A forgotten community provides visitors with a real lesson…

While many school students and teachers were enjoying their recent school holiday, a group of teachers and students from St Mary’s Campus, All Saints College Maitland was immersed in a very different experience in the remote Aboriginal community of Warralong in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Located in the north of WA between the Kimberly and Gascoyne regions, Warralong is home to the Nyangumarta and Mardu people from Strelley, Warralong and Port Hedland communities.

A forgotten community provides visitors with a real lesson…

The Indigenous Immersion Program organised by Catholic Mission and St Mary’s teaching staff gave those involved an authentic Aboriginal lifestyle experience at the Strelley Community School, Warralong. Catholic Mission facilitator and Team Leader, Michael Gallaway, accompanied teachers Bronwyn Rayner, Debbie Sivyer and Helen Kearney and 11 students to the remote school for their 10 day mission. 


The Strelley Community School values and promotes the cultural heritage of its students, and because students speak English only as their second language, all classrooms have at least one Indigenous teacher’s assistant at all times. Nyangumarta is the target language of the school's LOTE (Language other than English) program and an extensive collection of Nyangumarta resources has been created and developed over the years by community members, language specialists for the teaching of Nyangumarta.


The Warralong Mob, as they were known, were wonderful hosts and very proud to share their culture and show off their country, which includes the end of the Rabbit Proof Fence, at Cape Keraudren. Weekends were spent exploring the local area with excursions to Cape Keraudren, Mulley Cattle Station, Marble Bar and a sacred Aboriginal rock art site near Warralong. During the school week students and staff worked alongside Strelley School staff assisting in numerous tasks. On a typical school day students were up at 6.15am to help prepare breakfast for the Aboriginal children. After serving breakfast, they helped children with morning hygiene and reading activities before school. Mornings were spent with Strelley teachers helping out with literacy and numeracy programs, and afternoons were spent with Aboriginal students participating in the school’s drama program. Socialising and playing sport after school fostered friendship between the Warralong Mob and the St Mary’s Mob.


Teacher Helen Kearney said it was an enriching and rewarding experience; “We went to be of service to the school and the community but came away with a great knowledge of Indigenous culture and a better understanding of what community really means – all members of the community,  whether they be aged or deaf or physically impaired, are cared for by the whole community. No child is homeless; no child feels unwanted or unaccepted; all old people are revered and respected and cared for by family.”


The St Mary’s Mob was profoundly affected by the Warralong experience. Students embraced a very different culture, appreciated its richness and put their own values into perspective. Student Leah Callaghan, reflecting on the experience said, “The Warralong Mob has shown me that true happiness does not lie in material possessions, but rather in finding a sense of community and acceptance of life’s circumstances. The understanding I now hold of such a rich culture has changed my outlook on my own life.” Similarly, when Shaun Maloney thought about the living conditions of the Warralong Mob, he noted that, “They all smiled and it makes me think that we (white people) take so much for granted. We forget the simple things such as love, family and community - for the Warralong mob that is their way of life.” For Rachel Prestwich, time spent at Warralong was a once in a lifetime experience: “I have experienced so much in such a short period and I am so glad I was able to participate in such an amazing trip.”


Summing up her life-changing experience, teacher Bronwyn Rayner said, “It gave us an opportunity to give to others, work together and live more simply. Although the Indigenous community is materially poor, it is rich in history, culture and relationships. My highlights were playing music with both the Warralong and Maitland mobs and also seeing the beauty of creation at Marble Bar. The relationship between teachers and students was authentic and valued. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to serve others.”   


Teacher Debbie Sivyer said, “The experience was not so much transforming but a confirmation of my need to be far more open to and tolerant of the Aboriginal world view.” Whilst at Warralong, the visitors slept in the school library which afforded the opportunity of dipping into books during rest times. Debbie said she was particularly taken by one book, Deadly Yarns, and the words of Rosemary Cahill; “When you are shown how to look at the world through a different window, you realise that some of the things you have always ‘known’ are things you have actually assumed.”


Debbie admitted that her experience with the Warralong mob encouraged her to be non-judgemental, “Different is not wrong. It affirmed my valuing belonging to close-knit communities.”  A memory that will resonate for a long time to come for her is the campfire gathering on the banks of the De Grey River: “Clarrie, a tribal elder, gathered us around the dying embers of the fire and asked us to sit quietly and listen to each other’s experiences of our stay at Warralong. Clarrie added to the ‘story’ that unfolded. I am still greatly perplexed and distressed by the social injustice clearly evident at Warralong and many other Indigenous communities throughout Australia. I don’t have the answers for reconciling the obvious conflict between white and Indigenous society but the simplicity of this exercise, led by Clarrie, reinforced the need to listen. As Cahill suggests, only when you understand where someone is coming from, will you have more of a chance of connecting with that person and having a productive dialogue.”


One of the key objectives of the Indigenous Immersion Program was “to develop an appreciation of a culture very different from your own and learn about the huge disparities in wealth between your own lifestyle and that of the people with whom you are to engage, from a perspective of justice and gospel.” Undoubtedly, the St Mary’s Mob came away from this experience with a real understanding of what it is truly like to be part of a culture lacking in materialism, strongly held together by community spirit and largely forgotten by the bulk of the Australian people. The 10 days spent with the Warralong community, will be long remembered and perhaps life-changing.

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