Lost in translation
Claire loves photos. She loves looking at the faces of the people she’s met and loved. As she takes you through the family folders on her laptop, many of those faces are of people who’ve died young. Two thirds of Indigenous people will die before the age of 65, compared to 19% of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous children are two times more likely to die during early childhood as non-Indigenous children. Australia has set seven targets (laid out in the Closing the Gap report) for improving the lives of Indigenous people in health, education and employment by 2031. In the Northern Territory, we’re on track with just three of them.
Again and again, Claire sees her Indigenous friends dying from preventable diseases, denied opportunities, and discriminated against. Just recently she lost a dear friend: Margaret.
Margaret had diabetes and needed dialysis. If they’d said to her, ‘If you don’t go on dialysis you’ll be dead in three months,’ she would have done it. If they’d told her husband, she would have done it. She was intelligent. But she didn’t know she was going to die in a few months. Nobody told her clearly. She spoke just enough English to hide how little she understood.
It’s not an uncommon story. Claire has plenty like it. It’s a terrible consequence of the language and cultural barriers between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
There’s a death avoidance culture in medicine and nursing in this country, and Aboriginal people don’t want to talk about it either. So we don’t. We talk in euphemisms. We say someone ‘passed’ (Did they pass by? Visit for an hour?) or that they were ‘lost’ (Is someone out looking for them?). Put the two cultures together and you have two systems of avoidance. We think we’ve communicated information, but we haven’t. It’s this loss that’s taken Claire a long way from recording rock art. Her next big project—the focus of the rest of her career, she promises—will be focused on closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in health, education and employment. Claire is pulling together a team of Flinders researchers to work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service to bring the services Aboriginal communities want into remote communities. They are driving a new and unusual employment structure where Aboriginal people are trained and employed to oversee their family’s health—drawing on already strong social bonds to create a healthier community. She hopes this work will help prevent stories like Margaret’s.
Friends that become family
Until this year, Claire’s house has been overrun with people. Jacko, who is 78-years-old, finally exclaimed, ‘Claire, I don’t want to be cooking for 10 people when I’m 80.’ He wasn’t exaggerating. At one point they had 12 people living in their humble suburban Adelaide home. It’s an unofficial refuge for their Aboriginal friends—people who are now family. They come for the city’s health care, jobs and schooling, and the love Claire and Jacko have to give. Just recently, the couple have seen three Aboriginal kids graduate from primary school. Claire and Jacko first worked with the kids’ great-grandmother on one side and great-great grandfather on the other. They’ve been living with Claire and Jacko since they were five, six and nine years old. Now two of them have amazing scholarships to Melbourne Indigenous Transition School where they’re learning tennis from Evonne Goolagong Cawley and dance from Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Next year Claire and Jacko will take in more kids; neither of them can resist. These young people are Claire’s hope for the future. They know their community. They regularly visit home, they speak Kriol, and they are equally competent in both cultures. Claire takes them around the world. She recounts a time she was strolling through Prague with Jasmine Willika, who came from the tiny community of Manyallaluk to undertake an archaeology degree at Flinders—a degree she will finish next year. The young Aboriginal woman, who Claire has known since birth and who Claire now teaches at university, said to her, ‘People say Paris is the city of love, but I think the city of love is Prague.’ Jasmine has been to Paris, Prague, Jordan, Japan, New Zealand… she no longer needs Claire to travel or to seek out the life she wants. For Claire, that is success.
How to make a change
You can’t untangle your work and relationships with Aboriginal people, and Claire would never want to. She plans to be buried in a marked, named and numbered grave in Barunga—in the corner right in front of where everyone parks their four-wheel drives. And in the meantime, she’ll keep trying to whittle away at the inequality gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
She likes to say that it all comes down to what you can do within your own lifetime. The change you can make is so little, the needs so great, the challenge so overwhelming and the possibility for success so minimal. To make a difference, Claire does the little she can and trains others to do the same. Together, they can form a movement. Of course, most of us would say Claire is doing a lot to enact change. She’s influencing the lives of the people around her and setting up projects and ways of doing things that could make a difference on the large-scale.
Her husband says, ‘If you do nothing, nothing changes. If you do even just a little bit, it’s a lot in comparison to nothing.’ Claire doesn’t want to do nothing.