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Strangers in their own land - an extract

By Helen Hughes - posted Friday, 7 March 2008

I met Charlotte's mother, three years ago when she was making a rare visit to Sydney from a remote aboriginal community on a beautiful stretch of the East Arnhem Land coast, 200km from the nearest hospital, police station, high school and supermarket. It is a dry (alcohol-free) community. Let's call it Wangupeni.

Last year Charlotte's parents sent her to an Indigenous boarding school in Melbourne. She had been attending the Wangupeni school for nine years whenever it was open but in Melbourne she was unable to keep up in class. Teased by the other girls, she became miserable and returned home.

Now Charlotte's mother and father were worried about her future. Photographs showed a smiling, pretty, well-developed girl of 16. Could I help? I thought the transition from a remote community in East Arnhem Land to a Sydney harbourside suburb would be easier if Charlotte had a friend to share the experience, so her 15-year-old cousin Margaret is coming as well.


At 17, barely older than her two pupils, Josephine, who is to tutor the two girls, is settling in. She has experience of remedial teaching in country Queensland where she has just finished high school. A Sydney Rotary Club that has been working in the Wangupeni community is providing support. Charlotte's parents, both urgently in need of medical attention, are bringing the girls to Sydney. They are being cared for by Rotary families who will also be mentors for the two girls throughout their stay.

There's a hubbub at the front door. The girls are very tired after their long journey. Speaking a few words of English is a major effort.

The first week is a chaos of medical and dental appointments interspersed with dinners with mentors and visits from parents to help Charlotte and Margaret adjust to Sydney. The girls have chest infections marked by painful coughs that quickly succumb to antibiotics.

The girls' latest model mobile telephones prove to be a lifeline to parents and friends at home. They can see them as well as talk to them. Recharging becomes critical with pocket money set at $30 a week. The girls are true children of welfare. In Wangupeni there are no jobs. Art is the only source of earned income.

We knew that the girls schooling had been far below mainstream standards. The community had been trying to get fulltime English-speaking teachers for years for its 60 or so school-age children because its own Indigenous head teacher and teaching aides were losing their English literacy and maths skills. “Seagull” teachers who flew in perhaps once, sometimes twice a week or not at all, supplemented the Indigenous teachers. The school operated two classes, one for 5-12 year-olds and one for 13-18 most days of the week.

Charlotte and Margaret had sat side by side in the senior class. Although Charlotte and Margaret were shy, particularly when it came to speaking English, Josephine and I had little trouble communicating with them. We noticed the girls used many English words speaking to each other in their own language. Our attempts to understand their language showed many English words in everyday use including fork, spoon, colours, numbers, non-Indigenous animals and anything mechanical.


Although the girls had recently tested, together with all the other students at Wangupeni, at no higher than first year of formal schooling literacy, we were astonished by the limited number of words, poor spelling and the indiscriminate sprinkling of capital letters in the few sentences they were able to write to describe their journey to Sydney.

Reading was worse. Only with great assistance could they read The Cat in the Hat. Their capacity to add numbers petered out after about 12. Subtraction was even more difficult. They knew no multiplication tables. They had no mental arithmetic capacity. I had been aware that the Wangupeni school only operated for about two hours a day. Charlotte and Margaret exuded boredom with years of repetitive, automaton lessons.

We break lessons to go grocery shopping. The girls cannot read street signs like “caution” and “no left turn”. Bread, cakes and coffee were only read with help. The girls are embarrassed to be the only people on the street unable to read signs. It is soon evident that shopping for sweets, chips, trinkets, cosmetics, clothes and electronic gadgets is a passion that could take up all their time in Sydney.

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First published in The Australian on February 27, 2008. The names of the girls and their community have been changed to protect their identities. This is an edited extract of Strangers in their own country by Centre for Independent Studies senior fellow Helen Hughes, to be published in March 3 edition of Quadrant.

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About the Author

Professor Helen Hughes AO is a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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