Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Life Cycle

So last week after a long slow accumulation of family the old lady's funeral happened It was huge, maybe two hundred extra people had travelled to farewell the old lady and for three days before hand there were long days of dancing ( corroboree) playing music, singing ( all traditional or Christian fellowship songs).... This old lady was really one of the last of an era, maybe she was in her late 70's or early 80s , maybe older. She had a hole through her nose where a long time ago she might worn a bone ( for beauty), she spoke Ngandi as her mother tongue ... ( this language has now only one other fluent speaker left) but she spoke a few other languages too I worked with her a fair bit last year when we were doing an adult Ngandi language course. Of course i ma going to say that she was wonderful. and she was. I have some recordings of her speaking, telling stories about collecting mussels and other bush tucker and laughing ( that abrupt spontaneous laughter..). As her body landed in Ngukurr ( from the morgue in Katherine where it had been taken to keep cool) hundreds of people lined the road and danced and walked the long funeral procession to the morgue where there was some really amazing dancing, three different groups with very distinct music and style. I cant really explain it. Mostly men danced, all of the men I had ever heard of as 'important' where there dictating the show, telling the dancers what to do. When they opened the coffin box, many close family members ( men and women) started to wail and had to be supported. Some of the people I know very well were there and it was very upsetting for me to see them so so upset. It was very emotional. Like a huge storm building up and breaking. The passing of something extraordinary and explicable... but I suppose most deaths are that.
The day before that all the water stopped flowing in Ngukurr for about 16 hours, through a very hot day. Some people had many extra people in their house, it was very stressful and strange. No drinking water, nothing to flush the toilet, wash your hands...etc. But it seems bowing down to things like this ( like not working) would mean that your could find a reason everyday not to work. So the school kids all went to school and everything went along as ( almost normal)

The actual funeral the next day was, of course epic and huge and went all day. As the old lady was taken from the morgue to the church, the whole telephone ( CDMA telstra everything) exchange for the whole Katherine region stopped. For about an hour. It made everything seem very isolated. Everyone had to just stop and focus on the funeral ( the office etc.)

After the funeral I drove to Katherine to swap cars ( get a bigger one) to go on a bush trip with some high school kids. I was exhausted when I got there about ten o'clock ( it was good to see some friendly faces and I went straight to the pub and danced to a great band "letterstick band". It is always a bit surreal to arrive in Katherine after being in Ngukurr for a while, And it was good to close my eyes and dance for a while.
The next day I did shopping for the trip ( food for twenty) drove back to Ngukurr ( I hate it when the weekend is swallowed like this). The next day i packed up all the camping gear for the whole trip, and some people and drove to Minyerri ( another community). Anyway it was pretty epic. I felt angry and exhausted by the time we managed to get every one and their swag to the camping place ( my main thought was 'I don't have the capacity to do this'....). This took a while because all the cars weren't where I thought I had organised them to be, and we had no drivers either and a couple of the elders ( who are meant to be coming along to teach the kids culture and language bailed). It was hot. It was hard to find time or anything to eat, or drink, ( let alone for all the other old people mob and high school kids who were humbugging me). I hate being responsible for other peoples stuff.
Anyway we got there. It was one of those 40km drives that take an hour and a half because the road is a bit of a disaster.
It was really hot. Two of the kids threw up and everyone else fell asleep or went fishing ( including me).
But it turned out great. The kids ( 11 of them) eventually found they were a bit interested in language and culture and sat down and really listened to the elders, cooked and hunted for them ( fish) and learnt how to record the stories. They even had a go at speaking language and stayed up late into the night with wrapt attention to the old man who was telling them about dreaming stories and teaching them how to sing and speak some language.
The kids had all forgotten to bring blankets, and were reluctant to put up the tents... Though they did in the end. I slept outside under the stars it was really beautiful and warm , but the mosquitoes were atrocious.

After the old people had taught the kids a bit about making damper, cutting paperbark and bush medicine, we packed up and drove back to Minyerri. Which sounds easy but of course wasn't and took a lot of work. I started driving back home and noticed that my 'private' swag ( my own one) was gone somewhere. I cant remember where i last saw it. It must have not been tied down well enough on the roof. Because I wasn't completely exhausted I drove back about 60ks looking for it ( it is hard to explain the personal love i have for my swag... so comfortable and like a little cocoon...). No luck though.

As we drove home, not once, but twice the nets holding the swags down on the roof broke and sent all our stuff everywhere and spent about half an hour tying it back on (I am getting to that ridiculously tired phase now..), and feeling glad we didn't cause an accident. Maybe I have driven an average of 200ks a day for 5 days...

On finally getting home. We ( I was travelling with an elder and two women and their babies) heard some very bad news that someone ( a younger person) had passed away. The funeral will be soon. I know his family well and I have seen their concern for him over the last few weeks ( he has been in ICU) but we all thought he was getting better.

it is like some absurd cycle. Funerals are nonstop. However overwhelmed, exhausted and upset I feel ( to be honest I just came home and cried and cried) I cant imagine how it must feel for all this mob.

Actually as I was crying, my nis came and knocked at the door ( surely after 8 is too late for humbug!) and she had left a huge chuck of raw buffalo meat in a bilican in the back of the car, she wanted me to get it. She said slightly accusatory ' I thought I heard some body crying'. I said it was me and she patted me on the back and said 'Having he holy spirit in your heart will make you happy', and walked away into the evening carrying the bilican.

If you want to read more about this- Catalin has written a beautiful and insightful extension of this story - called 'This happened a few weeks ago...' in her blog (change junkies).