Ken and Margaret McKenzie are Aboriginal community elders in Port Augusta. Everyone, including white youth, call them “Nan” and “Poppa”. “They adopt us, so we adopt them,” Ken McKenzie explains.
They live in a tiny cluttered ramshackle home where the occasional mouse is seen running through open spaces. The small two-bedroom hut currently houses four people: their two grandsons, Paulie and Dylan, live with them. They complain there is no room for people to stay over.
The furniture is clearly second or even third hand. There is a faint smell of urine in the home and a stray dog has chosen their front yard as his sunbathing spot. The two seem to have taken the responsibility of all the young in the community.
“We just give them a meal when they need a meal, a roof over their head when they need a roof over their head,” Ken McKenzie says evenhandedly. The two barely manage to meet their own financial responsibility with the tiny pension they receive.
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A devout Seventh Day Adventist, Ken McKenzie says: “God always takes care of us. Once we had no money and someone from the congregation gave me $20. Then the next day, I passed a good Christian on the street and he gave me $20. We always get by.”
The couple has seen many deaths and suicides over the years. They feel closeness with the spirit world and lost loved ones. Grief seems to linger in the air in the small McKenzie home, making it feel even smaller. The air is stifling with death and memories of past pain.
They raised their grandson, Aldren, as their own son. Eight years ago, when he was 18, he left their home one night, muttering affirmations to himself under his breath such as “my Nan and Pop, they grew me” or “my Nan and Pop look after me”.
His younger brother and sister followed after him and tried to stop him as he climbed over a fence to the town’s power source, a small distance from the McKenzie home.
They witnessed him climb up the mammoth construction and take hold of two transmitters. His clothes fizzled and disintegrated instantaneously. Around town everyone saw the huge surge of light that rose above the power source as Aldren electrocuted himself. Then the town’s power was cut.
He died the following day in hospital from internal burns, his final words: “I am ready to meet the Lord.”
The fence surrounding the town’s power source now is protected by barbed wire, looped over its tip, to prevent a similar episode.
At the time, Aldren had a girlfriend and a son, but the girlfriend became pregnant by another man. “He said it doesn’t matter if it’s my kid or not, I’ll still love it as my own and I said ‘that’s all right’. But his mind was all unrest,” Ken McKenzie says, in a deep and gloomy voice.
The McKenzie’s don’t flicker an eyelid from the relentless talk among the community of black shadows haunting Aboriginal males, enticing them to harm themselves. For the couple this is the only feasible explanation as to the suicide spate.
Margaret McKenzie says that Aldren never spoke of a black shadow: “But a lot of kids said that there was a shadow following him.”
Shortly after Aldren suicided, the McKenzies moved house. The Port Augusta Housing Commission is known as quick and efficient in arranging temporary housing for such situations. Moving families unexpectedly to new accommodation is a regular occurrence in Port Augusta. The home they live in now displays many pictures of family members — ones of Aldren are noticeably absent.
“We cry just looking at his picture,” Margaret McKenzie says as her husband begins to sob at the thought of “his poor boy”.
Aldren is just one of many young Aborigines the McKenzies have cared for who are now gone. “We had another boy, Kingsley. He was a nice fella, always clean dressed. He was over here too a lot. He called us Nan and Poppa too,” Margaret McKenzie says.
Three years earlier, when Kingsley was about 20, he hanged himself in the local graveyard. Ken McKenzie, a regular attendee of funerals, went to the service confused as to whose life he was even commemorating.
“I went to the church and looked in [to the open casket] and it was the boy who called me Poppa and I said ‘why the heck did you do it?’ I just kissed him. I couldn’t stay for the service — I just walked out crying,” he says. “It’s just terrible — we have all these things you know. Then another little boy got killed in a car crash. He used to call us Poppa Ken and Nana. I saw all these tragedies and some people say to me ‘how can you follow God with all these tragedies happen to you’? It’s because I hope to see them again.”
Margaret and Ken McKenzie reel through the names and stories of young people they have known who have suicided or died too soon. The multitude of cases have become muddled, confused and misplaced; the dead are misnamed, the dates forgotten. The stories of their deaths have become interchangeable.
“There’s another boy too but he lived in Oodnadatta.” Margaret McKenzie turns to her husband to check the name: “The Parker boy? He went to Port Pirie and then went to Marree, at his father’s place, in Marree. He runs inside and he said ‘there’s someone out there telling me to hang myself’.
“Ken’s niece took her life about a few years ago and she had everything they reckon, she even had a car. My kids used to go out with her. I think it’s pressure at home.”
The couple starts talking about people who have seen the black shadow and “prayed it away”. They blame the black shadow for the increase in suicides of young people in recent decades. It is the only way for the two to fathom why their “grandchildren” would take their own lives in such violent means.
“… And it’s from Oodnadatta that black thing comes, right over to Marree, down to Tripoli, someone will take their life. Waikerie, then down here. All across Australia.”Margaret McKenzie maps out the black shadow’s path of destruction. “Look at my cousin — he went out there to kill a sheep and he said to his mother ‘I’ve seen a black shadow tonight’ and she said ‘don’t worry it’s nothing’ but when she went out he was hanging up on the clothes line. He hung himself,” Ken McKenzie says aloud, then says to himself under his breath: “That thing is evil, it’s Satan. It wants to take our kids.”
The McKenzies talk of the suicide epidemic, also discussing the endemic racism in the community. “There’s a lot of things happening in Port Augusta where the black kids are suffering under the hands of white kids,” he says.
“My grandson Trevor was in a school and this white kid came up to him and said ‘go on, you white nigger, you look like a white fella but you’re a black fella’ so my grandson got into him and gave him a belting and he got suspended! He said to the teacher ‘he called me a white nigger’ but the teacher just suspended him for five days and sent him home, even though he told her what happened.”
The McKenzie’s 16-year-old grandson Paulie is withdrawn, hopeless with the notion that life in Port Augusta may be as good as it ever gets for an Aborigine.
“It’s the pressure — they don’t want to live. My grandson Paulie says to me ‘Popa I don’t want to live’. I say ‘why?’ and he says: ‘Cause I don’t have anything to live for’. He says ‘I’m bored, I’d rather be dead than alive’. We’re trying to get him a job. He just walks around during the day smoking drugs. That’s probably what he’s doing right now,” Ken McKenzie says.
After twirling in her hands a large bottle of Jim Bean that sits on the kitchen table, most likely belonging to Paulie, Margaret McKenzie goes back tracking the black shadow’s journey by pinpointing locations where suicide has arrived on Aboriginal doorsteps.
“Everything that happens here then goes to Port Lincoln, down to the West Coast, that black shadow,” she says, almost trance-like. “Sometimes I think it’s not worth living.”
*Tomorrow in the final of a four-part series on Aboriginal suicide rates: how leaders are fighting back. Kate Horowitz presented this work as part of masters assessment.