THE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY AT KALUMBURU

The biggest challenge and the biggest adventure is to comprehend the aboriginal community here.

About 400 mixed caste aboriginals live in extended family groups which appear to change continually and cover all ages from babies to white haired elders. Although apparently all are baptised Catholics only about twenty attend Mass on Sundays.

The kinship laws of their former culture are still very strong and shape their actions and behaviour. It appears that no one ‘owns’ anything of their own and everything is available to everyone. So even small children arrive at the shop with their parents’ credit cards and know the pin numbers too – as does everyone else it seems. Kids’ bikes float around the community so that the child who got one for Christmas may finally get hold of it again after it has circulated among the community kids for a few weeks. They seem to accept this. Of course no one takes any care of the thing so it has a very short life but no one seems to worry.

Sounds like a great system with everyone sharing, however, the down side is that it acts as a disincentive to anyone who wants to work and earn extra money because they must give to anyone else in the family who asks for it. So every day anyone who gets a food voucher, by working for the Mission or because they are in need, rushes into the shop and spends it all, presumably before anyone else can get their hands on it.

The cost of maintaining this community must be enormous. Virtually everyone is on a government benefit of one kind or another and the place is bristling with government welfare departments of all sorts who fly personnel in and out, providing for everyone’s every need – all free. The place has just been provided with a brand new power station (diesel) and an elaborate, new women’s refuge is currently under construction. In a remote place like this, construction costs are enormous, not only because of the cost of shipping in building materials and equipment but because construction crews must be accommodated and paid isolation and other allowances. Our Mission provides accommodation for such workers which helps balance our budget. Good basic houses have been provided for the community and are maintained at public expense.

As most people have plenty of time on their hands, a thriving gambling industry has developed, based on playing cards, which drives people from riches to rags every day. This is the main reason the Mission needs to provide food vouchers and an op-shop. Beyond Gambling has at least two full time employees in this community. We can tell when there is a card game on in the town by the rush of people at 7 am to use the ATM in the shop

We don’t know how, but a steady stream of drugs and alcohol seem to find their way into the community, despite the road being closed for months. Also smoking is very widespread.

Family feuds are quite commonplace with their vehicles being the main scapegoats. Consequently almost all vehicles are in various stages of disrepair, frequently with broken or absent windscreens. Who cares, it’s always warm up here and not having a windscreen makes it easier for the kids to hop in and out. Almost no vehicles are registered and seem to squeeze in at least 12 people of all ages, which helps a lot when push starting them. Teenage drivers are common.

It’s sad to see their culture slipping away with the death of each elder, as the younger people are readily adapting to western culture, particularly its worst bits. They spend lots of time in front of the TV and every time they buy fishing tackle or hamburgers steadily they become more like us. Nothing is going to stop it. Eventually, like us, they too will have to visit a museum to see how their ancestors lived. I think that is a great pity, as we westerners could benefit very much from aspects of their culture such as their capacity to share, live in community and not ceaselessly chase material possessions, as we do.

However, once future governments become unwilling or unable to continue pouring funds into Kalumburu, what will be its future? How long do you continue to fund one dying culture from another one? I suspect a future government will one day be forced to progressively reduce funding so that the locals will be faced with two alternatives: become financially self supporting or move out. Either way, the rationale of the original Benedictine Mission will be affirmed.

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