“I’ve found a friend!” Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin tells Crikey as she walks across the dusty main street of Yuendumu with Peggy Nampijinpa Brown.
Jenny and Nampijinpa have just been to visit the several hundred people who have come down from their sorry business at West Camp where they are mourning the recent loss of a young man who had lost his long and brave battle with serious illness this past Saturday night. On hearing of his passing the first reaction for the planners of the Yuendumu Pool project was to cancel the grand opening scheduled for the following Monday.
After long consideration by his family it was decided that the opening proceed and that he be given his substantial due for the important contribution he had made in his short life to the sporting and youth culture at Yuendumu and to the valuable work he did at the Jaru Pirrjirdi youth leadership program, a unit of the Mt Theo program, which provides much-needed youth support and diversionary programs at Yuendumu and throughout the central desert region.
Peggy Nampijinpa Brown knows a lot about dealing with politicians, and, as Crikey reported 14 months ago she is still waiting for an apology from Bill Heffernan for an unfounded and egregious verbal assault he made on the Mt Theo program from the protection of Parliament House in Canberra. Namijinpa and her husband, Johnny ‘Hooker Creek’ Japangardi Miller officially started the petrol sniffer rehabilitation project at their outstation, Mt Theo, in 1994, but they’d been providing informal support services for many years. Last year they were both rewarded for these efforts by being awarded the Order of Australia by the then NT Administrator, Ted Egan.
I can look after anyone — the one’s who nobody looks after.
I like the petrol sniffers.
I care about for petrol sniffers, they are my family
I worry you know, because I love
I love them, I can make them really good, really better
We are trying to help people
— Peggy Nampijinpa Brown
Jenny Macklin flew into town in a plane pushed by the same hot and dry easterly tailwind that brought a stinging dust storm to town — when first I looked out my kitchen window at dawn yesterday I could hardly see fifty metres for the dust and throughout the morning the stinging, dermabrasive dust stung skin and pricked eyes among the gathered locals, Federal, Territory and local politicians, media and curious onlookers brave or foolish enough to fly or drive along the worst road in Australia to attend the opening of a swimming pool.
After a long series of speeches from the Minister and local worthies on an unrelated employment program (why travel all this way if you can’t get at least two bangs for your buck!) minds and dusty, sweaty bodies turned to the real business of the day.
30 or 40 little tackers from the Kurd-Kurdu Kurlangu childcare centre, about which Crikey wrote recently and the future of which is still in some doubt, screamed in — a cloud of yellow shirts and open-mouthed awe at the sight of so many kardiya (white people) in one place at one time. Then up marched the serried ranks of primary and pre-secondary school students – long-skirted teachers vainly shooshing them to be quiet. Fat chance of that — this was the biggest day in Yuendumu in their short memories — big mob of kardiya, boring speeches, free hats from the Central Land Council and from inside the pool that peculiar chlorinated water smell and the I-can-almost-taste-it promise of barbecued meat and onions for a free lunch.
The speeches droned on and on — all of them worthy but it was getting a little too hot and far too dusty for such serious business. Especially for the kids clustered restlessly in what little shade was available. Finally they got their turn — Jenny Macklin and a half-dozen others lined up to cut the black and white ribbons (Yuendumu Magpies — carna ‘Piiies!!), the big black doors swung open and a riot of little legs and bodies raced into the pool area, barely controlled by the calls to “Shower first!! … shower first!!” made by the local Lifeguards.
And for the lifeguards the opening of the pool is the end of the beginning of a long story — one that was almost broken a few months ago when, while staying at budget accommodation in Alice Springs en-route to Sydney for training with the Royal Life Savers, they were allegedly ejected from their accommodation for scaring the Japanese tourists. For me the only thing scary about these young men and women is their dogged determination to succeed.
The pool was opened, sweaty, dusty bodies soaked, splashed and screamed and posed for photos and the politicians and worthies deservedly congratulated each other on a job-well-done.
And, it should be noted that while the mainstream media — notably Russell Skelton in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and Natasha Robinson in The Australian are trumpeting the pool opening as a triumph for the Macklin/Brough/Howard NT Intervention, in reality it has nothing to do with that most ham-fisted experiment in Australian social engineering.
The Yuendumu Pool project is solely the result of hard work by a small group of committed locals and their supporters — the family of Tom Jampijinpa Kantor, who had worked at Warlpiri media in it’s early days, Christine Godden, an arts consultant based in Alice Springs, the tireless local workers like Peggy Brown and her husband and their co-workers at Mt Theo, the Warlukurlangu Arts Centre and the Yuendumu Mining Company. The Federal Government’s contribution was made a long time before the intervention was even a twinkle in young Mal Brough’s eye.