Driving north from Sydney to Boggabilla, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales, the New England highway isn’t exactly as accurate as the name would suggest. The scenery is more Mars like than anything remotely British.
Every few hundred kilometres a town appears each claiming to have Australia’s best meat pie and each trying to tempt passers by with their own quirky form of tourism. Singleton, “Come see Australia’s cleanest town!” Tamworth “Catch a glimpse of the Golden Guitar!” Warialda “Visit the home town of Mark Coulton, the Federal MP for Parkes!”
After a while the hypnotic monotony of the landscape, melds together to form a dizzying blend of browns and greens. It leaves plenty of time to talk. It leaves plenty of time to listen. It leaves plenty of time to think. Everything about the drive is quintessentially Australian. The beauty and resilience of the land is clearly evident, and leaves no questions as to why it has been a muse for great Australian artists for generations.
Unfortunately for this supposed great country, its government and every person that lives in it, that long stretch of Highway will also take you to a destination that, although most of Australia would vehemently deny being the case, is in its own way as quintessentially Australian as the drive itself.
Boggabilla and Toomelah. To most Australians these names are largely unrecognisable. Apart from a few stories on ABC’s 7:30 Report, and sporadic articles in larger newspapers, these two towns rarely get a mention. Luckily for me and anyone fortunate enough to have taken part in Jewish Aid Australia’s Derech Eretz program, these towns mean something extremely significant.
Derech Eretz runs a school holiday program for the children of these communities twice a year, once in the summer, and again in the middle of the year. I have been on the last two trips and I have every intention of going back as soon as I can.
A group of twelve of us packed into two mini vans for the midyear pilgrimage in July, some of the group already known to each other, and some meeting for the first time. There were no awkward silences or clashes of personality because although each person had decided to go up for different reasons, we were all united by our love of the communities and particularly the children we were going to visit. The hours on the New England Highway were spent partly on getting to know each other a little better, but mostly of sharing our stories of past experiences with the adorably, cheeky kids that we were on our way to see. Each of us had our favourites who we were eagerly looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with. We questioned whether the younger ones would remember us from the summer trip, or for those of us who hadn’t been in a couple of years, at all. Either way we knew that it didn’t matter too much, because we remembered them.
For the kids of Toomelah and Boggabilla there isn’t that much to do. This forces them to try and find entertainment in avenues that are often frowned upon by the law. Our goal for the little time we are there is to offer them a chance to have fun and be a kid in a safe, secure environment. A chance that is afforded to most other child in Australia.
Each morning we would drive the fifteen minutes down the road to Toomelah. We would cross over the bridge connecting the island mission to the main road. More often than not we could see a group of about five kids waiting for our arrival. Before being able to recognise who exactly had formed the welcoming committee, we could see the big cheeky smiles that we had become accustomed to. When we stopped to pick up the first load of kids on our way to the kindergarten where we ran activities, we would be met with the obligatory “took ya time this mornin’ didn’t ya” or “we been waitin’ ages for ya”. These kids are confident, indomitable and have a heap of swagger. The kids would quickly commandeer the ipod and immediately put on their favourite songs. Flo Rida was a group pleaser, offset momentarily with the help of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘call me maybe’. Even the most courageous of DJs would have trouble mixing these two songs, but the kids didn’t seem to mind a bit. As we trolled through the town, kids would begin to pile into the car.
Toomelah itself looked slightly different compared to the February trip. The grass had been cut, and some of the houses looked to have been painted. Perhaps it was a sign of the recent media coverage it had been receiving, or maybe it was a symbol of a new beginning, but either way I could see small signs of improvement in the place. I could also sense it in the kids. They used manners and swore a lot less often compared to my first trip in the summer.
At the kindergarten we would laugh and play with the kids. We would be teased and made fun of, but we knew it was innocent. The group did anything to make the kids happy and as a product would often be left delighted ourselves. In one meeting with the community elders one of the Auntie’s told us that we did such great things for the kids there. She reinforced that we were important to the community and especially the children. In the eyes of the group I am positive that we all considered it a mutually beneficial relationship. I believe it is important for that point not to be brushed over. If the kids of Toomelah, and Boggabilla could understand that they offer as much, or even more, to us as we offer to them, it would go a long way.
Boggabilla is slightly different. Instead of playing in a kindergarten, we would spend the afternoons in a large shed turned community youth centre. It is truly a great place for the kids to spend their time. Video games, table tennis, a basketball court, childhood Mecca really. And the kids love it. We would spend hours on end playing with the kids, each day fostering a stronger bond.
The ten days in community simply flies by. Before we knew it we were saying our goodbyes to the kids we had fallen in love with. We left with little fanfare, the kids waving goodbye eagerly anticipating Derech Eretz’s next visit.
It is hard to describe in words how the older people of Toomelah and Boggabilla say they feel. One word they use a lot is hopeless. After leaving my maiden trip in February I couldn’t help but feel the same. However, this time my feelings have changed slightly, when playing and laughing with the kids of the communities, it is easy to forget about the sadness and trouble that surrounds the place. Only when the day is done and we have time to reflect on this fact does it resurface.
The children are extremely strong and resilient. They are crafty and fiercely independent. They are cunning and intelligent. Perhaps not in conventional western society standards, but in an original unique way, symptomatic of the environment in which they have grown up in. They are artistic and talented. They are innocent, beautiful and deserve to have as much potential as any other child in Australia. I am extremely proud to have met the kids that I have met. I only hope that they are as proud of themselves as I am of them.
There is a school of thought that people don’t really grow up; we only learn how to behave in public. I try and prescribe to this theory. I sincerely hope that the kids of Toomelah and Boggabilla never lose their youthful exuberance. I hope it is never curbed or stifled in any way. Those kids have something to offer Australian society, and the time has come for them to be given the chance to do so.
Unfortunately this is not the case. For too long the government of Australia has neglected its obligation to take care of, among others, the people of Toomelah and Boggabilla. Misappropriated funding, blatant disregard and broken promises. There is no trust between the two bodies. There is very little dialogue, and when there is it is often the government trying to impose regulations upon the Indigenous people that simply do not fit with their culture. They use white man solutions to black man problems. It just doesn’t make sense.
Shame is a huge issue within Indigenous Australian society. A people have been persecuted and mistreated for generations. It makes sense that they would feel some shame. But the problem is perpetuated by White Australian society. One example that exemplifies this perfectly is the story of Australian boxer Damien Hooper. In his recent boxing bout at the Olympics Hooper had hoped to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the Aboriginal flag. Australian Olympic officials stepped in and told him that it was against policy to wear it. He was trying to show his pride of heritage. As simple an act as wearing a t-shirt can go a long way, but it was shot down. Therein lays the problem. Australia barely acknowledges the existence of Aboriginal Australians in Australia, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t want them showing the flag to the rest of the world. To me that is shameful. And this is one of the first times when I can actually say that I am ashamed to be Australian. Something needs to change, and quickly.
The problems in Toomelah and Boggabilla have been caused by both the people there and the government. My own opinion is that the only way to come to a viable solution is to set up a proper dialogue between the two parties. Yes, this should have happened years ago, as Marcus Einfeld put it, “it should have been brought to attention more loudly and more often” but it hasn’t. If the people of Toomelah and Boggabilla and the Government continue to be at loggerheads with each other, then nothing will be achieved and Toomelah is at great risk of being disbanded, and with it, Australia is at great risk of losing some truly remarkable people.
There needs to be time to talk. There needs to be time to listen. There needs to be time to think. Perhaps the best way for this to happen is for the elders of the communities and notable Government officials take the drive from Sydney to Boggabilla themselves. They should drive back and forth until a viable, lasting, just solution has been discovered.