I FLY TO Wadeye with wary curiosity. People say the generation of elders there has lost all authority, that adults live in fear of the kids; I want to see for myself and I want to learn about the Women's Uprising.
The 'uprising' is my own term for the quiet subversion of modern obstetric arrangements by outback women. Time and again (in my capacity as a District Medical Officer for remote Central Australia) I have dispatched Flying Doctors to remote locations to retrieve women in obstetric emergency.
They are all supposed to deliver in larger centres, regional hospitals, where mothers and babies are safer. But time and again, the woman who was flown out to the hospital last Monday is back home on Thursday; and there, in deepest Woop-Woop, she comes into labour, at great risk to herself and her baby. She has returned from a foreign place to give birth in her own place. By the time I receive the call she or her baby is in danger.
The insurrection against obstetric policy is a phenomenon of the humble and the disempowered: teenage girls and mature women alike sneak back home to give birth. And it is in Wadeye that the phenomenon has occurred frequently enough to be described and published in academic papers.
MANY WHITEFELLAS HAVE read of Wadeye but not as many recognise the name when they hear it. It looks like 'Wad-eye', but it's pronounced 'Wad-air'. Its colonial name is Port Keats. Port Keats was founded in 1934 by Father Richard Docherty. His parting gift was flour and tobacco. Much of the fate of Wadeye is the unintended legacy of the whitefella gifts of Catholicism, refined starches and tobacco. Seventy-five years after the arrival of Father Docherty, diabetes and heart disease occupy a huge clinic and a large tribe of nurses and doctors. I am one of the latter.
The Church built a school and taught an early generation to read, write and enter the twentieth century. The school continues to function under Church auspices and within its large campus resides Wadeye's hope for the future.
Whitefellas who have heard of Wadeye have read of the gang warfare on its streets at night. Youngsters in their teens gather with their weapons – generally sticks, palings, pickets – and posture at their enemies. Sometimes these real weapons are wielded to effect real bodily harm.
On the aircraft, I find myself seated next to a psychiatry registrar based in the Territory. I point out the headline on the front page of today's news-paper. It reads: 'Mozzie kills tourist.' My companion says, 'The press reporting about the Territory is not nuanced. For example, the press declares that Alice Springs has the highest stabbing rate in the world. Do you know Hermannsburg?'
'The stabbing rate there is four times higher than in Alice. They have only 485 people living in Hermannsburg, but they need a clinic with a fulltime doctor and a staff of twenty-seven.'
Down south, the broadsheets read like tabloids: 'Mayhem in Wadeye!' The papers explain that the different gangs are playing out ancient clan grievances in a sort of ritualised payback. Port Keats was a settlement in which twenty-nine or so separate tribal groups were aggregated. With the collocation of groups that had always been mutually hostile, every Montagu found a variety of Capulets, Capulets found Montagus of all stripes; and all parties obliged the colonists with 'payback' without end. The newspapers describe a community whose elders have failed. Ruined by alcohol and disappointment, they have lost all self-respect and have failed to gain the respect of the young. The town abides in paralysis, terrorised by its teenagers.
That is the story I read down south.
My employers in the Remote Health Service in Darwin treat me to a session of Cultural Orientation prior to my term in Wadeye. The doctor, a veteran of outback Aboriginal health, explains the gang warfare differently: 'What happens in Wadeye is nothing like payback. In communities as traditional as Wadeye, payback is determined by due process, which is quite exhaustive. What happens on the streets of Port Keats is emphatically different. The Wadeye stuff is imitative of gang life, in the style of American movies.'
Indeed, I read that the gangs in Wadeye style themselves Judas Priest and Warriors, and more latterly, German Punk.My mentor adds, 'These kids are out at night because there is no room for them in their houses. There might be thirty people in a three-bedroom house, with three sleeping shifts around the clock. The teenagers grab some sleep during the day. Then here they are at night, awake, energised and presently homeless. They join gangs for something to do. An outlet for testosterone, a need to belong when they don't belong at home.'
AT THE AIRPORT I am unprepared for the heat. I choose to sit inside where noisy aircon battles the heat. Seated along a wall, two school-aged girls, an aged lady, and a pair of older men – all Aboriginal – share the cool with me. It is the aged lady who first takes my eye. She has a rich snowfall of hair, the caramel skin that would have seen her stolen in childhood as a 'half-breed', and an upright deportment that speaks of grace and authority. She looks just like my hero ladies, the Strong Women of Galiwin'ku. She is in fact very good-looking, a judgment not diminished by the snowy bristle on her chin.
The old lady is cradling a newborn baby in its swaddling. The baby is quiet in her arms. The two teenagers next to her whisper busily to each other, drink Coke, send text messages and chew their gum. One girl wears cheap-looking Carlton Football Club merchandise, the other is a Brisbane Lion. I am trying to decide who is the baby's mother. It is not easy: the girls seem too young, too slight, too innocently childlike; the old lady looks old.
The blokes are tall and thin, not young. One of them is a well-made man with long arms hanging loosely from his muscled shoulders. With his reach, he'd have made a formidable boxer. The man has abundant hair, great waves of charcoal, grey and white, falling in wild harmony about his head. He has the bearing of a personage.
He rises and crosses the room in my direction. His gait is abnormal. He rolls as one on a ship's deck, steadying himself against a tricky ocean swell; a step forward and another, a pause to sway and regain balance, then another flurry of quick steps, before checking his progress and regaining equilibrium. It's a short passage of ballet, rhythmic, distinctive, somehow dignified. It is a neurological consequence of a toxin, possibly alcohol, possibly petrol.
In all his human wreckage, this man is arrestingly good-looking. He sits down a metre from me and says 'Hello' in a baritone voice rich and rattling with echoes of tobacco.
My mouth is full of the fruit I'm eating. I return a fruity hello and proffer my bag of citrus. He accepts a piece of fruit, extends his neck and looks it over, then asks, 'What's this?'
I tell him, 'A mandarin.'
The old man – I guess he's fifty – gets up and flows into movement, negotiates the dance floor between me and the women and the baby and sits down. Wordlessly, he passes the mandarin to the Brisbane Lion, she passes him one of the cigarettes she's been rolling, and the girls and the man step outside and have a smoke. Then they come strolling and waltzing back inside. The three sit down and my small mandarin is shared between themselves and my Strong Woman.
A thin voice from outside calls us for the flight.
We climb aboard and choose seats at random. I have an aisle seat, immediately behind Carlton girl, who it is now clear is the young mother, and the mandarin man. Deftly, gently, the old bloke threads the baby's seat belting around the swaddling. We take off and for forty minutes I study one of Australia's newest citizens in the sole care of one of our newest mums.
The baby has round black cheeks, pursed dark cherry lips, outlined by traces of drying breast milk. The baby is a winning miniature of the mother, who wears his rounded features in leaner, linear form. Forty minutes is not too long a time to look at the baby.
The aircraft is not pressurised. We ascend and descend and the baby never stirs. The mother's face is inches from the baby, her eyes fixed on the small face. When the brilliant sunlight shines on to him, Carlton girl shades his eyes with her small hand. At intervals, the mother's slender fingers caress the air over the baby's cheeks. The urge to touch the exquisite flesh wrestles with the wish to preserve his perfect rest.
The local doctor picks me up and takes me to his house, which will be my house while he is away. It is enclosed in a cage among a cluster of cages. We members of the aviary are the whitefellas, our cages are residences with barred windows and enclosed verandahs. We cluster, I gather, for safety. The idea is that a worker – often a nurse or a teacher, often young and female – should be safe and should feel safe.
I feel too safe for comfort. But towards evening and in the early mornings the stout wooden palings create a delicate sculpture of light and shade in my veranda. The penitentiary space of concrete and wooden bars becomes a resort, a place of serenity. In the mornings and before sunset I come out to the dappled light to recite my prayers – shaharit and mincha – in unexpected tranquillity.
I HAVEN'T BEEN here long – in fact I haven't yet reported for duty – when a banging and a thumping on my bars and the roaring of a voice disturb my Sunday quiet. The voice calls, 'Howard! Howard! Are you there?'
I am. It is my boss, the clinic chief. He has a lot of hair, a shaggy leonine face and a warm handclasp. 'Howard, can you come to the clinic, now? We've got a woman about to give birth. There are complications. I'm Stuart, by the way.'
'Howard. Good to meet you.'
It's a short drive from cage to clinic, but long enough to learn that our patient is about to deliver, she has received no antenatal care at all and she is anaemic. The air medical service promised to send a doctor and a nurse, but only the latter has materialised.
We jump from the ute. We enter the modern building, a monster. Passing rapidly through deserted rooms we head for the Emergency Room. I will find this clinic building to be the largest I have worked in – anywhere in the world. (I sense here the fruit of some spasm of whitefella reaction; has some politician, embarrassed by reporting of disgraceful neglect, promised largely and spent wildly?)
In Aboriginal Australia it is preferred that a man should not attend a woman in childbirth. It is women's business; its private and secret nature transcends coyness but includes shame.
I stand at the rear of the room, the patient sheltered from my view (and from my assistance) by curtains pulled around her. A wrinkled white face atop a small frame smiles across the room at me and the lady identifies herself as Holly, the clinic midwife. 'I'm glad you are here. Her haemoglobin is only sixty per cent. We don't want a bleed.'
Between curtain cracks I witness the expert delivery of a baby that bawls its own birth announcement. I examine her. She is chubby, mature, perfect.
Meanwhile, her mother is haemorrhaging. The placenta is stuck and we must wait. A nurse brings me a mask, gown, gloves in preparation for an emergency procedure called Manual Removal of the Placenta. This, of course, is a manual removal of all dignity and privacy, invasive and painful; and it carries its own dangers.
Highly competent Holly pulls patiently and gently on the cord. Nothing budges. Blood flows; how much of the mother's 60 per cent remains?
Her vital signs remain stable. We wait while the blood pools.
Presently, Holly's patient traction is rewarded with the arrival of a complete and healthy placenta. The bleeding slows, then stops.
Soon a Flying Doctor arrives and takes mum and baby back to the city hospital, where mum will receive a couple of pints of blood.
I have witnessed one skirmish in the Uprising. No one lost. Did anyone win? Certainly the clinic, ostensibly a non-obstetric facility, functioned very well in an obstetric emergency.
All the equipment you might need for midwifery is here, stored discreetly away from public gaze. The clinic is not supposed to be delivering babies, but, in circumstances of familiar ambiguity, reality contends with policy. Half supported – there is no blood here for transfusion – stoic nurses quietly do their heroic best.
NIGHT FALLS AT the end of my first day here. My neighbour in Wadeye, a white lady who has worked here for years, calls me: 'Don't leave your vehicle parked outside overnight. The kids congregate for fighting quite close by. Your car will be a great temptation, an alternative to a fight for bored kids.'
Then she adds, 'Come over to my place and meet the neighbours.'
I spend pleasant hours in the company of a couple of schoolteachers, a bloke who cooks for the kids at the school, some nurses and the woman who runs the Women's Centre. As far as I can see, no married couples. The outback is hard on marriage.
At a large outdoor table, a large hospitality prevails. Liberal amounts of food and bonhomie, affectionate in-jokes, laughter and conversation relieve a difficult reality. We are gathered here, behind prudent fences, and not quite within the community we serve. The gathering is not dry.
Conversation flows, shedding snippets of difficult reality: 'cheeky dogs'; 'school, hunger, houses'; 'the takeaway'; 'women, safety, fighting'.
'How long will you be with us, Howard?'
The question is prompted by need. I dash any hope with the truth: 'Five minutes.'
'So, you're not going to replace the doctor when he leaves us for good?'
'No, I'm just a locum.'
'That's a shame. It's hard to attract doctors to Wadeye. What made you come here?'
'I met a midwife in the Kimberley, named Rachel. She used to work here in Wadeye. She told me about the fifty babies born safely here. I didn't know whether to feel excited or alarmed, so I came to see for myself.'
I tell them about the childbirth that I witnessed this afternoon, the calm teamwork, the expertise, the anaemic mother giving birth for the fourth time.
'She had had no antenatal care at all.'
This statement is received with a shaking of knowing heads. Fourth time around, a mother would understand something of the risk. She'd have hidden herself from notice, determined to give birth in her own country.
I remark, 'If Rachel is right, we could run a safe midwifery service out here for selected patients who had normal pregnancies.'
This provokes a passionate response from the midwife seated next to me. 'I'm sorry – Rachel's a lovely girl – but her paper is dangerous! Women will believe they can stay away from hospitals because it was safe for those others. But it's not safe. Excepting for low-risk pregnancies. And very few of them are low-risk!'
This is one of a number of strongly felt views that I hear at my neighbours'. The strong opiners are all women. Wadeye is a place where I will encounter forthright opinions delivered by a number of strong women. Unfortunately, this cadre of Strong Women in Wadeye is all white.
I do come across one exception. Outside the store, I pass an aged lady. The lady has long white hair that falls to her shoulders like a nun's wimple. Her face is a map of desert country, her spine is bent forward and to her left. As a result her gait is slow and spidery, her legs propelling her forward while her head and body face left. In the old measure, she'd be well under five foot tall.
It is not her physiognomy that strikes me so much as her expression of obdurate resolution: she knows what needs to be done and she will do it.
She leans on a stick as she walks and she holds the hand of a very small child, leading her, pulling her past the store with its blandishments, through the thronging idlers and smokers and cool teens with attitude. All these make way for the old lady and her charge. The two proceed in the direction of the Women's Centre.
The Women's Centre is a revelation. Here, women weave mats and baskets in traditional materials and paint and print in gloriously untraditional media. Beneath soaring roofs of galvanized iron, great bolts of bold printed cloth hang from beams. Prints of great beauty hang on the walls.
All of this is the work of local women, some of whom are away at present, in residence at Bachelor College, where they are learning advanced printing and silk painting techniques.
The work takes me by surprise, its beauty and its ambition and – it's not too much to say, its grandeur – all belie the sheer ordinariness of the building's exterior. It is a tin shed. And it is a treasure house.
'But, some of the artists are too scared to come here,' – thus the director, my neighbour of last night – 'sometimes their menfolk are jealous and keep them away.'
'Why would they be jealous?'
'Their women gain confidence and independence here. They keep 50 per cent of any sales. Some men resent that. They keep their women away through fear.'
IN THE SUNLIT streets, there is a general dawdling. No one over the age of five moves with alacrity. The elderly and infirm move slowly, so too the able-bodied, adult and child alike. No one is in a hurry. What is more, no one is going anywhere.
In this young town, kids are everywhere, the small ones skinny of limb, round of face, the teenagers tall and lean, all in AFL uniform. Although we are in school hours, hundreds of children linger around the entrances of the supermarket and the takeaway. While school is open, children are not admitted to the shops. But they appear answerable to no one for their absence from school.
There is an abiding passivity. Three thousand people live here. I locate the hairdresser's shop. It has closed down. The gym is barred closed. The town has no taxi, no drycleaner, no internet café, no café of any sort. In this verdant coastal wetland no one markets or processes fish, no one runs an orchard or a market garden.
In two weeks in the community, I fail to identify a single Aboriginal enterprise.
I walk the sad streets and the passivity overtakes me. I am in the slough of despond. After three days I call my brother back in the city, down south. I tell him what I see. He catches the pain in my voice. Desperate, he shouts into the phone, 'Why don't they fix it?'
I explain, wearily, almost apologetically, that they try, that wetry; that none of us knows how to 'fix it', that we cannot fix it, but we cannot desist from trying. My brother sounds sorry. He has caught the sound of a pain that is not really mine; I have appropriated it.
I AM TAKEN by the body habitus of the locals. No one is fat. The small children delight the eye. Human miniatures, everything about them is small excepting for large smiles and abundant hair. Their adolescent siblings are slender and erect. They flow in movement, poetic, delicate. It is difficult to behold the young of Wadeye without a shock of delight. But a cruel reality hides behind the beauty. Why are the people so slim? How can this community achieve such enviable body shape? The answer is infant starvation.
This is not my opinion. In fact it is no one's opinion. It is declared as manifest fact by nurses, by teachers, by community workers – all of them women – all angered by starvation on our own shores. They speak of a literal food chain where children do not sit high. A senior teacher explains: 'Some of these kids get no reliable feeding except at school. We feed them breakfast, morning tea and a cooked lunch. That's the main reason school attendance here is so high.''How high is it?'
'Thirty per cent. Nine hundred kids are enrolled and on any given day three hundred come to school.'
Food for thought. On these figures the majority misses school. But a third attend 'on any given day'.
'Who comes to school? What age groups?'
'All ages – from five to twenty-one. Some will come one day, some another. One will come for an entire week, then disappear for weeks. Sometimes I'll notice that one of my regular girls hasn't been here for a while and I'll inquire, "Where's Josie?" And her friends will say: "Josie has a boyfriend." From that I am to understand that Josie's schooling is over. The girls stop coming to school as soon as they have a boyfriend.'
I arrange to visit the school. I want to see what happens at a school where the way to a person's mind is through his stomach. It is the senior children whose lunchtime I witness. These children are twelve to fifteen years old, not yet married, not yet matriculated into a couple or to coupling.
The food looks nourishing and appetising. The kids line up, each holding a bowl. Cooked white rice is dolloped into the bowl, then a lashing of chicken curry. Every child receives starch, fat, protein and flavour. After this they eat sliced orange segments.
There is order here. Children wait their turn, they line up, many are coaxed into saying 'thank you' audibly. According to Teacher Betty, a forthright idealist, 'thank you' is one of the longer sentences in English she'll hear from her students. I ask Betty, 'How many of your senior class can converse in English?'
'None. Perhaps one. Sentences are one word.'
After lunch, every student scrapes waste into the bin. A monitor, selected for the task following some recent infraction, washes the dishes while another delinquent wipes down the tables with studied accuracy. All this takes place under the hard, clear eye of Magdalena, who might be the vice principal. Magdalena says she is half Serbian and half Scottish. I watch her in action: she is 100 per cent tough love.
Magdalena informs me that I am to return tomorrow to give the senior boys and the senior girls a health talk. Separately.
I will comply.
Magdalena wants me to teach them about sexual health. The rivers of venereal pus flow deep and broad up here (just as they do back in the whitefella south). If one-word sentences are the go here, that word should be condom.
Next day, I walk to the front of the class. The whitefella teacher introduces me. The boys take no notice: Pandemonium fights with Apathy. Apathy wins. One boy, seated immediately beneath my nose, keeps his back to me, giving me the John Howard treatment. Is it because of my name?
The teacher retreats and returns with reinforcements. His reinforcers are two Aboriginal men, one in his forties, the other in his fifties. They stand at opposite sides of the class and berate the boys. And berate them. And berate them again.
What should I tell the boys? I decide to ask them what they want to know. 'What do you want to know about sex?'
I ask the question in sign language. This is a hit. I have chosen a sign that bridges the seven languages of Wadeye and trounces the Queen's English.
Uproar. Pandemonium beats Apathy pants down.
The berators quieten the class.
The school is called OLSH. I decode this. It means 'Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.' It is against school policy, it seems, to use the word 'condom'. From my bag I draw a banana. I have a condom from the clinic supply. The condom is black. I produce a banana, purchased by means of a Personal Loan. I have their attention now. I apply the condom to the banana. I do not speak of contraception, not of respect for women, nor of responsibility. Instead I say: 'This one' (indicating the condom) 'keeps this one' (indicating the central part of the front of my pants) 'strong. When you put on this one' (pointing again to the condom), 'that one' (pointing at my pants front) 'doesn't get germs. Stays strong.'
Now I pull out a red can of cola and a bottle of water. 'Which one is the healthy one?'
'Water!' in one voice.
'What's wrong with the red one?' I ask.
To which I add, 'If you drink the red one every day, you can get diabetes. If you get diabetes, one day, this one (indicating the same area at the front of my pants) is not strong. Doesn't work. No sex. Never – no sex.'
A pause for dramatic effect.
'Too much red one – no sex.'
A voice from one of the bigger boys, addresses the body of the class, not the guest: 'I drink the red one. Do plenty sex.'
So much for my attempt to improve sexual health among the boys who will be men in Wadeye.
'Without a change in male behaviour, women will contract their men's diseases endlessly.' Thus the women's health doctor, a tall tawny lady, a great dane, who pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, especially not from this southern pipsqueak. I ask a question: 'What if a woman were to say, "If it's not on, it's not on"'?
I made no assertion, ventured no opinion, merely asked a diffident question – but the doctor jabs the air at me as she gives me THE FACTS. 'Women here are completely objectified. They could never demand that their partner use a condom. They mightn't even be asked for consent. They have no power. It is the men who have to change!'
Back at the school, I visit the girls' senior class. The girls sit in ladylike stillness, a larger group than the boys, all attentive.
They are not talking; I have their attention. But they are shy.
I want to leave the girls with something useful, something that can help them when they matriculate to boyfriends. Magdalena passes me a piece of paper on which she has written: NO CONDOMS!!!
This is OLSH. I am forbidden here to talk about contraception. Bananas and condoms are out of the question. What will I talk about? Then it hits me – sex is secret. It is secrets that I must talk about. Standing next to me is Roxanne, the sexual health nurse, who has come with me from the clinic.
I start, 'A woman's body is her secret. I cannot talk about that secret. The nurse – pointing to Roxanne – can talk about it. She knows secret things. She can see you alone, at the clinic, with the door closed. She will keep your secrets.'
The girls seem to be listening. I want to talk about sex, about consent, about feelings, and of course I cannot. I continue, 'Sometimes a boy wants sex with a girl and she doesn't want it. Maybe he does it anyway. He makes her do sex. Then that girl can see the nurse about those secret things. Maybe a boy hurts a girl, maybe she gets sick in her woman's parts, inside her body. The nurse knows about all those secret things. If a woman wants a baby, the nurse can help. If she doesn't want a baby yet – maybe she is too young – the nurse can help her. At the clinic. All that secret business.'
I've finished. Three women nod emphatically, meaningfully. The three are Teacher Betty, Magdalena and Lucy, the activities officer. The schoolgirls have been polite and attentive. I cannot know whether I have been useful or just another old whitefella who comes, speaks incomprehensibly and goes away.