Days in Arnhem Land


It’s been interesting, listening to the stories and seeing the sights of the past few days. Silke in particular has a good grasp on what is going on in Gapuwiyak, and articulates is beautifully.

Gapuwiyak is a township which, like everything in Arnhem Land, sits on family owned land. The trouble is, the inhabitants of the town come from nine different family groups from around the area. They’re there because that’s where schooling, supplies and income happen to be. And it seems that this is the way the Government (both Federal and Territory) would prefer things to be.

The trouble is this doesn’t work, particularly for people so connected to their land. The best parallel I can draw is to an exiled population, like the Jews in the Old Testament, stuck in Babylon or some other land against their will. There’s an inertia to a place like Gapuwiyak that seems to be there simply because everyone is out of place. They’s sitting around waiting for something, cutting time til life can begin again.

Family land, or “homelands” are vitally important to the Yolngu people, but the tyranny of distance, bad roads, the wet season and government ignorance (or apathy, or perhaps intervention) make it very hard to for them to occupy their homelands in any significant way.

It has been encouraging to see MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) actively supporting homelands in their work in Arnhem Land. A two hour drive between communities can be replaced by a flight of as little as 10 minutes, and MAF offers flights at bare-bones rates so that family groups can occupy their own lands without suffering total isolation. They also go over and above, driving passengers into Nhulunbuy from the airport to do their shopping (as the taxi fare would be nearly as much as the flight). When the plane is at it’s weight limit with just the returning passengers, MAF will store passengers’ groceries and other items, and ferry them back to the communities on subsequent flights as space allows, at no additional charge.

As a Christian, the other exciting thing to see is that as a missionary organisation, MAF is not spreading neo-colonialism or white-man solutions, but actively supporting the richest parts of Yolngu culture, even when that puts them in opposition to Government strategies. They work with the local people, they fly planes owned by Yolngu organisations, and they take the time to care for and support the locals in practical ways, and in many respects they let the gospel speak for itself in that.

Eleven months ago MAF lost a young pilot up here, named Hadley Smith, He was 23, and died serving the Yolngu communities. MAF is a close-knit family, and his death was a blow to everyone up here, and a reminder of the dangers of flying small, single-engine planes for a living.

On Saturday, MAF opened a new hangar, a two year labour of love, donations and volunteer time. It will serve as a maintenance and engineering facility for Arnhem Land operations. The attached conference room will bear Hadley Smith’s name.

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