Tomorrow is the last day left in the Hope For Health crowd-funding campaign, raising money for a traditional health retreat to be held on Elcho Island this September. At time of publishing, they have reached $61,597 of their goal of $80,000. If you donate any amount of money to any Indigenous cause this year, I would recommend you donate to this one. Hope For Health has already transformed the lives and health outcomes of Yolngu people in Galiwin’ku, the Indigenous people of the area. This movement has the potential to spread further in the community, literally saving the lives of people who are living with chronic illness and dying too young.
Now, onto my background interest in this campaign…
It was March 2014. Kama arrived at my donga, eyes shining, pushing her son Eli in the pram. She had taken fifteen minutes to walk 150 metres, her delay due to a combination of meeting people along the way and also not knowing the shortcut. Her eyes were shining because on her way over she had met more Yolngu friends who wanted help with their health. Only about a month earlier, Kama’s close friend Diane came to her to ask for help with her nutrition. Kama cooked all her meals for her for a week. Diane felt the difference in her body immediately and told her relatives about it. This small action started the movement that is now spreading through the community.
I first met Kama two years ago, when I was doing linguistics fieldwork in Galiwin’ku. Kama and her husband Tim had moved to Galwin’ku five years earlier, having founded an organisation called AHED (Arnhem Human Enterprise Development). In a place full of ‘misfits, missionaries, and mercenaries’, the Trudgens would be classified as missionaries, as they were there to help the Yolngu people.
Unlike most ‘missionaries’ (Christian and otherwise) who tend to arrive with a preconceived notion of what ‘the problem’ is and how they personally can fix it, the Trudgens came with a specific methodology that was focussed around local empowerment and initiative. They helped people who came to them with ideas or plans, and never took over, or chased people up on projects. They copped some flak for this approach, seen by some as too passive. But keeping the power in the hands of the Yolngu people is crucial in a place where too often, outsiders take over local initiatives and the locals are left disempowered over and over again.
For this reason, Kama, who is a Doctor, didn’t immediately set up a health recovery program upon arriving in Galiwin’ku, handing out education about good diet and exercise. It was only after living there for five years, and being approached for help, that the Hope For Health program started to take shape. And that is the reason for its success. Perfectly good programs get helicoptered into remote Indigenous communities every time an outsider gets a good idea. For lasting success, change has to come from within, as has already been seen in Hope For Health.
From the small beginning of Diane asking Kama for help with her health, the Hope For Health movement has gained traction. In 2015, twelve Yolngu women went on a Health retreat in Living Valley Springs and learned about diet and exercise. They came back to Galiwin’ku as ambassadors for good health and the information needed on how to improve their health.
But let’s backtrack to the health situation in Galiwin’ku, and how it got to be this way. According to the Hope For Health website, one in two Yolngu people have diabetes and one in three suffer from chronic illnesses such as heart and liver disease. Funerals are constant. In Arnhem Land, a Yolngu person in their sixties is considered very old. When my husband was a pilot based on Galiwin’ku, one of the most distressing charters he did was transporting the body of a 25-year-old woman who had died of a heart attack, from having rheumatic heart disease as a child, likely a result from poor diet and crowded living conditions.
Before Western influence, the Yolngu people lived healthy lives. They moved across large estates and ate a high protein diet with plenty of seafood. There was never any concept of ‘unhealthy food’ because all the food that was in abundance was nourishing and nutritious. The biggest source of sweet food was bush-honey, which was scarce and hard to find.
In 1948, a scientific team went to three major communities in Arnhem Land to assess the health of the people there. Their findings: ‘The general build is athletic. Shoulders, thighs and muscles of the vertebral column are well developed and strong. Carriage, posture and gait are excellent… In no instance was an obese adult encountered” (Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, Richard Trudgen 2000:7). When Trudgen arrived in Milingimbi in 1973, this description was still true of the Yolngu people. But by the 1990s, there was a sharp downturn in health: “Yolngu are now dying in their early to mid forties or even younger, and at such a rate that life seems to lurch from one funeral to another. ‘I am tired of standing at the edge of an open grave, week in and week out!’ Djiniyini told me in 1996. ‘Why are so many of our people dying so young?’” (Trudgen 2000:7).
The mission era, which began in the 1930s, brought in rations of white flour, sugar and tea (1). But at that time, most Yolngu would have still hunted, fished and gathered for food as well as eating damper and drinking tea. In the 1980s, fast food was introduced. Although there are not many Yolngu people left in Galiwin’ku who remember a time before missionaries and the food they brought, the older people still grew up on a traditional diet. People who are now middle-aged have transitioned to a fast food diet and are suffering dire health consequences. There is a generation coming up, born in or after the 1980s, who grew up exclusively on fast food. Their health outcomes, like that of the 25 year old woman mentioned above, are even more dire than that of their parents and grandparents.
It is too easy to blame the Yolngu people for their own poor health. If you eat fast food for every meal and never exercise, ‘of course’ you are going to be sick. But it turns out, this received wisdom is based on growing up in Western society, which Yolngu people don’t. No-one ever told Yolngu people that fast food is bad for you. The whole concept of food being ‘bad’ for you is foreign.
Easy access to fast food has caused a health epidemic among the Yolngu people, but the real problem is not the food itself. Rather, it is the influence of Western lifestyles and the movement away from traditional practices.
The story is dismal, but not hopeless. The best reason for hope is that the answer for health has been there all along, in the traditional diet of the Yolngu people. Good health is not something that only non-Indigenous people are experts in; and Yolngu people are not like children who need to be told what to do. In fact, what is required is going back to traditional foods. Hope For Health traditional Yolngu frameworks with Western knowledge about nutrition, detox and healing. For this reason, the movement is one of true reconciliation, as it is based on mutual respect between cultures.
(1) The missionaries have copped a lot of flak. They certainly weren’t perfect, but in the Arnhem Land region I don’t think they were evil either (as opposed to in other areas of Australia, where they were actually evil). These introduced foods ended up having terrible health consequences for the Yolngu people but that was not their intention. White flour, tea and sugar were the food the missionaries themselves were eating, along with the rest of non-Indigenous Australia, back then and also today. Right now, those three ingredients are in my pantry.