24 August 2011

the tucker truck

Starving time.  Unfortunately, I didn't write down their word for it.

Spent a few nights at Yaiminyi just last month, an old outstation nestled between a little creek and some stone country outcrops at the eastern edge of the Arnhem Plateau.  The first day there, the two of us balanda (whitefellas) went gatum (up river) to count trees as diligent botanists do.  Balang and family walked gandji (down river) for the day, doing manwurrk (burning country) and hunting gomdow (long-neck turtles).  By the time we returned to camp, they had already roasted two gomdow on the coals for lunch, two more were kicking around in an old flour tin next the campfire.

"Garreimun gomdow molam?" ('We eat turtle tomorrow?'  Bits and pieces of language were coming back to me from the year before.)

"Maybe, but maybe we save them for when starving time comes."

And I crack a joke: "You mean till the Tucker Truck comes next week?"

"Nah, no more Tucker Truck." 

"No more Tucker Truck?  Since when?"

"Since…maybe after you and Talia left in the dry season - last year."  No joke.

The Tucker Truck has been servicing central Arnhem Land for over 30 years - every dry season and as long as roads stay open through the wet.  For families at outstations, its their lifeline to the goods and services of town - especially in communities like Kolorbidahdah where no one has a working vehicle.  Every two weeks, the Tucker Truck rumbles out of the government settlement of Maningrida on the coast and makes rounds to the 30 or so remote outstations serviced by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (B.A.C.).  Flour, sugar, tea bag, milk powder, tin meat, and baki (tobacco) are the local staples.  It also provides other necessities like lighters, flashlight batteries, and fish hooks and line.

Or rather, provided them.  The program manager for the Tucker Truck stepped down last August and Bawinganga has yet to resume the program.  What this means is starving time - an old, old word with an unfortunate new resonance.  Balang and Bulanyjan had told us about a couple harrowing, hungry weeks during the wet season – a 20 km walk with their 6 and 3 year old to a neighboring outstation for food, the B.A.C. Rangers bringing in supplies another time by helicopter.  Yet we simply assumed the Tucker Truck couldn't reach the outstation because of flooded roads.  Instead, over the past year Balang and his extended family at Kolorbidahdah have been relying on "bush tucker" – fishing, hunting and gathering food from the rivers, billabongs and savannas surrouning their home – as well as the occasional lift to town from the Rangers and family from other outstations.  But being one of the furthest communities out and at the end of the road, life in Kolorbidahdah has fallen on tough times.

In central Arnhem Land, the outstation "movement" began around the late 1970s in order to give Aboriginal people the opportunity to leave the government and missionary settlements like Maningrida and move back to managing and living on "country" they've come from.  And the very cool part is that it is their country – Arnhem Land has been officially recognized as Aboriginal territory for decades.  In order to fund the whole enterprise, the Australian federal government established the Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP).  The CDEP is essentially an alternative form of government assistance, wherein Aborigines are provided housing and a living stipend for managing their lands at the outstations.  The whole program is highly controversial among whitefella Australians.  To many, the CDEP is simply living "on the dole," (though payments amount to less than welfare) and they question the use of tax money to resource tiny and remote communities.

The alternative argument, however, makes both economic and humanitarian sense.  Bininj (Aboriginal people) highly value their relationship with country and those who choose to live on outstations generally retain healthier and happier lifestyles.  Fishing, hunting, making didjeridus and other other traditional crafts, and all the stories which connect living and ancestral bininj to the land...these things are too often lost when people leave their country. And for bininj who settle in larger towns the social and physical woes of alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and preventable diseases such as diabetes are appallingly higher than for the average Australian balanda (whitefella).

Balang and his family are incredibly resourceful – the diversity of foods that bininj exploit is mind-boggling.  And with no Tucker Truck some "long time, old time" methods of food production have gotten a cultural dusting off.  They showed me photos (taken with their mobile phone of course) of a huge fish trap they built across the river during the wet season – something Balang hadn't done since he and his brother were kids living out on remote country with their father, far from the Tucker Truck.  They had also begun revisiting old yam beds that haven’t been managed for years.  Although bininj are technically considered never to have practiced agriculture, garbara (yams) are a staple resource that was carefully managed through weeding, transplanting, and protection from fires.  Very cool, but also very easy to view this knowledge and resourcefulness through a lens of nostalgia and romance…the danger is not realizing the suffering the comes hand in hand with such a dependency.

To have the choice and option of bush tucker is a cherished part of life in Arnhem Land.  But to expect bininj to live off the land like the folks of "long time, old time"  is unrealistic and fundamentally inhuman.   If the Tucker Truck fails to resume, it is inevitable that Balang and his family will move to Maningrida.  Kodjan, Balang's mother has already left Kolorbidahdah.  They don't want to.  Balang's grandfather took his family there in the 1950's – a three day walk from their country far to the south.  After two days in town he decided marek (nope).  He turned around and marched the whole family back home – where he felt they belonged.  That decided Balang's lifestyle.  He grew up hunting wallabies with mangole (throwing spears) up in gobahbat (stone country) and hearing his grandfather's and father's stories…incredible, but again, a dangerously romantic and nostalgic.  It was a day's walk, but throughout Balang's childhood, even they had dry season access to the Tucker Truck. 

There was rumor in Maningrida that Bawinanga might start the bugger back up soon…never thought I'd put so much hope into the bloody Tucker Truck!


Karisia_Safaris said...

the things on the truck. are they free or are they for purchase ?
jc in kenya

clay said...

good question - the tucker truck lets them use their cdep payments to purchase goods