sell them blank CDs and help them burn them. Anyways, that was cool – I said yeah, they stood on the doorstep hesitating, I told them to come in. I helped them out and asked if somebody could learn to burn them and then go on and do it. That was all cool. It all was all cool really. They burned CDs and were here for about 20-30mins. But I realised that even this seemingly simple exchange stressed me out. After they left I realised that I’d tensed up and was breathing shallower and needed to relax and take some deep breaths. I’m trying to work out why I was stressed … here’s some thoughts…

- My stress levels automatically go up when people arrive because I know they want something and I’m never sure what, so I’m always dealing with the unexpected and thinking on my feet.
- Maybe I’m still hanging on to my white v. black and us. v. them racist attitudes and just getting scared by having so many black people over and feeling scared and stressed because I’m not in control of the situation
- Is it just naturally uncomfortable having a group of people you barely know come over for a while, especially when they’re so rambunctious?
- Is it partially because being left-wing and socially-conscious and ‘politically correct’, I get stressed because I put pressure on myself to act the ‘right’ way and to always question my actions and feelings.
- Maybe it’s just the noise and mayhem that descends after having an up-til-then very quiet day

During that half hour though, I was still myself – friendly and helpful, cranky at the one girl who was being annoying and disrepectful. Maybe it is just the unknown factors and having the situation out of my control that I find stressful. I think that’s what Sophie found stressful about being here. In today’s example, the unknowns were not knowing what this mob wanted, how long they would hang around for and then the cross-cultural factors of not really knowing the proper etiquette and politeness of each other’s cultures to deal confidently with the situation. That means that we’re either tip-toeing or stepping on toes…

Curious. I just wish I could relax a bit more. But sometimes I think too much. This blog entry being a prime example.

February 04, 2006

'Coming back home to Ngukurr'

'Coming back home to Ngukurr' is a line from a song by Ngukurr's most famous band called 'Yugul Band'. And yes, I'm back in Ngukurr.

And it's fine. I've been away for a couple of months, in which time I've been working in Katherine and spending time in my house there, had Christmas and New Years in Brisbane with my parents and friends, got smacked in the head and had an operation. Lovely.

I got flown back in to Ngukurr because the rivers are up and the roads impassable. That trip had it's fair share of trials including humbug and a pilot forgetting to pick me up from a remote airstrip. Nice stressful way to start my next stint here at Ngukurr.

My first morning I walked around saying hello to lots of people I hadn't seen since I'd left and it was lovely. Everyone was happy to see me back and lots of them had heard about my 'incident' and were concerned. It actually made me a bit emotional, getting a sense of how much people care about me here, even though it's never actually expressed and will soon be forgotten after a few weeks of work, stress and humbug.

But I have to stop being so pre-meditative about my job being stressful. It doesn't have to be that way! (Slappling myself and telling myself to 'come on').

Even though I'm reluctant to admit it, I do see myself being here for most or all of the year, funding and sanity permitting. I'll try and keep yumob posted on my adventures.

Jaldu na,

January 23, 2006

been so long

sorry sopi and others

i've had a month long break from work and hadn't felt like blogging. actually, i still don't feel like blogging but i thought i'd better say hello after my mami's capital letter comment.

i'm in katherine and have been back at work nearly a week. i should be off to ngukurr next week. i can't say i'm looking forward to it, but i know i'll be fine when i get there.

it's proper wet season now so it looks like i'll be flying in to ngukurr and then will be there until the rivers decide to go down again (or jum jum in alawa). that might a good couple of months.

i had a good break but it didn't really go as planned thanks to the guy who decided i would be the target of his random act of violence and fractured my cheekbone for me. that was followed by some minor surgery. fun fun. i'm still a bit sore about it - mentally and physically - and i'm not my usual cheery self at the moment. apart from that, my break was good and got to see lots of ppl i care about and hadn't seen for ages. and went to a very dear old friends wedding too. here's a pic. thanks wt for the photo!