On listening and setting aside prejudices

27 Mar

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is an Indigenous leader of great stature. I have referred to him several times before. In today’s Sydney Morning Herald he argues that not all was bad, comparatively, in the days the Christian Missions were more involved in Aboriginal communities. Some will find that challenging, but he may well be right.

THOUSANDS of Aboriginal children in remote communities are still waking up to no breakfast nine months after the $1.5 billion federal intervention, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the Northern Territory’s most powerful Aboriginal leader, has warned.

Children as young as 12 are still vulnerable to sexual abuse and manipulation by men selling alcohol, drugs and pornography in the mining town of Nhulunbuy in north-east Arnhem land, Mr Yunupingu told the Herald in Darwin.

Mr Yunupingu, a former Australian of the Year, called for the intervention taskforce to urgently build missionary-style dormitories in the communities where children could be fed, clothed and cleaned.

He said he would not shy away from criticism the dormitories would be a return to the days last century when missionaries ran the communities.

“The missionary days were good,” Mr Yunupingu said. “The missionaries looked after the kids much better than the Government does today.”…

Meanwhile, another story:  Signs of change as Aurukun moves to stop destruction.

DENNIS JULIAN points to a row of bent and twisted Toyotas and shakes his head. The vehicles are in various states of disrepair. All have had their ignition wires torn out, others have been driven into trees or through the steel gates of the Aurukun Shire Council yard.

“This is what the politicians don’t see,” Julian says. In the past six months Aurukun’s shire mechanic has spent almost $50,000 repairing cars that were stolen, then driven until they crashed, broke down or ran out of fuel. What is remarkable about this graveyard of wrecks is most of the damage was caused by boys as young as 10.

“They are the same hard-core group; they steal cars and they wreck council property,” a council spokesman said. Vandalism of public assets is such an entrenched problem that this week community women told the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, in a closed meeting that they wanted action to rescue the troubled children.

Yesterday they received it. After visiting the school Ms Macklin announced measures intended to break the impasse between family dysfunction and juvenile crime…

I guess my point is that it is well and good to sit on our fat butts far from the action with all sorts of pious notions about what should be done. It is another matter completely to find solutions community by community, case by case. In those circumstances ideological considerations, whether Right or Left,  must take second place to what those concerned tell us needs to be done.

TK last night, at the NSW level, told me he has been looking into Indigenous housing issues in NSW and finding that some of our current maps do not really address large areas of concern. He also said that once the Apology was made on February 13 he came to see why it had been necessary, and greatly admired Rudd’s speech. He had not been very impressed with Brendan Nelson’s speech that day. Now is the time for sitting down together and trying to solve problems. Before, the failure to apologise really had been, he concedes, a massive road block. I found that interesting.

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2 responses to “On listening and setting aside prejudices

  1. David Smith

    March 30, 2008 at 4:38 am

    I agree with Galarrwuy Yunupingu on this; missionaries may have been an integral part of the colonisation process, but they provided material and educational benefits far more effectively and efficiently than governments have done. This is true not just of Australia and its indigenous population, but of the whole world.

    Robert Woodberry, a University of Texas sociologist, has a massive project (the homepage is here showing the long-term effects of mission work in the developing world. Places which had more missionaries (and which allowed them to move freely) are, decades or centuries later, significantly better off in terms of health and education, and much more likely to be democratic, than places which did not. Woodberry thus has a novel answer to the question of why former British colonies tend to be in better shape than former French, Spanish or Portuguese colonies. It wasn’t that the British were any nicer, or more committed to economic development. It’s that their norms of religious liberty allowed for a lot more mission work, which delivered medicine and literacy at a time when there were few other means of getting it. In particular, Protestant missionaries encouraged literacy in the local vernacular — in fact, they invented the written forms of many small, non-western languages — because they wanted everyone to be able to read the bible in their own language. And they really meant everyone — I’ve seen editions of the New Testament in Arrente. It was this single-minded commitment to saving souls, a thing that many people detest about missionaries, that led to the spread of literacy and the beginnings of economic and political development in many colonies.

    Not all unintended consequences are bad.

  2. Neil

    March 30, 2008 at 9:11 am

    I do know that in the 1960s it was Presbyterian missionaries who foresaw the bad effects the development of aluminium smelting at Aurukun would have on the Wik people, and fought hard against the development at all costs philosophy.

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