Below is an article by Kim Mahood published in Griffith REVIEW Edition 36: What is Australia For? Please note that I have significantly altered the length of the article and therefore not all ideas put forward by Mahood are represented in this version. In some cases I’ve slightly altered sentences for ease of interpretation or to sum up long winded explanations. I’ve enclosed my additions in brackets and highlighted key ideas in bold for those of you that prefer skimming. If you would like to read the full piece, click on link below the article.
This piece expresses many of my own frustrations, as I live and work amongst all the characters identified within the article. ‘It’s a worry!’ has become a common expression exchanged over many phone calls to family, friends and other educators back home. A worry that certainly has no easy or quick resolution.
KARTIYA ARE LIKE TOYOTAS
‘Kartiya are like Toyotas. When they break down we get another one.’ – remark by a Western Desert woman about whitefellas who work in Indigenous communities.
UNLIKE THE BROKEN Toyotas, which are abandoned [by the roadside], the broken kartiya go away leaving behind dying gardens and unfinished projects, misunderstandings and misplaced good intentions. The best leave foundations on which their replacements can build provisional shelters while they scout the terrain, while the worst leave funds unaccounted for, relationships in ruins and communities in chaos.
There are many reasons why kartiya break down. Some break themselves, bringing with them baggage lugged from other lives, investing in the people they’ve come to help with qualities that are projections of their own anxieties and ideals.
A more common cause of breakdown is the impossibility of carrying out the work you are expected to do. Two factors in particular are not included in any job description. The first is that if the work involves interaction with Aboriginal people, which is usually the case, this interaction will be so constant and demanding that there will be no time left to carry out the required tasks. The second is that by default the kartiya’s function is to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Blaming the kartiya is the lubricant that smooths the volatile frictions of community life. For someone of robust temperament and sound self-esteem this is irritating but manageable. If you have an overheated sense of responsibility or a tendency towards self-blame it’s an opportunity to experience the high point of personal failure.
Remote Indigenous Australia [attracts an abundance of white people who are commonly] unequipped, unprepared or unsuitable for the job. There are the good people, who are overworked and undervalued; and there are the sociopaths, the borderline criminals, the self-righteous bullies and the mentally unhinged, who gravitate to the positions no one else wants, entrench themselves and contribute in no small degree to the malaise that haunts Indigenous communities.
It is mandatory for anyone wishing to work in Antarctica to undergo a physical and psychological assessment to establish whether they will stand up to the stresses of isolation, the extreme environment and the intense proximity to other people. All the same factors exist in remote Aboriginal communities, along with confronting cross-cultural conditions. Yet there don’t appear to be any recognised training programs for people who aspire to work in a community, or screening criteria to weed out the mad, bad and incompetent…The famous quip about mercenaries, missionaries and misfits has a lot of truth in it, and each type covers a spectrum, from highly functional through incompetent to downright destructive. Under pressure, both strengths and weaknesses become exaggerated, and what, in normal circumstances would be merely a character trait (stubborn, orderly, conscientious, volatile, flexible, timid) can become the quality that makes or breaks you.
Among the older Indigenous people, holding onto traditional culture is the force in which they believe, but the young are like the young in every culture. They don’t listen to us, the old people complain, while the young people move in flocks, plugged into iPods and clutching mobile phones, trying whatever drug is available, dreaming of becoming rock stars and film stars and sports stars, using sex as an antidote to boredom. The cultural structures are still there, in skin names, family relationships, identification with country. But they are loosening all the time, as the fine tough threads of high knowledge are wearing out, leaving behind a shadow knowledge that carries the fear of punishment without the protocols and understanding with which to manage it.
[The kartiya] are running the schools and the offices, the clinics, the stores, the art centres, the police stations. They are the service providers and project co-ordinators. They control the money and make the rules. They live in fenced compounds with their pay cheques and cars and the choice to stay or go. They exacerbate, simply by being there, the antithesis of themselves.
There is, for the time being, no alternative. Kinship pressures make it almost impossible for an Aboriginal person to sustain a management position, and the few who take on such a role are subject to constant demands, and abuse if they refuse to comply.
[The all-too-common remote experience for kartiya]
FOR THE NEWLY arrived kartiya, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, the initial welcome is gratifying. She is thrilled to be taken in hand by one or more Aboriginal people who are friendly and knowledgeable, and is moved almost to tears when she is awarded a skin name.
‘You Nampitjin, sister for us,’ the new kartiya is informed. She feels privileged to be invited into an ancient and arcane sisterhood, and listens eagerly to the complex explanation of how she is now related to everyone.
‘Sister for me and Gracie and Sabina, mother for those young girls. This old lady your mother, and same for that one over there. This little boy here, he’s your jaja, grandson.’
Everyone is delighted, and there is much laughter and good feeling.
It takes a little time for New Kartiya to notice that while her sisters and mothers and daughters and aunties are very much in evidence, there are many others who stay away. She doesn’t understand that she is colonised territory. Invisible to her, power struggles of ancient lineage and epic proportions are being played out. This is our kartiya – hands off.
She becomes aware of mutterings and silences, and makes an attempt to find out what they mean, but the workload has escalated to such an extent that there is no time to pay attention. The previous kartiya has not acquitted several important grants, the deadlines for which are now long overdue. Ongoing funding for the organisation is dependent on the satisfactory acquittal of these grants, but much of the necessary information doesn’t seem to exist. The filing system is idiosyncratic, consisting of cardboard boxes with obscure acronyms scrawled on them in felt tip. The felt tips themselves, along with all biros, pencils and other writing implements, have disappeared. Attempts to contact the previous kartiya are met with silence: emails bounce back, mobile numbers no longer function.
New Kartiya curses Previous Kartiya as incompetent, lazy and irresponsible. According to her Aboriginal directors and helpers, Previous K also failed to pay them money they are owed. No records of these financial transactions exist.
‘She took that money with her,’ they announce. ‘That was our money. She stole it from us.’
New K is horrified that someone would take advantage of people who live in such dire poverty. She adds ‘criminal’ and ‘sociopath’ to the list of adjectives pertaining to Previous K.
In the first days of wanting to appear willing, available and caring, New K has allowed people to use the office phone for essential calls.
‘Nampitjin, I need to ring up to find out about my uncle’s funeral.’
‘Nampitjin, I got no money from Centrelink this week, I got to ring up and find out what happened.’
‘Nampitjin, I got to go to court next week, can you ring up and charter a plane for me.’
This last request raises a flicker of alarm – surely it’s outside the jurisdiction of her job.
Her refusal is taken philosophically. It was worth a try – you never know with kartiya what they are prepared to do.
In her search for the missing information New K discovers caches of energy bars and Minties stashed in drawers and cupboards and filing cabinets. Further evidence of the peculiar, pathological nature of Previous K, who it turns out was also called Nampitjin.
News of the phone access has spread. People are queuing to use it for increasingly long conversations, some of which appear to be social rather than urgent. Important calls, for which New K has been waiting in order to deal with the acquittals, fail to get through because the line is constantly engaged. People waiting to use the phone enlist New K’s help to decipher letters they have received from government agencies, relating to welfare payments, court cases, child custody.
‘Don’t you have someone whose job it is to deal with this stuff?’ she asks.
‘They always too busy,’ she is informed. ‘That kartiya in the office, he always growling, won’t do nothing to help us.’
During the two-hour lunch break New K locks the office and replies to all the calls she has missed. Since she has also missed lunch she eats several of Previous K’s energy bars.
With the job comes a troop carrier, a powerful LandCruiser designed to carry a dozen people and negotiate the rough desert roads. She has never driven such a vehicle, and the first time she manoeuvres it successfully through the sandy creek crossings and deep gutters of the back road she is filled with an immense sense of achievement. Encouraged by a constant refrain of ‘Keep going, keep going’ from her passengers, she overcomes her reluctance to tackle some of the nastier patches of track, and is rewarded with their approval.
‘You good driver, Nampitjin. Now you can take us hunting.’
Part of the job brief is ‘to facilitate cultural activities’, which according to her Indigenous cultural advisors means taking them hunting, all day, every day. At first this is a thrilling novelty –this is what she is here for, to experience the desert and its people, to learn to identify bush tucker and recognise animal tracks, to have pointed out to her the evidence of ancestral travellers who left their traces in the hills and creeks and waterholes. It is here, away from the tensions of the community, that things begin to make some kind of sense: patterns begin to emerge of kinship, stories and country.
As a prelude to going hunting there is a ritual that involves an hour or two of driving around, waiting, embarking and disembarking of passengers, loading and unloading of gear, shouting, waiting, retracing tracks, shopping, waiting, arguments, sulking, more embarking and disembarking, until New K is in a state of exhausted frustration. She’s learned, however, that to drive off before everyone is ready is not worth the days of growling and recriminations that follow.
The office work mounts up. On the days when she manages to avoid taking people hunting she starts work an hour early in order to get some essential chores done before the mob arrives, taking a circuitous route so that no one guesses she is on her way to her workplace. She walks, leaving the troop carrier locked in the compound where she lives, to avoid being flagged down and used as a taxi service. Experience has taught her that once she picks up passengers she can spend the entire morning ferrying them between the shop, the clinic, the school, the art centre and the various camps. She has learned not to turn on lights or fans, as this alerts people that there is someone in the building. It’s too early to respond to the messages on the answering machine, which will have to wait until the lunch break. The supply of energy bars is running low. She will need to order some more.
She has begun to develop friendships among the other kartiya in the community. Vinnie, who runs the art centre, is eccentric but warm and sympathetic. Her assistant, Simon, is a little intimidating, with an ironic sense of humour, but is also amiable and friendly. But it is to Ben, who works on men’s health, that New K is especially drawn. She tells him about her difficulties with the phone, and he suggests a solution. ‘Unplug it at the wall, and tell them it’s broken. Most of the community phones are broken anyway, so they won’t check.’
She takes his advice, and although it means she can’t use the phone herself during working hours, it makes a dramatic difference to the number of visitors to her office.
Despite starting an hour early each day and working through the lunch break she does not seem able to make any inroads on the workload. The one person she had tracked down who had been helpful [in providing some answers] has resigned, or been promoted, or committed suicide.
New K begins to stay late at the office, munching her way through the remaining Minties and energy bars, having ordered a new supply with the weekly bush order Vinnie gets on the mail plane. By the time she gets home she’s too exhausted to cook anything, so she has a tin of smoked mussels and a double gin and tonic, and falls asleep in front of the television. Her skin has broken out in sore red pimples, and she has become alarmingly thin. Small cuts fester and go septic, and when she visits the clinic she is informed that she has a staph infection and put on a course of antibiotics. The nurse advises her to use an antiseptic soap, wash her hands frequently, eat properly and take better care of herself.
[New K becomes friends with an Indigenous lady called Susie. Susie regales New K with stories of her adventures growing up in and out of the community. The stories are violent and hilarious, and open up a world both exotic and dangerous. New K fails to notice that most of them centre on the stupidity and bad behaviour of other people, and how Susie’s wit and intelligence proves superior.
The first time Susie asks to borrow the troop carrier New K says she’s not really allowed to loan it, but she doesn’t refuse outright. It’s obvious that Susie is a responsible person, and it seems ridiculous that kartiya rules should apply to her. She is, after all, half white, fathered by an itinerant stockman back in the cattle station days, and has been to boarding school and trained in a variety of skills.
Susie doesn’t press the request, and accepts the gin and tonic New K offers with guilty relief. It’s supposed to be a dry community, but as long as people drink quietly inside their own homes they are left alone. The two women get sentimental and maudlin, and tell each other the secrets they only tell their best friends. Susie’s are dark and terrible, and New K is shocked at the horrors her friend has undergone. Her own troubles pale in comparison.
On the second occasion that Susie requests the use of the troopie New K agrees. Nothing bad happens. The vehicle is returned on time, undamaged, although it is almost empty of fuel and the interior contains an astonishing amount of rubbish.
‘It’s the kids,’ Susie says by way of explanation. ‘I told them to clean it up but they forgot.’
The third time Susie borrows the vehicle two days pass, during which time New K becomes frantic. On the third day she receives a visit from the local police, who tell her that the troop carrier has been impounded in the town of Garnet, three hundred kilometres away; its driver (not Susie, who seems to have dropped from sight) has been charged with drunk driving, driving without a licence, supplying minors with alcohol and assaulting a policeman; and New K will be required to give a statement about how the vehicle came to be in his possession.
For the next month, during which time Susie remains invisible, New K is embroiled in a mess of legal paperwork and bureaucratic reprimands, although the expected dismissal from the job doesn’t arrive. She is unaware that she was the only applicant for the position, and that the previous kartiya is suing the organisation for psychological damage incurred while at work.
One morning New K encounters Susie outside the community store, and timidly suggests that Susie owes her an explanation. In retaliation Susie calls New K a racist bitch and hits her with the bottle of tomato sauce she has just bought. The nurse who patches New K up at the clinic says that Susie is bad news, and that this is the third time she has assaulted a white woman she has befriended. At this point all parties agree it is in new K’s best interests that her appointment be terminated, and she flies out on the weekly mail plane.
The program is shut down for several months while the position is advertised and a replacement found. There is only one applicant, who is seduced by the prospect of working on the cutting edge of Indigenous culture, in a remote location imbued with the spiritual glamour of the desert. On her arrival she is delighted to be awarded the skin name of Nampitjin, and a little baffled at the filing cabinets filled with Minties and energy bars…
SOMETIMES THE PROTAGONIST has better instincts than New K when faced with Susie or her equivalent– a natural skill at recognising which boundaries must be held and which can be more elastic. He or she may have a sense of humour that thrives on the absurdities and contradictions of daily life, and a sneaking admiration for the consistency with which Aboriginal people insist on being Aboriginal. Such a person has a chance of finding some sort of equilibrium, establishing sustaining relationships and focusing on small, achievable goals. What he or she doesn’t anticipate is that the insurmountable difficulties will be generated by other white people.
In a small, isolated community in an extreme environment, perspectives tilt, passions flare, petty irritations assume the proportions of murderous hatreds. The Aboriginal inhabitants, who observe whitefella behaviour with close attention, witness feuds and coups, fisticuffs and power struggles, and a constant turnover of personnel.
There are some exceptional people working in remote Indigenous communities. If this wasn’t the case things would be much worse than they are. But too often they work in isolation, expected to meet criteria that have no bearing on the reality of the work they do, in circumstances of which their superiors have no grasp. For the petty powerbrokers this is very satisfactory, allowing them to build their personal fiefdoms and fulfil their potential as unmitigated arseholes. For the committed, hard-working, responsible individual it is demoralising and heart-breaking.
Why is it like this? Is it because Aboriginal Australia is still felt to be a retrograde country not fit for white people, a wounded, contaminated place to be avoided for fear of being contaminated oneself? Does it still occupy the dark corners of the collective white imagination?
It seems that the young, who might be expected to carry fewer prejudices than previous generations, feel warned off, forbidden to enter the complex territory of the country’s first people. How this has come about is beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s another example of the unintended consequences of good intentions. Contaminated ground, too hard, no career path, a bureaucratic nightmare, a cultural minefield; a recalcitrant and ungrateful Indigenous population who want what whitefellas have but don’t want to do what whitefellas do, who define their Aboriginality against the whitefella presence in their midst. In an environment that calls for the best and brightest too often it’s the sociopaths, the self-righteous, the bleeding hearts and the morally ambiguous that apply for and get the jobs, and provide the example of white society against which the local people formulate their resistance.
[Whilst the white people are at loss for new ‘solutions’], the local people carry on with their own preoccupations, assessing how best to utilise and exploit the current situation, taking the measure of this new batch of kartiya who for brief or extended periods will control the resources of their world. Kartiya are unpredictable and unreliable. Even the best of them make promises they don’t keep. It is necessary to extract the maximum value from them while you can, because tomorrow or next week or next year they will be gone, and there will be a whole lot of new ones to break in.