Sunrise, Cape Arnhem.

By Elliot Giakalis  @ElliotG78

24th December 2013

Like all good things that must come to an end, today marks the final day of my six-week stint in north east Arnhem Land, an experience that has been one that I will never forget.

Professionally, it has been rewarding, diverse and challenging. From assisting members of the local Yolngu community with various forms and processes, to drafting territory and federal government funding applications, to even helping a teacher during a phys-ed class during a visit to the homelands, and to drafting and preparing media releases out at Garma Festival … the list goes on. All though, in their own way, hugely satisfying.

The real delight was in connecting with a community that is warm, endearing and sincere.

Before setting off on this six week journey, I’d been told that I, like my fellow secondees, were only ‘small cogs in a big wheel’, and that it was a wheel that can indeed sometimes take time to turn. As a result, as my time here ends, while some of my projects are complete, others are nearing completion, and some have only started. The latter will be – like a baton – handed over to a future secondee, who will then continue the work. And on it goes.

The work that a place like Marngarr does, has highlighted for me the absolute importance of quality and focused policy initiatives, undertaken across all levels of government. Progress can be slow in some areas, but there is progress nevertheless. In some areas, this progress is significant: I heard at the Garma Festival that three years ago, this part of the world had the highest suicide rate in the southern hemisphere. Now, that rate is zero. Empowering the individual through meaningful training and employment provides a tremendous sense of worth and pride. Marngarr has played a significant part in this, and witnessing it first hand, and having had the opportunity to be a part of it, has been a remarkable experience.

My time here has provided me with an appreciation of the delicate policy mix required to best manage the considerable social and economic challenges that face our first Australians. It has opened my eyes to the importance of broader whole-of-government initiatives like ‘Closing the Gap’, and inspired me to delve deeper into some of the bigger issues. One of them is the need for constitutional recognition of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, a topic I produced an article on while up here.

On a more personal level, living in a remote part of Australia is not without its challenges: far from loved ones, family, friends, as well as many of the niceties of life that a city boy becomes accustomed to. But it is also cleansing, therapeutic, and even good for the soul. Indeed, self-awareness is key: for a community whose members rely on each other so much, you quickly realise there are more important things than the individual. Living in a house with four other secondees can sometimes have its moments, but for me, did not detract too much from the remarkable nature of the experience. In fact, I am positive that writing about my experiences as I went along, taking mental notes and processing everything that little bit more, was a great help, and allowed me to reflect on the bigger picture even more.

Elliot Giakalis assisting in the carving of Yidaki (didgeridoo) for Garma Festival.

Elliot Giakalis assisting in the carving of Yidaki (didgeridoo) for Garma Festival.

While there has been plenty of time to reflect on what has come and what lay ahead, the real delight was in connecting with a community that is warm, endearing and sincere. The locals come into the office, always smiling, maybe humming one of their traditional songs. It’s a million miles away from the hustle and bustle, and with it, comes a spirit that is very different to what one might find even in the nicest suburbs of a capital city. And it is the sense of community that binds these people together so tightly. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people up here, both Yolngu and ‘balanda’ (white men), many of whom – despite the cliche – want to make a difference. The beautiful people, weather and laid back approach to everyday life – well, they’re all just an added bonus.

I have no doubt that this will not be the end of my engagement with this part of the world, and some of the people I’ve met along the way. The ‘Recognise’ campaign is one that I’m looking forward to getting more involved in, and I’m also hoping to continue my engagement with Jawun in some capacity.

It has been an amazing six-week journey, in a truly remarkable part of the world, and one that will stay with me forever. A thanks to all that made it possible, and those that supported me along the way: phone calls, messages, emails, they were all greatly appreciated.

But for now, from north east Arnhem Land, it’s nha ma yalala (see you later).

This is an unedited repost of an article on Elliot’s blog whatelliotthinks originally posted on 22nd August 2013.