Some Town Camp Experiences

I’ve spent a chunk of this weekend watching the complete first season of a show called The Wire,   Set in the housing projects of West Baltimore, it’s a gripping picture of drug dealing, murder, and corruption, linking 16yo drug runners to corrupt politicians, showing the relationships that police have with each other, with their drug addicted informants, the connections between police and politics, corruption within both, and the complex dynamics which can determine the way a case will go, etc.

The town camps of Alice Springs, where I have spent some of my working life over the past ten years, could be compared in some ways to these housing projects.  Only the power that the middle and higher level drug dealers have in America, doesn’t exist in the town camps.  There’s obviously drug dealing in the camps, because marijuana is easily available as is what they call “grog running”, the illegal supply of alcohol to banned drinkers, in what are supposed to be dry areas.

In the past few years I’ve written bits and pieces about my experiences in the camps, which accommodate large, often overcrowded groups of marginalised indigenous people living inside a sub culture that  has a life of it’s own in Central Australia.

Most people who live in Central Australia don’t go into the town camps.  Including services that exist to service them.  A number of health services, for example, have a rule that if they have to service someone who lives in a town camp, then that resident has to be moved to accommodation out of the camp before they can receive the care they need.  My understanding is that the rationale behind this, is due to the perception of “danger” that exists in the camps.  However, in ten years of attending the camps, which began as something I did for work, but evolved into something I also do in my spare time, visiting the children and families that I have developed relationships with, I have not felt in danger once.  I don’t agree with the approach of not servicing inside the camps, given that the perceived threats can just as easily exist at any town address you are unfamiliar with; building relationships with patients in this setting can’t be about the individual and has to include the whole family and community.  I have solid connections with many people in the camps now, which I would not have, had I only serviced individuals who were moved to accommodation for the duration of their treatment.  I very strongly believe that until the brick walls that services build up, are knocked down, no real difference will be made to the health and wellbeing of town camp residents.

Meanwhile, my experiences in the camps have given me many moments of light hearted joy, despite the poverty and self destruction that exists, and I enjoy writing about these experiences, which I’ve decided to add to my blog.

30 June 2010 : Abbotts Camp

I pulled up at my patient’s house and walked into the yard. While I was standing on the verandah with Nerida and her husband Claude (nom de plumes, as always), a very old man who I’ve never seen before, with a huge bushy beard, filthy dirty clothes, walking around in his socks with a walking stick and blind in one eye, walked up to my car, peered into the window, then OPENED the passenger door! I shouted out from the verandah “Wiya! Wanti!” (No! Leave it!). He couldn’t hear me, but he was just opening the door to try and see if anyone was in the car, and when he realised there wasn’t, he shut the door again, but stayed beside the car.

When I came back to the car, he says one word to me, the name of a place in town. I said okay, I can take you there. He got in the car and he couldn’t speak ANY English. He introduced himself by stating his name and offering me a hand to shake – his long and curved fingernails need clipping badly.  Then he told me “Papunya”, so I knew his language must be Luritja, which I don’t speak at all but I said some random words I know in language and he gave me the thumbs up.

Then he started listing, and counting them with his long skinny index finger pressing against the five fingers on his other hand, “Papunya …. <then a few names unknown to me> …. Kintore”, places he’s either from, or travels between. So I said “Oh, have you got family in Kiwirrkurra?” (the next community from Kintore, over the WA border). He couldn’t understand my pronunciation (I don’t roll my R’s as the name requires) so I repeated it a few times and he finally worked out what I was saying! Yuwa, Kiwirrkurra! Then he continued across WA – naming places and pressing a different finger with his index finger with each place name, and finally ending with Port Hedland. I said Port Hedland? That’s a long way! To which he said, very clearly, “It’s a pukkin long way!”.

Abbotts Camp, 8 July 2010

Nerida and Claude again.

I arrived at their house and Nerida announced to me “I bin nearly FIT” yesterday, before offering a demonstration with her eyes rolling back in her head, her head falling back, etc.  Claude joined in with “she bin nearly FIT! Must be that medicine you gib her, eh?”. Which one? “You know that one you bin gib her?”.  I couldn’t really think what he was referring to, but the conversation continued without any confirmation or denial from me.

Claude then said  “One old man from Dokka Ribber bin fix her!”.
Nerida: “Yeah, that man bin tell me, Nerida! Take your shirt off!” <and demonstrated pulling her shirt off>. “He say, Nerida! You sick! And E can see through ‘er, like x-ray, you know? E’s like, you know, Medicine Man, that old man, from Dokka Ribber, and E bin pull out really big STICK from her stomach!”.
Really!? WOW!
“Yeah, it was really big that stick, E pull it out from her, then he put it away, down like this” <demonstrating the stick going down by the Ngangkari’s side>.
What did he do with the stick?
“E bin put it ‘ere like this”.
Okay (I meant, what did he do LATER with the stick but didn’t persist with my questioning!). So I asked, what’s his name? Ummmmmm…. We don’t know, because we don’t really know ‘im, e’s from Dokka Ribber, ‘e’s old man, well little bit old really, like maybe your same age.  I was horrified by this, and protested, which caused a lot of laughter.


There are many more stories like this to come, I just have to uplift them from another location, and edit them.

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