"I was extremely busy and really felt I was able to significantly help by way of hands-on treatment, explanation of injuries, exercise prescription and advice."
I was going on a trip to the Gove Peninsula – where you may ask? I certainly had never heard of Gove or any of the small towns in this beautiful but remote part of northern Australia. I knew of the Arnhem Land region but had never envisaged travelling through this area as we don’t own a four wheel drive, don’t own any camping equipment, and off-road adventures seem unlikely as my husband cannot be described as an outdoorsman! But I was intensely excited with the anticipation of what opportunities lay ahead and how I could contribute.
The health professionals I worked with on the Laynhapuy Health team are a wonderful and very generous group of people. I felt instantly welcome and we hit the ground running from the first day travelling out to a Homeland community with a team of four (doctor, nurse, OT and myself/physio). The rapport and trust Laynha Health had with the Yolngu people was very obvious which, in turn, meant that trust and acceptance was implicitly placed in me by the Yolngu. I was extremely busy – often more consistently than the Laynha employees – and really felt I was able to significantly help by way of hands-on treatment, explanation of injuries, exercise prescription and advice. Many Yolngu spoke and understood enough English to ensure effective information transfer. Otherwise, the Aboriginal Health Workers in every Homeland community were very helpful with communication; finding and suggesting people who needed treatment.
The Homeland community of Dhalinybuy was our day one visit – about a two hour drive from Yirrkala (the town where we were staying). There was indecision and debate about whether we would go there as a funeral ceremony was in process and the Yolngu were waiting on the arrival of the body via plane from Darwin. There had been an extended protest between Yolngu clans about where the body should be buried (as many Yolngu are nomadic and can have ties to more than one Homeland and clan). Therefore our travel plans had changed about three times within a half hour period before we left Yirrkala. On arrival the community was very busy with a large influx of Yolngu for the funeral. A very colourful shelter had been built for the deceased and the people were gathered in front of the shelter in very calm and organised seated groups. There was continuous dancing, singing and music being played – all performed with a very particular purpose. Elders spoke to explain the ceremony, white body paint was worn by many of the younger men and children – we sat quietly and watched and the people were very proud of their traditions and seemed happy that we were interested, yet respectful. I felt involved, touched by their commitment and emotion – I didn’t want to leave.
My personal impressions of the Yolngu are in many ways very happy people, content and connected to the land they belong to. They choose to live in East Arnhem and proudly uphold their traditional way of life and historical beliefs. For these reasons, I don’t entirely agree with the adjective ‘disadvantaged’ to describe them. The Yolngu certainly face struggles in many aspects of their lives including overcrowded housing, illness, chronic disease and poor nutrition – aptly coined ‘Diseases of Development’ in the book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die. I now feel ownership in the endeavour of ensuring healthcare and other essential services are accessible to the Yolngu people. We must continue to empower the Yolngu by way of primary healthcare initiatives and education to maintain their freedom to direct their own lives and live as they choose.