The Dumaji Children and Family Centre, run by Save the Children in the far-north Queensland community of Doomadgee, is encouraging Elders to share the experiences of their childhood with the young folk.
Aunty April Peter was taken from Burketown, far north Queensland, to a mission in Doomadgee in 1942. She was five years old. Her mother had passed away and she had no siblings. “The missionary man gave me bananas to eat all the way from Burketown, to try to stop me from crying.”
Doomadgee is a remote community in Queensland’s Gulf Region, 400km north of Mt Isa. Aunty April remembers her early days in the mission with somewhat surprising fondness, but admits it was tough.
“I grew up in a dormitory for girls. We had to make our own breakfast … by grinding the wheat. We had a 44-gallon drum cut in half to use as a tub to have a bath in, and to boil our clothes in afterwards.
“There was no pump for the water back in the day, we’d have to collect our own water in a kerosene bucket. I remember it had a star on it. We’d got it as a Christmas present.”
Aunty April is wiry and weathered, but not frail. She moves slowly but her wit is quick, regularly flashing a gummy smile and laughing joyfully at her own sharp jokes.
Her story is one she wants to share with the children of Doomadgee. Sharing life stories is important for the programs and activities run by the Child and Family Centre – which often focus on family connection, education and learning – because it teaches children to value their culture and their past, and take strength from it. Sharing stories between generations can bring families together, too, helping them stay strong in the face of life’s challenges.
Growing up, Aunty April was only ever allowed to see her relatives on Sundays, after church. This was her only real opportunity to connect with family. They’d take her out and show her the ways of the bush, tell her stories and pass on language.
She learnt to harvest the seeds from the pandanus trees for the kids to eat. She says it was good for their teeth. She learnt to use the tea-tree leaves to make medicinal tea and another rough leaf was good for exfoliating skin.
But it was difficult for traditions to be handed down to a generation living in missionary confines. Some of the kids April lived with could only talk with their parents through the fence.
April met her husband by reflecting the sun off a piece of glass to attract his attention from the separate boy’s dorm. They’d send each other messages by attaching them to rocks and hurling them over the fence. Soon after they met, they were forced to marry to avoid the prospect of living in sin.
Thankfully, they were a good match and spent many years hunting, fishing and camping with their children.
It saddens Aunty April that the current generation of ‘goonawunna’ (young children) have been cut off from so much of their culture. That so few have learnt the skills of the bush or carried on the languages.
“We were told not to share these things, or speak in language. If we were heard talking our language, we’d be made to stand up on a stool in front of the class. We’d get our mouth scrubbed down with a scrubbing brush, in front of everyone. And you’d get no sugar on your porridge!”
Aunty April says she reckons today’s mob of kids in Doomadgee are ‘getting on the right track’. But that it’s important they try to listen to the stories of their ancestors.
“We tell them to stand strong,” she says. “Don’t be like a tree that’s bending over. All half and half. They’ve gotta stop, look and listen to us old people. One day they’re going to be a leader of this community. We’ll be gone then. And our knowledge will be gone with us.”
“When I was born, in 1937, a big star ran across the sky,” Aunty April recalls.
“In language, we call it ‘bunjirramurra’. That means the running star. So, that was given to me as a bush name. It meant I was going to stay strong.”
Strong enough to reflect on a tough past without bitterness or regret. And to pass on what she knows of her people and her country to the kids in her community – as well as her 22 grandchildren, 36 great grandchildren and 3 great-great grandchildren.
Photo: Robert McKechnie/Save the Children