Thursday, May 04, 2006


Today, being Thursday, is the day I pay language 'informants' (someone should think up a better word than that! clients?) I have worked with in the last week. Now that I have been here for a while I can see some people have started to depend on the income it brings them working with me.

This was made very clear today when I was transcribing a telephone conversation that I had opportunistically ( and actually accidently) recorded, I was sitting there as usual with Yapang ( my sister) and my two sons, and every one started laughing (actually this happens to me a lot) explaining to me what had been said in the phone call, basically : ' I have given away my keycard to 'long-grass' somebody and I have to wait for my language money na- I don't know who has my keycard, maybe they are spending all of my pension, but I have language money now to buy food, luckily I can still buy food with the language money'. Pobala. It makes me feel bad when I say really have to transcribe and check today I can't keep recording everyday, but I am running out of my grant money myself... Everyday I go to the shop and buy something/anything so that I can withdraw the maximum cash allowed from eftpos, I do this everyday and then by the end of the week I have accumulated enough to pay everyone I have worked with.

The exchange of money is usually a clandestine affair- the worst possible thing would be to call to someone across the shop- tell them you have money to give them and then wave it and hand it over. Anyone who has lived/worked in a community will laugh just considering this. Today I had to go into the (council) office, a minute or so later my friend followed me, he signs the form, I scrunch up the money and hand it to him so none is showing, and then we leave separately.

It is done in this way because here in Ngukurr, family (and pretty much everyone is family in some capacity), or actually anyone asking for money if they need something and see you have more than them, or some to spare is perfectly acceptable, and what is even more surprising to whitefellas is that people most often give whatever they have ( or at least some of it). And this, of course is exactly what happens. Some munanga find it disconcerting and confusing in two ways, why everyone is always asking everyone else for money ( or food, or a lift in your car, or whatever else) - and secondly why everyone ( except for munanga) always give it (or almost always). And since munanga almost always have more than everyone else (money food cars etc.) it is especially confusing and exhausting, until maybe you realise this 'humbug' is a form of interaction.

I have been thinking about the idea of giving away everything you have all the time, it certainly gives you incredible freedom because anywhere you go you can ask for the things you need from the people around you and you don't have to be constantly concerned with gathering all your stuff and taking it everywhere and guarding it, actually it cuts out a lot of complications.

I have been thinking all sorts of things about this, about family and maybe 'spiritual' relationships being even more important than actually staying alive and healthy , being well fed and comfortable yourself... Which of course is my way of thinking. If my family ask me for money of course I will give it to them, but I would be surprised if they asked me everyday, or greeted me often by saying 'anything?' ( you got anything to give?)- but then I suppose I believe that if they asked me for it they had considered and that I would have considered the importance of looking after myself first ( and my family)- so asking me for money if I subsist on a pension and care for many kids, would seem unlikely unless you really really need it.

This has happened to me once, and that once changed a lot of things. This trip to Garma that had many interesting points, one of them being on the way back finally arriving at Mataranka after a bit of an ordeal (with the broken car)- anyway being very tired and very hungry and not up to unpacking the car to find some money, I asked my Mami ( an old lady on the pension) for some money to buy some food. I tell you she was very very very pleased, first she handed me ten dollars, then took it back and gave me fifty... and she squished up my face and told me to buy myself lots of things. My mami I am sure is a generally very generous person, but I think in this act I understood something important- namely that taking is a reciprocal action, it really solidified our relationship in that she finally had an opportunity to support and protect me in a way I that I had been able to do for her for a long time (anyany main mami).

It is such a good feeling being able to share what you have with someone else you care about when they have little or nothing, and up until this point I had maintained my 'individual' little bubble of a world, taking care of myself all of the time, never needing 'things' from other people, ( except of course love and interaction), but no material things, like food, money or a place to sleep. And in this way I had cut myself out of the loop. Now I had some more clues about how to build more reciprocity into my relationship with my mami and other Ngukurr family.

I have just been thinking about that book the 'City of Joy' when starving people spend their money on rice to offer to the Gods and new clothes to dance at a festival that honours those Gods. That some sort of spiritual union is more important that actually subsisting and being nourished; that living is more important than life.

Let me just reiterate that I don't think munanga culture is better or worse than blakbala culture, but it is interesting to think about differences, but put in perspective the differences are few compared to the vast amount that we all together share.


Blogger bulanjdjan said...

Great post, Soph. I've been thinking about many of these things myself lately and really wondering how to let go of/relax certain boundaries. When they're crossed, I feel imposed upon. Letting go of them would seem to solve the problem, but what are the consequences? What's required to really let go? Am I able to learn *another* way? Are others relying on me to in fact be in my *other* role (because it means access to certain resources, a safe space away from other humbug, a liaison with munanga)?

10:51 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

Baba- I think the only way to 'let go' would be to have very little or nothing- this has been much easier for me this trip because I haven't had a car (this makes a huge differences) it made me realise how powerful having a car is! And having to humbug other people for lifts if I had shopping (or fifty million kilos of recording equipment, oh for the days of minidiscs). And I have been researching a bit about 'ngutjurr' generosity, which breaks down semantically to mean 'some one who gives anyone anything, anytime and doesn't expect anything in return' (that is a word from Marra in Kriol iya la Ropa)- in Ritharrngu the only word I found was 'ngamakuli''good' to describe this kind of person. Ever noticed how many words there are for 'greedy' and 'selfish' people? Any Dalabon equivalents up your sleeve? xx See you soon!

9:47 am  
Blogger bulanjdjan said...

Geez, interesting point. Might have to do a bit of asking around. Have been spending a bit of time with drinkers in the past few days, and my humbug tolerance is definitely lowering! Interesting how 'different' people, or perhaps, people I have different personal relationships with generate different 'giving' responses from me. That is, people I feel I have a closer personal relationship with, I am more willing to meet their 'requests' (as opposed to 'demands'!). I even pre-empt them much of the time. Though, their being more 'reasonable' with their 'requests' in my eyes probabaly inclines me towards them personally in the first instance.

NB: I'm sure you picked up on the difference in speaker assessment re: request vs. demand. Realistically, they're the same thing, but I assess them differently according to context!

When you coming in??

9:21 pm  
Anonymous Laraba said...

Sophie, yes, great post (it's always great to hear of your wanderings, and your interpretation and thoughts on things!) - just a quick remark on your introductory remarks.
At SOAS one of the first things we were taught was that 'informant' indeed is not PC and that instead we're to use 'consultant'. You happy with that?

10:02 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

oh dear, I will have to change it- consultant is much better! Thanks Laraba

3:07 pm  

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