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Walking side by side

1 Dec 2020

Decision time came 45 years ago for Nurse Practitioner Stephen Farrington when he met a young boy sitting with an old man carving a boomerang at Uluru. That decision was to spend his working life in remote Indigenous communities. Here is his story and his views on changes over the years for First Nations people – good and bad.

Sit­ting around a camp­fire south of Agadir in Moroc­co one night some­one asked me what life was like for Indige­nous Aus­tralians. I was nine­teen and I said some­thing inane like Life is good for all Aus­tralians. We come from the land of milk and hon­ey.’ When I got back to Aus­tralia I promised myself I would find the answer to that ques­tion. The truth was, I had no idea.”

In 1975 I trav­elled up North from Ade­laide on the Stu­art High­way and then turned left to see Ulu­ru. It was here I met my first Indige­nous Aus­tralian. I had been in the coun­try since I was five years old and, although I may have met indige­nous peo­ple before, no-one ever owned up’ in our con­ver­sa­tions. This man was dif­fer­ent, he sat in the sand with the head of an axe in his hand carv­ing a boomerang out of hard Cen­tral Aus­tralian wood. He wore a red head­band and his hair stood out above it. He looked as ancient as the rocks around him. There was a boy with him and when I tried to talk to this busy man, the boy told me that he spoke no Eng­lish. I was amazed that there were oth­er lan­guages in Aus­tralia that I did­n’t know about. After shar­ing my sand­wich and some milk with the young boy I made the deci­sion that I want­ed to work with these peo­ple. It took me four years to get accept­ed into a nurs­ing school in Bairns­dale, Vic­to­ria, where I did Enrolled Nurs­ing, and anoth­er 10 years to get my degree and my first post­ing in an Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ty, Jiga­long, in the Pil­bara region of West­ern Aus­tralia. And that’s where I am sit­ting writ­ing this now, almost 30 years lat­er, hav­ing come and gone over three decades.

I still don’t have the answer to that ques­tion posed back in Moroc­co. We have bet­ter poli­cies, bet­ter build­ings, bet­ter train­ing, bet­ter cars, bet­ter refer­ral path­ways, bet­ter sup­port, bet­ter fund­ing than when I start­ed nurs­ing all those years ago — but we don’t real­ly have bet­ter health out­comes in many areas. Chil­dren are health­i­er, but still lag behind oth­er Aus­tralians. The bur­den of chron­ic dis­ease is still huge but truth is until we get the trau­ma of coloni­sa­tion healed and we are walk­ing side by side with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers assist­ing them in self care and the achieve­ment of their own life goals we are play­ing with num­bers that only we understand.”

We are talk­ing about peo­ple born in the desert. Peo­ple still walk­ing around now with sto­ries of when they were chil­dren, sto­ries of peo­ple being fed salt so they would lead the cat­tle­men to water­holes. Sto­ries still in liv­ing memory.

The Mar­du are an amaz­ing peo­ple. They don’t car­ry a lot of bitterness.”

After his first one-year stint in Jiga­long in 1991 – 92, Stephen returned in 2016 – 17, and again 18 months ago. When I first came out here, we used to take folk out bush and col­lect wood, they’d take us to water­holes,” he says. It was a real­ly nice rela­tion­ship and my aim was to build trust to pro­vide the best health care.”

Times have changed – and not for the bet­ter, says Stephen. The busi­ness mod­el has shift­ed, it’s become an Abo­rig­i­nal indus­try’. Rela­tion­ships are put to the background.

Stephen, who has added post grad­u­ate qual­i­fi­ca­tions in men­tal health and child care to his skills, claims he has stopped study­ing – but he’s still adding to the long list of CRANAplus and oth­er cours­es he’s attend­ed and par­tic­i­pat­ed in. It was that impres­sive list that saw him being made a Fel­low of CRANAplus 10 years ago. 

Stephen fears that the dom­i­nant soci­ety is too arro­gant to bend for changes to hap­pen soon. In every coun­try that’s been colonised, it’s been cap­i­tal­ism work­ing at its best. Steal­ing the land and resources of the Indige­nous peo­ple and using it to make the colonis­ers rich. And we love it to this day, because we are part of the dom­i­nant culture.”

But there still lies that ques­tion. How do we heal the trau­ma of Ter­ra Nul­lius, and all the oth­er poli­cies and inter­ven­tions that have caused such deep and hurt­ful wounds on the Abo­rig­i­nal Nation and its peo­ples?” he asks. I don’t feel it is my place to have answers. Show com­pas­sion, love, engage­ment and a will­ing­ness to stop and under­stand and reach out an uplift­ing hand of nation­al inclu­sion, is real­ly all I can say.”