My friend Cadie, a Garawa woman, and I are on a six-month road trip. We’ve been staying in Woorabinda for the last week with Cadie’s friend Ida, a nurse. Woorabinda (‘kangaroo sit down’) is an Aboriginal community of approximately 1000 people. Situated between Blackwater and Rolleston, about two hours’ drive from Rockhampton, Woorabinda came into being in the 1920s when the Queensland Government ordered the Aboriginal people living at Taroom to move, ostensibly because they were planning to build a dam. The dam was never built. These people – who weren’t just locals, but came from all over North Queensland and the Gulf country – were required to walk to their new home. The road between the two points on the map these days covers about 200km.
For years, the only house that existed was that of the superintendent. The Aboriginal people lived in humpies. In the town, there was strict segregation between black and white. The Aboriginal children were put in dormitories off limits to the rest of their families. Aboriginal people who walked down the main street of the town without permission were put in jail – 20 days on bread and water. If they left the town without permission, they were arrested and put in jail. Corroboree was permitted but speaking in language wasn’t, effectively making the former permission redundant. If Aboriginal people spoke in language, they were put in jail. Often that meant being sent to Palm Island. Strict curfews were employed. Bells rang for wake up time, go to work time, get off the street time, go to sleep time. Regular parades were held in which all residents were required to line up and salute the flag. Punishment for missing parade was also 20 days in jail. If an Aboriginal person attempted to run away and was captured, they were required to pay for their own capture. That is, if they had a bank account.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the town was handed over to the locally elected Woorabinda Community Council. They were expected, after a century of systematic oppression and paternalism and with little in the way of formal training to equip them for the responsibility, to be able run their own community in the manner of their white ‘protectors’ within three years.
Dogs roam the streets here like they own them, as do horses. I’ve never seen horses wandering through a town like this before. They’re well-fed and relatively healthy but a bit on the wild side. The locals like them. A bunch of kids were riling up a Staffy in the street a few days ago, a game which involved hurtling over the fence outside the police station to get away from it when it retaliated.
A mongrel by the name of Girl has taken to accompanying us when we go for a run. She trots along beside us, to the second cattle grid and back again, occasionally dashing off into the grass and scrub for a dip in a puddle-pond or to chase a cane toad. Ida doesn’t like the dogs following her. She says Girl once took out a full-size kangaroo, solo.
I can’t tell whether it’s my pale skin and freckles that attracts stares and murmurs, or our newness. Probably both. Even Cadie isn’t immune. In the general store we find a DVD, a community-produced documentary on the history of the town. It looks very different now to the old black-and-white pictures. There is a well-equipped health centre, a state primary school and a private high school, a housing office, and apparently a swimming pool. There is also graffiti, vandalism, alcohol and drug abuse. These things are tragic, but they are not new.
Woorabinda is a dry community. At the Baralaba pub, a 25-minute drive away, a group of young blokes, building contractors working on the extensions to Woorabinda State Primary School, rope me and Cadie into a few rounds of pool. They are holed up in the Baralaba caravan park for the duration of their tenure, and ask us where we are staying. When we tell them, they are clearly astonished.
‘Actually in the town?’
‘What, in a compound?’
‘No,’ Cadie scoffs.
‘In the nurses’ quarters, next to the hospital,’ I say.
‘But it’s like, fully gated, isn’t it?’
‘There’s a gate and a fence if that’s what you mean.’ Like every other house in the town, the fence is high enough to keep the dogs and horses out – theoretically. The animals themselves have other ideas.
‘It’s secure, but it’s not South Africa,’ snaps Cadie.
‘Why would you want to stay there, though?’ another asks.
‘Well!’ he says, in a tone which implies there are a hundred reasons why staying in Woorabinda ought to be unpalatable – and clearly we shouldn’t need to be told.
‘All those black people running around, you mean?’ says Cadie. ‘Of course it must be dangerous.’
Their attitude is distressingly familiar, and it’s easy when you’re cushioned by racial and class privilege, when people have told you all your life that you have choices, that you are free, to unconsciously regard those who have been systematically abused and disenfranchised as lazy, as untrustworthy, as dangerous. To see their problems as their problems, not yours too. To keep away, because keeping away makes it easier to forget. To turn away, even when spending every day for months in a space where the line between history and the present is drawn so stark, so bold, so clearly visible to anyone who cares enough to simply look.
Nanna Frances, one of the five permanent residents of the nursing home, an auxiliary wing of the health clinic, has dementia. She’s one of the oldest people in the community. The nurses estimate that she’s about 96, but nobody knows for sure. The second time we visited her, we were lucky enough to hear her sing. Then she shook our hands and said, ‘Birri Gubba! Birri Gubba! Birri Gubba, that my country!’ And then she started to cry.