Day 38, Ntaria and a footprint in the rock


Mark with the Creation Story footprint or Jesus’ footprint

15 September 2013

Things unfold slowly in Alice Springs. There’s a kind of chaos that seems to seep into every crevice it can find, turning things around at the last minute to leave me floundering and confused. Change tumbles and roles and clatters like marbles, scattering the plans of the day. I feel ungrounded, tied down to nothing. It is a difficult environment in which to work when time is short, though perhaps it is possible to find a rhythm if you live here, ducking and weaving with the flow.

But today has a picture to it. We are taking Christopher’s huge Toyota 4WD on a journey, over the bridge and along the dry Todd River that runs through Alice. Six of us squeeze into the old truck but it’s a comfortable, companionable ride heading out of town along the MacDonnell Range; 130km to Ntaria, the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg.

The Hermannsburg mission was founded by Lutheran missionaries from Germany in 1877. It continued until 1982 when the land was returned to the Aboriginal people.

Although the missionaries to Australia are accused of banning traditional practices and mixing different language groups together, causing loss of identity and belonging, there is also the viewpoint that the Australian Aboriginal people were already dispossessed, raped and murdered by white settlers and governments who made it impossible for them to continue in their culture, and that without the missionaries the lives of the Aboriginal people could have been even worse. Indeed, in Central Australia, the Arrarnta were denied access to their waterholes and were being shot and poisoned by the pastoralists, when the Lutheran Mission persuaded them to give up their nomadic lifestyle and live in the mission. This had the dual effect of helping Arrarnta survive but at the same time lose much of the essence of their culture and traditional material.

Now there are many outstations around Ntaria, small communities serviced by Ntaria, where a few families live in close connection with the natural environment. Outstations are set up to bring Aboriginal people closer to their traditional lifestyles.

We are going to Ntaria today for a choir day, organised by choirmaster David, and two other choirs. Pitjantjatjara people’s Utju choir, and Asante Sana from Alice Springs are joining the local Western Arrarnta, Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Ladies Choir to sing first in the Lutheran church, then in the shade of the community’s open basketball court, and finally down by the red rock of the gorge.

German buildings of thick, whitewashed stone make up the old part of Ntaria. Inside the stone the space is bare and cool, protected from the burning blue sun with logs laid across the ceiling and thatch above. These buildings are neatly placed at spaced intervals across the red dust of the courtyards, and punctuated with gleaming white bark of the eucalypt trees that offer an occasional, scanty olive-shade. The community where people live lies beyond the fence, a low spread of tin-roof, concrete brick bungalows common to the communities.

We enter the church, a hubbub of chatter and children and lone dogs that wander in the door for a look and to sniff the cooler air. There is a warm three-dimensionality to the sounds of the church. When the singing starts it is a treat to hear the music of Arrarnta language stitching together the old Lutheran songs.

The second part of the day is planned for the shelter of the basketball court, a wide, open concrete floor with a flat tin roof for shade. The microphones are set up at one end, the backdrop of open country behind, and we all sit in groups around the floor. But hot winds are sandblasting the community today and we are assaulted by scouring dust, thrust and swirled in our eyes and faces, ripping across the concrete floor, on which we are all seated, in red waves of sand and grit.

The subdued shade of the tin shelter, the blazing blue of the heat outside, bouncing off the ground, the ripping wind and dust, all make for a challenging photographic and sound recording experience, but the singing goes bravely on, and the smiles are broad and lift our spirits beyond the superficial challenges of the day. It is decided, however, that singing at the gorge will not be practicable.

Mark Inkamala is senior lawman of Western Arrarnta country. He came with us from Alice Springs for the day to be with his family here and join the festivities. Mark has told me about Jesus’ footprint in the rocks near Ntaria and wants to show me the spot, so before we head back to Alice at the end of the day, we take a drive to the red rocks on the sandy riverbed. The footprint is also part of a traditional Creation story, the first man to set foot on earth. Today Mark refers to it as Jesus’ footprint.

It is dark by the time we are all piling back into the car for the journey home and we chat and laugh as we drive, one eye always on the lookout for wild horses or camels or cattle or kangaroos; the others on the road.

Back at my studio space I can never decide what must come first – food or drink to stave the dryness of my mouth after a long hot day, or a shower to scrape off the layers of dust caked into sun cream, or a phone call home.

(Some new links are up at the Australia Digital resources page of the blog, relating to Aboriginal land rights, Australian Bureaus of Statistics on Language, an ABC story on Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir, a historical article on the Hermannsburg mission, and some cultural stories from the West MacDonnell ranges)

Day 9, Sweeties and the washing

FB washing10695

23 June 2013

It’s Sunday today and the winds are stretching and hammering the washing horizontal on the solitary clotheslines, secured at rocky cliff edges and grassy beach-sides, and the rain is streaking across the landscape in gusty sheets of grey. As clothes battle with the wind and the rain, they can safely be left in the knowledge that the sun will soon fly out from behind a cloud, and at some unknown point in the day it can be brought home fresh and cool and dry.

But Sunday is a day when people take a day of rest on Lewis; everything is closed. Locals like it this way. There is time to be together and time to refresh for the week ahead.

I have an easy start to the day, chatting and drinking coffee and lingering over a long lunch with the family. In the afternoon I spend some time on the cliffs a few minutes up the road from Garrabost where I am staying, enjoying the damp salty air and spongy heather underfoot.

Erica, Alisdair, Katie and Domhnall Ailig invite me to church with them for the evening service and we set out into the blustery evening, holding firmly to hats and skirts as we scurry, heads down, into the church.

I had noticed last week at Back church, a rustling of sweetie papers but thought little more of it. Today again though, as we left the house, Erica thrust a handful of butterscotch into my hand and the family dived for the sweetie bag as we hurried out of the kitchen door.

As the sermon commences, Erica indicates the sweeties, and I look around to see a general dipping of hands into bags, and hear a rustling of papers around the pews. Everyone is in a state of contemplative chewing, and I am amused at this unspoken custom of the churches. How very Scottish it seems.

Day 3, Sunday on the Isle of Lewis

16th June 2013

It is Sunday today. Here on the Isle of Lewis this is a special day.

Alongside the old Celtic beliefs, which still affect the workings of day to day life in the Hebrides, the islands also have strongly Christian communities; in the north predominantly the Free Church of Scotland, and in the south predominantly Catholic.

In Stornoway, the people of the Free Church still hold strong to the principals of rest on a Sunday; time spent with family and at church. All shops are closed, there is no public transport, and it is only recently that the ferry to the mainland has started to run on a Sunday. The streets of town are deserted until suddenly in the middle of the day or the late afternoon they swell with people; church-goers, relaxed and smart in dark suits and colourful hats, gathering to chatter and laugh on the stone steps of the church.

I am heading slightly out of town, along the northwards road from Stornoway, where a smattering of whitewashed houses spread out along the hillside, inboard from the sea.

I have the generous permission of Reverend MacLeod, of Back Free Church, to record the Gaelic psalms sung in his church. As the congregation shuffle and settle into their pews, I ready my recorder in the high, wooden balcony at the back of the church.

The first solo notes of the presenter lift into the air and the congregation lilts and turns in response, coming in at different times, inserting their own grace notes, which float to meet in the high church ceiling and blend in its void to a harmonious, other-worldly Sunday praise. It is said there’s a movement like the movement of the sea, in the singing of Gaelic psalms.

I am told that on a Sunday a thousand people would come together to sing in Gaelic. Today numbers have declined to perhaps a hundred at a Gaelic service, and with the younger generations, the psalms are more commonly sung at an English service.

When historically the education system discouraged the use of Gaelic, it was banned in the schools. However Gaelic remained the language spoken in the playground and at home in the Outer Hebrides. Today the situation has swung around. The use of Gaelic is encouraged by the system, but, suffering from these earlier policies, the language spoken in the playgrounds of the schools has become more commonly English.

It is still hoped that this can turn around. The 2011 census showed a slowing in the decline of the number of Gaelic speakers, with a small increase in the number of Gaelic speakers under the age of 20.

In the 2001 census, it was found around 60,000 (1.2%) of the 5 million inhabitants of Scotland spoke Gaelic as a first language. In the Outer Hebrides it was 15,723 inhabitants, (61.1% of the islands’ population).

These are my understandings but I am open to correction on my facts!

But back at the church … After cups of tea and cake, I take a drive over to Barvas beach, to walk across the Machair bobbing with buttercups and daisies in the breeze, brilliant with colour and the heady scent of pollen; to lie for a while in amongst the flowers and listen to the insects humming by my ears.

Machair is a rare habitat and is found only in the northwest of Scotland and in Ireland, with about half of the Machair found in Scotland being in the Outer Hebrides. Up to 90% of the content of Machair sand is seashell.

Traditionally, machair is used for grazing and rotational cropping and the traditional methods used sustain a profusion of wild flowers, which fill the air with their blossom. Up to 45 plant species can be found within one square metre. The machair is particularly important for the wildlife, birds and insects, which are abundant in the area.

(More information on the history of the Church. Machair and some Outer Hebrides facts can be found in links in the Scotland Digital Resources page)