I remember the last pandemic to really hit Borroloola. The Hong Kong flu came in the 1960s and changed the way we lived forever. My mum sat us down and said, ‘this flu will come and kill our people.’ I was just a little girl then, and three different clan groups in the region – the Mara, Yanyuwa, and Garawa – all lived together in the same place on the eastern side of the McArthur River at Malarndari camp. But when the flu came, families had to move away from one another, to isolate on their own areas on both sides of the river. Lots of people died from that pandemic in Borroloola. My grandfather was one of them.

There were no proper houses then. People used to make houses from these big flour drums. Later, we all moved to the four town camps where people still live today: Mara, Yanyula, Garawa 1, and Garawa 2. They built proper houses in those town camps, but there are not enough houses for people and they are often very crowded. We have been waiting for new houses for a long time.

When the coronavirus pandemic started this year, people at Borroloola had to isolate again and there was another delay on new houses. Now we have to wait until this thing goes away. 

I began taking photographs of houses in 2015. I called my first project ‘My Country No Home,’ because even though this is Aboriginal country there are Aboriginal people living without a house to call their home. I made portraits of my family and my neighbours standing in front of their houses. I want to show that we are proud people even if our houses need repairs.

My new project has different names: ‘The Promise of Housing’ or ‘Li Bardawu (The Houses)’ or ‘My Country No Home, Still waiting – 2020’. I’m trying to show the politicians that there’s nothing happening. They go talk talk talk, come back. Talk talk talk, go back to their office.

We have been promised new houses many times and for many years. Housing is an important promise for people at Borroloola: for safe homes, for good health, for young people’s education. They build houses for shopkeepers and for government employees in Borroloola. But not enough houses for Aboriginal people.

Now with this new coronavirus pandemic, the government is spending money in the cities and towns, giving grants to homeowners under the Home Improvement Scheme. But what about the old people out in the community? They’re still struggling.

It is hard to wait for new houses to arrive. Some people stay with family in crowded houses. Some people have to leave Borroloola to stay in other towns – Katherine, Mataranka, Darwin. There is a housing shortage in many places in the Northern Territory.

Until last year, the last new houses in the Borroloola town camps were built by the Army in 2006. Money was put aside for new houses at Borroloola in 2009, but no new houses were built until 2019. People tell me different reasons for the delays. The last NT government said they could not build houses without leases for the town camps. Then scientists reckoned floods might come to Yanyula camp. But we’ve lived there years and years – we know it’s okay to live there. They even asked us to move from the camp into the town subdivision. But we don’t want to split up people in the town camp. One old man said you’ll have to drag me with a bulldozer up there – ‘I’m staying at Yanyula camp until the day I die.’

In 2018, Tony Abbott visited Borroloola and he said the houses were ‘appalling’. Some of the houses are tin shacks and matchbox houses built back when they first started the town camps. They are old and they are very hot for people today. Other houses have broken stoves, sockets, showers, toilets, and taps. When things break, people stay at good houses, and crowding means that things break more quickly.

Abbott wanted to move some old RaAAF houses from Darwin to Borroloola. But that plan didn’t work so the Commonwealth government started building ‘emergency housing’ last year. The NT government also started building houses. But the pandemic put everything on hold again.

I wanted to show the condition of the housing at Borroloola, while new houses are finally starting to be built. People need to talk about this story – it’s better to be heard than hidden.

This project was funded by an Arts NT Emerging Artist grant and I’ve been working with artist Rhett Hammerton and researchers Liam Grealy and Kirsty Howey to tell this story. I liked using the Polaroid in this project and I want to take more photos. Everyone says, ‘Hey this olden time camera!’ People can see the photos straight away. The Polaroids are like a family photo album but they show the broken things in people’s houses. We have to wait to have these things fixed. Things are broken while we wait for new houses. It’s scary to live with broken things.

How can we cook healthy food if the stove is broken?

How can we stay clean if the shower doesn’t work?

How can kids do their homework if we can’t turn on the lights?

Now some old houses have been demolished and some new houses have been built in the town camps. Some families with small children have been given new homes and I am happy for them.

But there are many older people who are traditional owners who do not have new homes. In my last project I made a portrait of my grandmother, Dinah Norman, who is now eighty-seven years old. She is a Yanyuwa elder, is one of the last speakers of the Yanyuwa language and knows the Law and ceremonies of our ancestors. She is finally getting a new home soon.

It is good that they are building new houses at Borroloola. But the government must make sure that there is enough housing for everyone, especially for the older people who have been waiting for many years. People in the community should be able to design homes that are appropriate for them. And it’s important that the new houses get fixed when things break down.

It’s that waiting business. You’ve got to wait so long. They’ll build it this year and you get it next year. Old people are getting older; they’ll die soon. A lot of people are going to die waiting for houses. We have been waiting for too long.


All images by Miriam Charlie

Miriam Charlie

Miriam Charlie is a Yanyuwa Garrwa artist from Borroloola.

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