Last week I attended the funeral of a friend and mentor in the Outback town of Camooweal.
My friend had lived a remarkable life, being born in the 1940’s she lived part of her life under “The Act” a piece of oppressive legislation that relegated all Aboriginal people to be subjects of the government. She’d been allocated an identification number that was permanently etched in memory, because for much of her life, it had been her only means of being formally recognised and permitted access to services. If this experience had left my friend bitter or hateful of white oppressive law makers, I never knew, because her words were few and the ones she chose reflected hope and change.
A number of people spoke at the funeral. Even those who thought they knew her well were surprised that one person’s life could have such a broad and lasting impact. I knew of her substantial contribution to the health sector but listening to the tributes one could be mistaken for believing she had somehow cloned herself to have made equally stunning contributions to education, housing, justice groups and environmental causes. Not to mention being beloved mother to six, grandmother and great grandmother to many more.
Of all the many significant and enduring contributions shared on the day about this gentle Waanyi warrior …with influence from Canberra to The Gulf of Carpentaria and across the gamut of human rights and Indigenous affairs, one really stood out for me. It was conveyed by a local Caucasian mother who spoke of her appreciation for the influence of our friend toward safety in the community. In her view, it was thanks to our friend that Camooweal was “a safe place to bring up children”.
I thought of all the terrible images portrayed by our media of gloom and dysfunction in isolated communities and could not help thinking that this tribute was a stand-out. After all, if we are to have any hope in the future of Indigenous health and well-being, we have to start with keeping our kids safe. How magnificent, to be remembered as the person in the community who could do this!
Before leaving Camooweal a colleague and I took the time to drive down to the riverbank to enjoy the unique peace and solitude an outback waterhole can offer. The shady, twisted river gums and the intense, azure blue of the sky did not disappoint.
As we returned to the car and my colleague closed her door a small, yellow bird appeared, pecked at her window and hovered momentarily before perching itself on a nearby branch, singing. It stayed just long enough for us to get over our surprise and grab our cameras. My colleague wondered, ‘Could that be our friend coming to say “goodbye” … or maybe even, “hello”?’
Incredibly, despite the grief incumbent in attending a funeral and a long, two day journey home, I returned inspired and energised. Some say it is the landscapes of the Outback that invigorate. For me, it is the people. I respect and admire their enduring qualities, evident in fellow mourners, and quintessentially revealed in my friend: determined, tenacious, grounded and good humoured. The vision my friend shared is not yet realised but you have to believe, she has left it in safe hands.