A word of warning to those travelling the Kimberley Region of North-West Australia…….the red dust gets everywhere, covering all surfaces in a light dusting of rust powder………it creeps under your nails, penetrates your pores and becomes at one with the blood coursing through your veins, by then it’s too late, your heart has been possessed by this rugged and beautiful land, you will forever be in its clutches. I still remember the day that I became completely captivated by the Kimberley…….
10th August 2007, the great overland trip from Darwin to Broome along the Gibb River Road was almost complete, we had spent 6 days exploring this magical kingdom, swimming in fresh water billabongs, hiking through gorges, camping under the great Southern Hemisphere skies and enjoying the cooling caress of cold beer on a dust parched throat. Somewhere along the Adcock River we pulled in to set up camp. Our guide Adrian had spent many years travelling this land and knew many secret places, his thirst for knowledge of ancient rock art and Aboriginal culture pulled him like a magnet to the most spectacular and special sites. I carefully positioned my swag where I could hear the slow trickle of water splashing from the waterfall and set off to explore……200m away was Adrian’s special find, an ancient Aboriginal dwelling home decorated with Rock Art, the ground strewn with idle stone tools. Another hop, skip and jump lay a secluded fresh water billabong, a clandestine natural waterfall shower, veiled by a rocky shroud, provided the perfect hideaway to bathe and wash. We scavenged deeper into the bush. Exploring our surroundings, our efforts were rewarded as we stumbled across a previously undiscovered burial site, high on a ledge overlooking the immense wilderness, human bones carefully decorated with ornaments and adornments greeted us, there was a mystical enchantment of allure in the air. It was in that moment surrounded by the natural beauty of the Kimberley, the sounds and smells of the wild Earth, the pulsating mysterious energy beneath my feet, that I became mesmerised
Fitzroy Crossing is a small isolated “blink and you’ll miss it” outback town located on the banks of the mighty Fitzroy River in Northwest Australia, about a 4 hour drive eastwards from Broome. The Fitzroy Valley extends for a radius of approximately 150kms from the town site and within this Valley lies more than 45 Aboriginal Communities. 80% of the approximate 3,500 population of the valley is Indigenous and there are five main Aboriginal language groups, each with their own customs and culture. Due to its isolation and the nature of the Environment, people arrive, but leave just as swiftly…….the saying goes that in Fitzroy you find the three M’s, missionaries trying to save the world, mercenary’s trying to make as much money as possible and misfits who have been outback so long they can’t function in normal society anymore………I never quite figured which category I fell into, perhaps none but perhaps a bit of all three. When I mention to many Australians that I spent a year working in the Indigenous town of Fitzroy Crossing, confusion, wonder and incredulity traipses across their faces,……….. I opened the door when opportunity knocked vehemently and jumped down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, it was that ingrained red dirt singing me back to the Kimberley, lulling me to discover the plight of the Indigenous population of Australia.
It has long been documented that alcohol has had a devastating effect on the Aboriginal Community within Australia, much like that of many Indigenous Communities throughout the world where the demon drink was introduced………but two remarkable ladies June Oscar and Emily Carter from Fitzroy Crossing decided in 2007 that it was time for their town to stop living in a fog of alcohol and despair, to cease the constant torrent of alcohol related deaths, to eradicate the tsunami of youth suicides, to exterminate the homes of their people from domestic abuse and to provide a better, healthier and brighter future for the children of Fitzroy Crossing. A permanent ban on the sale of all take away liquor except light beer was introduced and a greater awareness of alcohol and its associated problems was raised. The strength and success of this ban continues to grow resulting in 45 per cent reduction in hospital admissions, 27 per cent reduction in alcohol-related violence, 14 per cent increase in school attendance and 88 per cent reduction in takeaway alcohol sales, a success story for the phenomenal women of Fitzroy Crossing. During my time in Fitzroy Crossing another important project was taking place, The Lilliwan Project which investigated the effects of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder on the children of the Fitzroy Valley. I invite you to please read more about this project here:
However another scourge was infesting this Outback town………The Fitzroy Valley seemed synonymous with sexually transmitted disease, rates of chlamydia transmission were four times higher than that of the State rate, and gonorrhoea took the golden crown at nineteen times higher. Interestingly, there was no evidence of blood borne virus such as HIV within the population……..judging by the aforementioned transmission rates, if HIV became prevalent, it wouldn’t be long before it blazed through the Valley. I later learned of the term “kangaroo marriage”, whereby if a man and a woman are seen out together a few times they are considered “married up”, however either party is free to “hop along” to the next person if they so desired……..explained the rates a lot I believed.
I answered the call and quit my job as a Radiographer, packed my bags and entered a new cycle of life as a Female Sexual Health Promotion Officer working for an Aboriginal Organisation in Fitzroy Crossing, North West Australia. The rains were just coming to an end when I landed in February 2011, the flood plains still speckled with water overflowing from the banks of the mighty Fitzroy River and some of the town was still inaccessible due to the torrent of muddy brown water the vengeful wet season inflicted. Humidity was still high, the wet patches extending from under my arms a testament, the rivulets of sweat meandering down my back unstoppable. The streets were eerily quiet, not a sound to be heard only the constant reel turning in my head, one phrase over and over again…….”What have you got yourself into?!”
LIFE AS A FEMALE SEXUAL HEALTH PROMOTION OFFICER.
Due to cultural beliefs and constraints I was only to promote Sexual Health amongst the Female population. Within the 45 Aboriginal Communities in the Fitzroy Valley, there were approximately 10 larger Communities that had facilities such as a school and a shop, the smaller surrounding Communities availing of these services. Some Communities were a two hour drive away, most of that distance being driven on unsealed roads and dirt tracks; I soon became a dab hand at changing flat tyres on my Toyota Troopie and learned pretty quickly how to get my 4 wheel drive unbogged……..my new bag of accessories consisted of a shovel, tow ropes, a kangaroo jack, extra fuel tanks and an emergency supply of water.
It still amazes me even to this day how I managed to find myself in a position of Sexual Education………….I grew up in Catholic Ireland in the eighties and nineties, where sex was never talked about and sex education was practically non-existent……….it’s the Catholic guilt, had us destroyed! I distinctly remember when I was about twelve being forced to attend a really awkward sex education talk in my school, with my mother who I think was possibly even more embarrassed than I. The hall was just heaving with a sense of painful self-consciousness, nobody could look anybody in the eye, there was a lot of feet shuffling and cowering into chairs, all we wanted to do was just get it over and done with, I don’t even think I listened to a word that was said and I’m pretty sure that there was a Nun present which just heightened the palpable Catholic guilt that hung heavily in the air, her hooded eyes screaming with judgement. So I had a pretty dismal experience with sexual education, but I was determined to make it memorable for the children that I would be educating, not make it taboo and hopefully normalise the subject to a degree that these children felt safe and confident discussing sexual relations and issues.
Mooditj is an Aboriginal word meaning “Solid” and the Mooditj programme is a popular and award-winning sexual health and positive life skills program for Aboriginal youth aged 11-14 years .This curriculum was formulated from a collaboration between strong Aboriginal Community members from all over Western Australia and the Family Planning Association of WA and covers all topics from identity, expressing emotions, puberty, sexual health, parenting, positive lifestyle choices to future goals and how to achieve them. So I was sent to Perth on a four day training course to become a Mooditj Leader and on my return to Fitzroy Crossing I forged some contacts with the Community Schools and started my sexual education career. Within Mooditj there is a lot of scope for fun, a lot of the topics are taught with games and interactions and arts and crafts which make it interesting, enjoyable and most importantly memorable. After a typical two hour dusty and bumpy drive I’d arrive to the school, the car would be swamped with my little helpers carrying my boxes of tricks and surprises, eager to see what fun might be in store for the next two hours. I always had a rule in my classes that the kids could say and express as much as they wanted, they could curse and use bad language, they could partake if they wanted or walk away if they didn’t, ours was a safe space and nobody would get into trouble for what they said……there was no right or wrong answers, the only thing I ever insisted on was respecting each other’s voices and space. I also learned a thing or two myself, Aboriginal slang words for various sexual acts and relations for instance…… I think the girls really enjoyed my feigned shocked face as they rhymed them off, getting more outlandish and creative before collapsing into fits of giggles.
What struck me most about the young girls (10-12 years old) involved in my classes was the type of knowledge they prioritised. For some of these children, school and education was difficult due to many constraining factors such as being on the sliding scale of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) or social factors whereby some of the girls had to be removed from their immediate family due to being vulnerable and at risk. These children knew what was important for their survival and in their world….……spelling and maths was not a priority, how much money you were entitled to if you became pregnant was. I found it fascinating that these children concentrated on the factors that shaped their lives and their world, it was almost as if it had long been accepted that there would be no further education, no life outside the Fitzroy Valley despite the many excellent educational opportunities available to the Indigenous population by the Australian Government. ………..or perhaps it was “us” that were wrong, why did we feel the need to force our ideals and way of living?
Working with the girls brought a lot of laughter, light and fun to my time in Fitzroy Crossing, amidst all the craziness, brutality and rawness of living in the Outback, the innocence and virtue of children never failed to bring a smile of joy to my face. Unfortunately it wasn’t all sweetness and light, along with being a source of Sexual Health education and information, I was also asked to develop and teach a short programme of Protective Behaviour to a select group of young girls who were deemed at risk and exhibited clear indications of having suffered sexual abuse, we noticed it in their art work, the way they would respond to certain topics of conversation, the reactions to different scenarios and their communications with men who were unknown to them. There is nothing that you can do to prepare yourself for revelations from a child that they’ve possibly been abused, it’s heart-breaking to think that there is callous and cruel people out their robbing innocence and grace and even as I relive this in my writing six years later, my eyes still fill with tears. The only solace I can take from those experiences is that I provided a safe harbour in a stormy sea, these children felt secure and comfortable enough with me to reveal their secret pain and anguish, to bring an end to their silent suffering. You go through the proper channels, inform the appropriate people……….but whilst Fitzroy Crossing is an “Australian Town”, within Indigenous Communities tribal law still prevails. There are many complexities and intricacies within different cultures, and when you are not akin to that culture, these convolutions can be difficult to understand, we strive to master everything, but there are things that we “Westerners” will never comprehend and also we don’t have the right to know, some practices are sacred. All I care is that justice was served and punishment dealt, the details are irrelevant.
I’ve been called many things in my life, many nicknames, and many strange variations of my actual name, often I just get called “Irish” in tribute to the beautiful Emerald Isle from which I hail, in Fitzroy Crossing I gained another alias, affectionately referred to as “Rubber Girl!” Obviously the gold standard method of preventing transmission of STD’s is abstinence, which, unless you are planning on entering the priesthood or a convent, isn’t really an option. Scroll to option number two; use a condom, so in honour of my advocacy of the use of our latex friends I was christened “Rubber Girl” over a few beers one night. Shame is something I can very easily identify with particularly in relation to the area of sex, the aforementioned Catholic guilt coupled with the burning eyes of judgement from the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart. Condoms only became available in Ireland for people to buy without a prescription in 1985, before that you had to be prescribed them from a Doctor who was satisfied that you were using them strictly for Family Planning methods i.e. married with five children already. People used to hop the border into Northern Ireland to get a stash, possibly sell them on the black market………drug dealing in the eighties! Such sexual repression breeds a sense of illicitness, formulating a natural human urge and action into something scandalous and shameful, thankfully the tide has very much changed in my corner of the world, we have stepped into the light! Within the Aboriginal Culture there is also a stigma associated with sex……everybody knows that everybody is doing it, but nobody wants to be seen to be doing it, nobody wants to be seen buying condoms in the Supermarket or going to the hospital to avail of free contraceptives…..and I empathised with it. The Condom Tree Project was very much established by the time I arrived to Fitzroy. Although there are alcohol restrictions in place in Fitzroy Crossing, it isn’t a completely dry town, alcohol is available to buy and consume in the two licenced pubs, but there is no “take away” service for anything other than light beer. Some of the Communities within the Valley are completely dry whereby the Elders of those Communities have placed a complete ban on alcohol and thus people will come to town and congregate under specific trees to socialise and have a drink and it is at these popular sites that the Condom Tress evolved. Every Tuesday and Thursday I travelled around town and out to some of the Communities to replenish the canisters which were made from PVC piping and painted and decorated in traditional colours and patterns, hung like Christmas decorations offering gifts from the branches of eucalyptus and gum trees. I had an array of flavours to choose from, some I never could have imagined existed……….blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, cola, natural, vanilla………..the vanilla one’s never seemed to shift much, and possibly overthinking it I did often wonder if they were boycotted because of their colour, painful memories of white oppression?? The Condom Trees provided a very effective and acceptable form of free contraceptives, they were there for people to use if they so wished and were available in a confidential manner. Sometimes I’d find the canisters smashed or stolen, other times I’d disturb a disgruntled spider’s siesta in the shade, but judging by the data I collected, it was a method of distribution that was clearly working. I invite you to read a little more about the project below.
Prevention is better than cure as the old saying goes, and I was certainly fulfilling my inhibitory role, however, there was still a high prevalence of STD’s in the Valley, and there were still a lot of people who had no knowledge that they were infected and were at risk of continuing the cycle of infection and re-infection. Possibly the biggest challenge I faced was trying to entice the general population to get tested, to open those conversations about sexual health and to aid people in taking responsibility for their own health, but another cliché that springs to mind is “you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” Together with Community Health I ran Well Women’s Week where we had a social aspect to the health checks providing transport, food, arts and crafts projects and goodie bags to those who attended the clinic. We ran raffles were you could enter a draw to win an IPOD if you attended for screening, we spoke about it on the local community radio station, we put promotional posters up at social gatherings, I travelled to the more distant Communities armed with information and clinic dates….……………but we had to work within the social and cultural constraints and acceptance of the local community which at times could be very restricting. However, a conversation had commenced, the dialogue was initiated and the seed had been planted. When I first commenced my work in Fitzroy Crossing I was told that I would never achieve 100% success, that I should aim for 50%, but be happy with 25%………..I was achieving small but significant successes that I hoped would create ripples and have enormous impact.
IT WASN’T ALL WORK AND NO PLAY……!
Despite all my travels and journey’s across the globe, I still consider the Kimberley to be amongst the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world. For a whole year I had its rugged allure as my back-garden. The majestic lime stone walled Geikie and Windjana Gorge’s became my stony refuge, my passage back to the peace and serenity of nature, a secluded quarry on the outskirts of town became a weekend favourite, swimming and bathing in its calm, clear waters. Scratching beneath the surface of Fitzroy Crossing many treasures were to be found, a natural Jacuzzi amidst the lush foliage and vegetation of the banks of the river, beautiful secluded camping spots where one could relax under the stars with a bellyful of fresh water prawns (cherrubin) and delectable freshly caught barramundi, wrapped in foil and cooked on the fire. Then there were the thunder storms heralding the arrival of the wet season, big claps and roars that would shake my house to it’s very core, the sky illuminated by breath-taking forks of lightening before finally bursting and releasing giant drops of rain……..I’d sit on my porch in awe at the power, dance in the rain grateful for the absolution from the intense heat and humidity, the sweat smell of heaven’s tears wafting through the air, clinging to my nostrils.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that living in an alcohol restricted Outback Town equated to a somewhat tedious existence……..you’d be wrong! Friday night we would all descend upon The Crossing Inn to play pool, listen to music, enjoy a beverage or two and generally let off steam. A short 4 hour round trip to Derby or an 8 hour return excursion to Broome was a regular “grog run”………….I often got concerned looks when I dropped $500 in a bottle shop at a time, explaining I lived in Fitzroy Crossing turned that concern into a nod of understanding coupled with slight bewilderment. Along with alcohol if you were going out of town, you’d often get requests for fast food like McDonalds or Dominos………….even after four hours in a hot, sticky car it still tasted amazing to those who had been isolated from their Big Macs, frantic with withdrawal. My home became akin to that of a half-way house, there was always cool beer in the fridge and a mattress for those who needed a place to stay, I may have been in the Australian Outback but it’s hard to abandon the famous innate Irish hospitality: dog-sitting, pig on a spit party, hosting Christmas for fifty plus guests, a post-pub sheeben or if you just needed a beer and a chat, my door was always open.
Often it’s not the places we go, but the people we meet that make it special, and who would’ve thought that of the 1,500 people that lived in Fitzroy Crossing, 3 of us were Irish. Generally, I like to distance myself from my own people and try to explore the culture that I’m in, but I have to admit that my two Irish boys came into my life in Fitzroy at the perfect time. It’s not easy living remotely in the Outback, there are many challenges and without a strong support system the isolation can become debilitating. We became family us three, we understood each other, helped each other to smile and laugh through the tough times and brought a lot of craic to Fitzroy Crossing, it’s a shame the band never took off though, if only that bodhran survived Australian Customs……..!!! I met some amazing people during my time in the Outback, we became a network, we helped each other, guided each other and to some extent saved each other because nobody will ever truly understand how it was, only those who were there with you.
My decision to cut my time in Fitzroy Crossing did not come easy. A lot of people I met had come to this town to escape from something, everybody had a story, but I didn’t come to Fitzroy to escape, I came in search of something, I came in search of the Aboriginal Culture, to hear stories of the Dreamtime and the Rainbow Serpent, to learn about the deep connections with the land, their bush medicine and food. I got glimpses of this life when I visited Guwardi Ngadu, the aged care home where some of the residents were amongst the last Nomadic Peoples of the Great Sandy Desert. They would sing and speak their tradition and it was truly amazing to witness, but for the whole part I found the Culture in crisis and a people struggling with identity, struggling to assimilate into “our world” and the ravages of Westernisation, but so far removed from their traditional ways. There was an invisible war in play, and I found myself drowning in the collision of these two worlds. I met a lot of amazing people in Fitzroy Crossing, people working hard to preserve their culture and traditions, people trying to work with the Communities to break the cycle of poverty, abuse, violence and social welfare…………but I also witnessed a lot of the very worst facets of humanity and I feared that if I stayed than I would succumb to escapism and alcohol to suffocate the pain. Ironically, I was using the same coping mechanisms that I saw in the Communities around me, but I had the opportunity to escape, the ability to walk away.
Just as I arrived to the end of the rainy season, I came full circle and departed as the floods receded and the wet ended, but it was as a different person that I left the Kimberley behind.
Fitzroy Crossing February 2011 – February 2012.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)