There is a bird hanging around here that makes a noise like The Silence, but I keep forgetting which one it is.
I’ve been living in one community this whole year, and wanting to visit my Arnhem Land hometown. It’s just a short 20 minute plane flight away, but an $850 return flight if I pay full fare. After four months I am finally here. I arrived on Friday and I’m flying out in 2.5 hours. Quick visit; worth it though.
I hadn’t spoken to my Yolngu family in this community since before Easter, when I said I might be visiting them for Easter. And then… I just didn’t turn up. My lift (on a plane) fell through but Easter weekend was awesome anyway.
So my family didn’t know I was coming here, and I couldn’t let them know because they freaking keep changing their mobile phone numbers. Something I still don’t understand about Yolngu people. When I finally connected, I teased my Gutharra* for always changing her number. “I’ve had the same number for 10 years!” I said. I think she actually didn’t believe me.
But back to when I arrived on Friday afternoon. I was pretty nervous, and worried that my family might be out of town. Anne, the MAF wife generous enough to host me for the weekend, picked me up from the airport with her adorable 3-year-old daughter, who was shy for about four minutes before becoming an instant bestie.
I spent some time with the family then headed off on foot to find my peeps. First I walked to my Waku and Gutharra’s house and hollered for five minutes, but nothing. I went up a few houses and asked a Yolngu man, “Wanha [my Ngaandi’s name]?”** He told me where she is living. So I walked across (very small) town and found my Yolngu mother who adopted me. At first she didn’t recognise me, because
Sorry, I just went away for five minutes to listen to my Waku yell at the djamarrkuli’ over the school loudspeaker for staying up all night making noise and keeping the babies and mums awake. It was full on.
because I was wearing my big hat, and I guess she wasn’t expecting to see me. But once she recognised me she was all “marrkapmirr” and hugging and we walked off to see my Waku. Again there was no response at her house, so I sat with Ngaandi for a while. The amazing part was that we could communicate. It has always hurt my heart that I can’t talk to this lady. She doesn’t speak any English, though she probably understands a fair bit. The way we used to communicate was running through the bush. I would carry her pandanus bag (usually a pillowslip or chook food bag) and pick up the pandanus as she pulled it down with a strength that you wouldn’t expect from a woman in her 70s. I fussed about pandanus prickles sticking in my fingers, and wielded my piddly muscles with shame.
This time, we didn’t need the pandanus to bond us, because we were able to talk as we walked along, because suddenly I can speak Djambarrpuyngu. I shouldn’t be shocked at this skill, because I’ve been living in Yolngu community and pushing myself, but it really does feel like a recent gift to be able to hold a conversation in Yolngu Matha. Ngaandi was so impressed with me. We were able to connect in a way we never have before. Very special.
After I left Ngaandi, I walked past Waku and Gutharra’s house and heard yelling from inside: “Bangaditjan! Bangaditjan!”. It was Gutharra.
That very Gutharra is walking past right now, wearing a skirt I gave her on Friday, accompanied by her son and two nieces.
She came out and hugged me and we went to see Waku, who was watching cards. I pretended to be a Mokoy but Waku wasn’t fooled, she threw her arms around me and said “Hello Mummy!” because Waku means daughter/son, even though this woman is in her late 50s.
So it’s been a great few days, visiting family, spending time with the MAF family I’m staying with, and having terrifyingly awesome online chats***. Yesterday I was sitting with Waku and Ngaandi, and I asked, “Yol ngarraku yaaku yolngu?” (What is my Yolngu name). Ngaandi said “Yaka ngarra marngi!” (I don’t know!) and laughed. “She got short memory,” said Waku.
But this issue needed to be sorted out, so Waku took me to see my Gaathu. I don’t know why she was to be the one to name me. Maybe one day I’ll understand (so much of hanging out with Yolngu is hoping one day this will all make sense). She knew the song that my name needed to be pulled from.
So Waku and I sat with Gaathu for about ten minutes while she and old man, also a Waku of mine, sat there thinking. Waku kept badgering them, and I told her to be quiet so they could concentrate. Eventually she came out with it, told me the name and made me write it down. Fortunately I had my iPhone on me, because she wanted to record that song. We recorded it and played it back. The name is for red and black berries on a particular tree (all Yolngu names are things in the natural world). Then Waku and I walked to that tree and I recorded her explaining the dhaawu, including the sound the birds make when they’re looking for that ngatha.
While I was finishing up this blog post, Waku in question came over very stressed out about the Djamarrkuli’ who had been staying up all night and making heaps of noise. Hence her speaking over the loudspeaker. I gave her a couple panadol and a cold facewasher with some lavendar oil. Later I gave her the whole rest of the bottle of lavendar oil. Then we went to the airport and I flew out. Here I am in Darwin and I can’t remember how I was going to finish. So this is it.
*I can’t be bothered explaining kin terms today. I also can’t be bothered coding footnotes. Sorry, you’re just going to have to deal, or maybe start paying for content! 😛
**I never know how to use pseudonyms for Yolngu, because names are much more individual.
***Adding that to the list of things I’m not explaining. I am showing a great deal of disdain for my readers today and starting to feel guilty about it.