Sunday, April 30, 2006

Legends of Ngukurr

I don't mean legends as in 'stories' I mean legends as in 'very cool people' and I tell you this Wamut here, my san, 'me' a.k.a Greg is one of those. Last night we went down to the community 'disco' to check it out. This requires some exaplaining, the disco is a large tin kind of shed (a recreation centre), massive really, with a concrete basketball court and a stage... often on weekends a 'dj' or someone collects some music they like (think Boys II Men, dance music), and blast it and tens (maybe a hundred..?) people come and sit around and listen. The real show starts with the dancing, beginning with the little kids, who can shake it, I tell you! The boys do kind of break dancing with incredible skill, the crowd ( of teenagers to adults and babies) cheer and whistle, but mainly sit around the edges looking- so the whole basketball court is open for dancers to 'perform'- as the night moves on some of the older kids get up and start to dance, with really incredible moves, they run into the centre, dance for maybe 1 minute and then run off and hide behind their friends. The standard of dancing is pretty high ( it is defintiely a performance!)

Well last night, our very own Wamut took off his glasses, shook himself and did the equivalent of jumping off a cliff- he got up and danced in front of all those people! En im sabi dens gud boi!! The crowd went wild, all the women around me were going crazy, yelling and whistling, and someone put the spotlight on him ( you have to remember everyone else was sitting down on the ground, maybe only two other people were dancing), Greg and I were the only two munanga ( whitefellas) there, anyway those two mintues were absolutely electric- everyone was cheering so hard ( to see a white person that can really dance!) and then like everyone else he stopped and stepped back into the crowd, nonchalant.

I wish I could adequately explain it- it was like by doing this he stepped over some invisible boundary (maybe there is a fourth 'space' or law, along with the Church, Tradition and Council- the Disco!), and now he has become a legend in Ngukurr. And I couldn't be prouder to call him my san!

Go Wamut!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

More Photos

Back in the good old days (i.e. the dry season) when you could drive across the Roper.

Katherine Gorge

The road out of Ngukurr in the last weeks....

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Waninyanapu Hunting-gu-na, Guya-lih (we went hunting for fish)

Barramundi bigeswan!This is the kind of fish we were after- we ate this one the other day!

Yesterday Wamut lent me the car and I took my niece and some babies and family fishing. It was so good to drive out of Ngukurr- but was a bit concerned about the wet everywhere ( we had 69mm rain the night before, which cyclone Monica kindly sent our way)- actually I even asked my niece if it wasn't too wet to go fishing- I wish I could write the way she says 'no' at times like that, like 'naoo! (are you mad!)', 'we have a car don't we, we can sit in the car' (?!), as we were leaving she told Greg if he saw wamut ( yet another wamut) walking back, he would know we were stuck some where, which made me think I am not going to listen to her advice about the road! I think when Old Ladies are travelling with a 'married man' (an older mature man, no longer a teenager) they take more risks- anyway the road was terrible and driving anywhere with anyone (especially when it is wet) means trusting their knowledge of the roads...
And my son, this other Wamut directed me very astutely when I hesitated to drive through huuge puddles (rivers across the road really).. 'should I put it in four wheel drive' ? and he would say 'no mami, hadwan graun dijan iya- yu kip gon- yu kan wari bla dis rod' (this is hard ground here , don't worry) and after i had driven through, he would say , ' you could feel that hard ground?' and I would smile (bigwan) and say yes!

So we stopped at a spring and sat by the river bank ( the air was all misty and wet) and I sighed with relief to be listening to the birds and the water and smelling the eucalyptus... After we collected enough live bait we drove across, 'shotkat' back to a part of the Roper... When finally we could see the river in the distance wamut told me to leave the car, but my Old nis ( she is an old woman) didn't like the idea of walking and told me to keep going, I stopped- and as we started to walk and sank knee deep into the mud 'blacksoil country' I silently thanked wamut for telling me when to stop... But it was a long walk, the other quickly outstripped me and nis (carrying buckets of water with bait fish and lines) and I think we got a bit lost, because when we reached the river bank, my nis giggled and pointed out to me that we had walked the long way round!

Sitting down to fish a bit away from the others ( who gave me the best fishing place, even though everyone know I am the least likely to catch anything!), I started imagining all the crocodiles in the river ( which is huge and brown) when one came out right in front of me! About a meter from the bank his whole head snout and most of his body and one yellow eye looking right at me! I jumped up and he dove under and I thought Oh No! He's going to run up the bank and eat me! About two seconds later I registered that it had been a freshwater crocodile, not a man-eating saltie... but I was still scared enough to pull in my line and go and sit with the others. My nis was sorry we didn't have a spear or we could kill it, because, she said the old (very Old Man, my dedi) who lives in her kemp would cook it and eat it.

Hours past and we caught only one catfish- the small boy who was with us started to get hungry, everyone told him to stop crying or he would scare all the fish away, but everyone started hunting around for a lighter to cook the catfish for him- but no luck. I was hungry and tired of sitting trying to be patient.. After another hour or so it suddenly dawned on me that maybe everyone was waiting to for me to leave, and I suggested in a small voice, maybe it was time to go, and within about thirty seconds everyone was packed up and walking back! Now I have been fishing many many times before even with this same group of people and often felt like I was too impatient, or got hungry too quickly and when I asked to leave the old ladies might explain that the fish will bite when the sun is lower in sky, or just sit silently and keep fishing. So I was shocked to realise everyone had been waiting for me to say when to to leave. And as we trudged back through the mud, I asked my nis why no-one asked me to go- 'wal yu have to decide, isn' it!' 'you brought us here'!

The more I think about this, every which way, I try and understand why for that situation, I was 'the boss' where as in most other situations I have been in, I have merely been a player with someone else determining the game. It could be because before we left I explained what my research project was and asked permission to record the conversation as we drove along in the car, but then again we have done that before too- all trips are meant to be about 'language' actually there is so much going on all the time and I always realise after the fact that I have been very slow in realising something. Usually something that I would think is very subtle and everyone else would think is glaringly obvious. Like today when I went to work at the bottom camp and everyone told me again and again that there was no power ( the power often goes off) and I said well we will keep working anyway right? I have batteries (actually I thought lovely, no fans humming, no TV in the background, nice clear recording). It was only later as we sat down and wamut got up and walked away to the shop (to buy a powercard) I realised this was a kind of 'display of need' and I hadn't caught on fast enough to offer to buy a powercard ( I thought the power in the whole community was off)- but you know, I should have, because it really is unusual for everyone to stand up and tell me something like that over and over again.

Like when we were fishing, one of the men was saying pointedly and loudly to the little boy- you are hungry hey?' and I was thinking that is unusual, obviously the boy is hungry it make it any easier telling him.. and of course in hindsight I realise this was meant for me ! This was a cue for me to suggest that we leave... He also tried speaking Kriol, loudly and carefully ( also very unusual) directing it at me and Nis and in hindsight I think he was trying to get out of the way whatever it was I wanted to get done there!

I think there is (as in any social group) different 'rules' at different times and places. For example if I was at the shop, any number of people might ask me for money, or a lift, or to buy this or that- but being in someone's own camp (house), or out bush there are clearly other things governing the interaction. A friend makes a distinction in her research of Ngukurr between three kinds of 'place' or maybe even 'law' (meaning like rules, regulations), one is traditional, one is governed by the Church ( Ngukurr was an Anglican Mission) and the other is the government/council. ... Maybe it is possible that each of these three institutions have different rules of etiquette and interaction, which might explain some of the inconsistencies of feeling like 'everyone tells you what to do', blatant humbug, and then feeling like 'how come no-one told me what to do?!' subtle autonomy..

It also makes me think of the incredible and un-whitefella like amount of autonomy people are given in a traditional sense, to decide what they want to do and how to do it, and when without having to explicitly explain the plan and motivations to everyone all the time. Very early on living in Ngukurr I learnt to do (in someways) whatever someone told me- even if I didn't understand at the time, because almost always a week or so later it would dawn on me. I am sorry to go on but I have to illustrate with an example- I was picking up language centre mob in the truck to drive to Katherine ( last year sometime) and these two girls (teenagers) got in and would not get out. Nor did they greet me or explain why they were there, or who they were. I was exhausted and angry and told them there was no room... but they didn't get out and everyone else that came to the car said they wouldn't come because there was no room ( rather than telling the two girls to get out). One of the language centre workers yelled at them, told them they must stay... anyway after considerable humbug we left, with the two girls in tow. Sometime 200km's later one of them quietly explained ( as though she were talking to herself) how glad she was to be able to leave and not be forced into marriage- it turned out I had bailed out two young brides of an arranged marriage ( which at least. if not good or bad is meaningful!)...

It is tiring though not knowing what is going on until well after it has happened!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Researching languages

The research work is going well. I have been recording in two languages, Roper River Kriol and Ritharrngu (or Waagilak as it is also known..). The first thing I did really was sit down with my Baba and translate the information and consent forms into Kriol.. My baba is a bit of a genius, I think at expressing something like 'PhD research' into Kriol, something like 'haiwan stadi bla raidim bigwan buk'... The whole concept of academia and qualifications is, I suppose a bizarre one, but not without congurencies in Ngukurr, having levels of initiation or wisdom, or things you have to complete over the years to show your community that you are knowledgeable enough to teach the subject matter ... I remember thinking how bizarre the graduation ceremony was at UNE, with all the artifacts and costumes and rites that symbolise the separation of Church and the state and rites and roles to be observed... Maybe it is not unlike traditional ceremony.

I have been lucky in a few ways, finding a Ritharrngu speaker whose kinship relationship to me is 'Older sister', yapba, and who does not speak any English (just Kriol and Ritharrngu), she speaks to me a mile a minute, then smiles and gets me to repeat what she has says, she is so obviously used to teaching language with how she directs me and is very patient... some of my other good luck is finding a Kriol/Ritharrngu/English speaker (he has the skin name Wamut- I call him 'son')who is a perfectionist and while transcribing a conversation he makes sure I write it down accurately, and repeat it back to him perfectly before we continue... it takes many hours to transcribe- so far I have been working on a 7 minute conversation in Ritharrngu, and after four hours with three of us working on it we are getting there...

It makes me realise people so rarely think about the words they say, more often about the 'meaning' of what they say. So as soon as I play something back to someone and they hear 'what it means' they have great trouble repeating the actual words said on the recording back. Which is why my perfectionist son is like gold. He continually reminds everyone else that we are writing down exactly what the recording says, and goes over and over it until what I have written down what matches the recording.

Transcribing a language that you don't speak well (especially a conversation) is a bit of a nightmare in that people always make false starts, don't finish sentences or thoughts, and of course aren't always explicit about who or what they are talking about... I am interested in putting the Ritharrngu into Kriol to try and show really that in terms of discourse (i.e. conversation) practice the Kriol language is more like a traditional language than English... Which in turn is why it is so hard to communicate easily (the words are easy enough to learn) in Kriol, and why everyone should have interpreters and professional education about it, rather than assuming they can understand.

So (linguist mob) I am looking at enclitics, determiners/demonstrative pronouns (which can be free or enclitic in Ritharrngu), word order ( focus, topic, how everything is juxtaposed, like 'I saw him, the man' or 'the man, I saw him' etc), speech act verbs, particles etc etc. As you might guess there is a high correlation between the distribution of discourse particles in Kriol ( like, pobala, lagijat, ngi, ngabi, meitbi) and in those in Ritharrngu, so translations into Kriol can match up nearly word for word ( even though Kriol is said to have a fixed word order like English and Ritharrngu has free word order) in terms of words, but also (possibly) conceptually.

I have been recording a few conversations in Kriol with my Niece and my Mami (who are both old ladies) and other opportunistic situations- like the recent public community meetings about liquor permits (again), which have been a bit distressing for everyone ... They are in the format of everyone (anyone) getting up in front of the council building ( with 40-100 ppl standing around) and 'saying their piece', which apart from the content of what people are saying is interesting in the codeswitching between English and Kriol.. People seem to start speaking in English and then repeat what they have said with emphasis in Kriol, swapping between the two.. Actually the different registers and languages that people use in different contexts is even more diverse than I first thought- people seem to through in words from English, Kriol and various traditional languages, all over the place.

It is great having Greg here to talk to, two linguists in one community, a bit of a luxury really. We get together and talk about finding tense suffixes from language ( in Ritharrngu) on Kriol, or English words ( exciting huh?!). Visiting the language centre is a bit strange, and seeing the language centre going about it's business without me is very strange! I can only compare it to when my host sister from Costa Rica ( who had been living in Australia all year) came back to Costa Rica, where I had been living in her bedroom with her family (and she had visited mine in Aus.) ... We knew so much about each other, shared with each others family and friends, but had never actually met!

But everything is going smoothly (relatively), sometimes people come and speak to me about language centre business and I explain that I am researching now and to talk to Greg (pobala my son)... But no-one seems confused by having us both here at the same time ( well actually except for the Old Ladies who are dying to go fishing and keep asking me to go and get the language centre car!).

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The 'Wet'

You just never know when someone is going to ask if you want to fly around a bit and have a look at the extent of the flood...

You cant see it - but water actually cuts the little town off on all sides. Making Ngukurr a little island!

The view from the airstrip...

This is the Wilton River crossing (not as big as the Roper)

This is where a smaller river (Hodgson River?) meets the Roper

One side of Ngukurr

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Northern Territory 2005 Photos

Here are some photos of when Nicholas came to visit me- and a few work photos.The view from Ngukurr (which is on a little hill) in all directions, in the dry season that is- at the moment it looks the same but on some sides the trees are waist deep in water...

Pobala that Ngukurr Language Centre! The little workspace, the tiny living space, the lovely tin everything ...

Some of the Roper (ie Ngukurr) language workers and I went to the coast (of the Gulf of Carpentaria) to work with some Old People there who are the last speakers of Marra language. We recorded some good stories and songs.

Some Ngukurr mob took us out fishing to a special beautiful place. The Old Man sung for us (telling the country we were there- to provide for us) Nick caught two fish, and even I caught one. We didnt really know what to do with them though, one of Nick's jumped back in... we ate them later after cooking them on the fire.

Hot springs! in Mataranka- Nicholas wanted me to take a photo of the algae - not just the pretty parts. Unfortunately because it is already so hot, hot springs don't seem that cool ( so to speak).

This is in Kakadu National Park- it is exciting to see this much water (with no crocs!) in the dry season ( when it hasn't rained for nearly 6 months).

In the dry season all the country gets burnt ( either on purpose or by chance), it 'cleans up' the country and creates beautiful contrasting colours, of red and black and then green as new shoots come through.

Solar powered cars are all over the NT (not really- but we were lucky enough to see a few because there was a race on between Darwin and Alice while we were driving in the same direction)

On the (red, dusty, long) road with all the (beautiful, wide, open) country.

Off on an adventure!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Back to Ngukurr

I had this feeling as I flew into Darwin an uneasy kind of anticipation that brought back all these memories of the times I have spent up here ( in Ngukurr )...

I remembered things like the day before the drive to Garma last year sitting up at the shop and one of the local mob suddenly getting angry with me for organising to swap cars ( to take a bigger safer one for river crossings) up to Garma... he was very angry and I was very exhausted and emotional and right there in the front of the shop ( hang out place for all the people and mangey dogs and concrete floors, red dust and padlocked diesel pumps) I started to cry and I just couldn't stop. I felt so overwhelmed and isolated and alone. Like I was working so hard for something that was impossible - that I didn't understand why he was angry, that i just couldn't cope with all the pressure and humbug to get it right, walk the political tightrope of managing resources where they are scarce... the logistics of organising complex conflicting tasks and always being or at least feeling responsible. I just couldn't hold back the tears and I tried to be reasonable and unemotional in my response of asking him to explain to me the problem .. but my tears confused him and he walked off.

Everyone there was watching me, some touching my shoulder and I filled the tank with diesel and got into the car and all the language workers ( my colleagues) got in the car too, and still I couldn't really stop crying. I drove home and just sat in my room (in the language centre) feeling my breath and trying desperately to just get it together, to just hang in there, just walk back out and explain ... and I was scared everyone would leave and I would be there alone.
But no-one left. My baba (sister) cleaned the kitchen and started to cook, the others made tea and sat and talked, the most senior drove off and when i came out half an hour later, he had brought the other man ( who had been angry) waiting there to talk to me. In my own place and on my own terms, with all the language mob silent but sitting almost surrounding us. And I explained how I was hurt and upset by his attack, and he apologised and explained the pressure he was under, we talked and my baba brought us all food. Then someone drove him home. And everyone just stayed there near me until late in the evening softly discussing this and that silently supporting me...and then wandered off. I wonder at the amazing diplomacy and grace with which it was acknowledged and managed...

I also remembered the next day driving out of Ngukurr on this massive drive, we had two jerry cans of fuel because there is a long stretch in North Arnhem of no fuel, actually there was really nothing, just the dirt road and all the bush, and the rain. As it was getting to evening I had been looking for somewhere to pull of the road for a while to fill up the tank, but all the sides of the road where too muddy and I thought we would get bogged. But it was getting dark so in the end I stopped in the middle of the road and with the car absolutely covered in mud climbed into the back and got the jerry can and funnel- and then realised I couldn't hold them both... so I was standing in the rain covered in mud in the tray of the car yelling to one of the old ladies to come and hold the funnel. They weren't happy!!, my ngayali (niece) came and held it and I accidently poured some diesel on her ( I didn't want it to get too much rain in it in my hurry) , and she got the giggles. and then so did I... and we stood there in the grey light in the middle of the road, in the middle of nowhere, covered in mud giggling and wobbling and trying to be as quick as we could- we didn't know how far it was to go, and even though I had to stop quite a few times and wash the mud off the headlights so we could see.. it was somehow lightened after that...
These funny moments!

And already getting into that tiny plane and flying across the endless open country to Ngukurr doesn't seem that strange. In fact, it seems ordinary... it did feel a bit like coming home- everything and everyone were so familiar... and people call out to me and say hello and wave. But it is hard not to feel shy. And hard not to feel strange that I am not working at the language centre. just wandering about talking to people.