I have a regular banter with Zohl via email and this is a real joy, but I know that I cannot picture what life must be like out there in a remote community. I have tremendous admiration and respect for what Zohl is doing. And I feel the same about the Women Elders in Kapululangu.
You can keep in touch with Zohl’s life via her blog. I thought I’d post Zohl’s latest posting so you can get a feel of what life is like for her.
More importantly, you can gain some insight into a key issue over here in Australia – provision of services in remote Aboriginal communities. This is particularly pertinent just now, given that the WA government is threatening to ‘close’ 150 remote Aboriginal communities. The impact of such closures is likely to be devastating.
Anyway, here is Zohl and her teeth…
That’s only if you happen to live in (almost) any other place than where I live -one of Australia’s most remote desert Aboriginal communities, on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.
Here … life ain’t so simple.
Broken filling in tooth arrived in June. Dentist arrived in September. Tooth was filled but … “Oh, it’s only a temporary filling. You’ll need to go to another dentist.”
In filling the tooth “temporarily” the said dentist had (perhaps) assumed that I would and could easily get to another dentist.
Maybe he assumed that because I’m a Kartiya (Whitefella) I didn’t live in my community permanently and would therefore be flying “home” soon (for a break or for good) as most Whitefellas here do.
I mean, it’s not like doing a proper filling wasn’t possible. I’d had a broken filling repaired on the other side of my mouth by a different dentist three months earlier … in the same chair, same room, same community …. same mouth!
As it turns out, neither our neighbouring town 300km away nor the larger regional town 700km away have permanent dentists. Both are serviced by the exact same fly-in dentist (albeit always a different person) who comes to our Extremely Remote Community - and then only at the exact same time-ish (every three months, if one’s lucky!)
One might be able to access a permanent dentist in either Alice Springs and Broome, but both are about 800km away in opposite directions. Alice
Springs can only be accessed through 14 hours driving; while one can choose to either drive or fly to Broome.
If one flies one has to wait there for a whole week to be able to catch a plane back home again. Flights cost $300 one way / $600 return which hikes the bill of going to the dentist up to be not only unaffordable, but unfair too. We won’t talk about the cost of fuel to drive there and back!
So I chose to wait for the dentist (another dentist) to return in November.
And so November came and went… but the dentist didn’t!
Cancelled for some reason. The next dentist visit to our community is in February. Will this one be cancelled as well?
Meanwhile the tooth gets progressively more painful - and risks exploding the inside of my mouth.
Now… at the first sign of cracked tooth anyone with even a touch of sanity might pack their bags and high-tail it out of here in search of someone to yank said tooth.
I don’t have that luxury. I’m caring for five Women Elders who need me to
be here with them. Sometimes, I’m the only person looking after them. Sometimes, we have Marlpa (Friends) come and live with us who are prepared to care for the Elders and give me some “time out”. But said “time out” rarely includes being able to leave the community for even a day - let alone a week.
Hey, and anyway… very few people here have got the luxury of going off to the dentist - not least because they can’t afford the dentist, the fuel or the flight, or the accommodation costs. Very few people, that is, who are Aboriginal.
In contrast, Kartiya/Whitefellas here do tend to be paid - good wages - and get paid time away - and thus can usually access a dentist - and this ensures that they can have their teeth properly cared for. There’s gotta be something wrong with that differential, hey?
When is our Aboriginal community, and other remote Aboriginal communities, gonna get a proper dental service?
And when is our Aboriginal community, and other remote Aboriginal communities, gonna get our Elders properly cared for in residential homes in their own Country where they can enjoy their relationships with each other, their families, their communities, their ancestral lands, their Culture, their connection with the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming/cosmology)?
Frankly, I’m fed up waiting for a dentist to come - and truly I do have an option - I choose to not to leave in search of a dentist, committed to continuing to care for my Elders whatever it takes. But what about the Aboriginal people here? How long do they have to keep waiting for the dentist to arrive… or to not arrive?
Don’t get me wrong. When I first got here 15 years ago there was no such thing as a visiting dentist. It’s only been in the past year or so. There’s been no dental service because, until recently, both Federal and State governments insisted that it was the obligation of the other to provide the service.
We once had a priest here who had a brother who was a dentist… and he arranged for him to come up here and start helping the people with their teeth … and by doing that they shamed the governments into doing something.
But is it good enough? I say it isn’t.
And our community’s dental needs are only one area that are not getting serviced - and for exactly the same reason. And our community is only one Aboriginal community that is currently going without basic services that most other Australians get to take for granted.
Balgo’s dental troubles are just a single example of the current absence of services which has both Federal and State governments arguing today about “whose responsibility is it?” to maintain remote Aboriginal communities.
So, whose responsibility is it to provide remote Aboriginal communities with basic services that other Whitefella communities tend (albeit with exceptions) to take for granted?
Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett seems to think that it is the responsibilities of the Aboriginal communities themselves. He said in WA Parliament that, “The smaller Aboriginal communities … cannot provide education. They cannot provide health. They cannot provide employment” (Hansard, 14 November 2014).
Who’s this “They” Barnett is referring to? Answer: Aboriginal people themselves.
Where does the government hold Kartiya (Strangers to this Land) to the same responsibility?
Non-Aboriginal communities right across this continent have got access to dentists - and other services one simply cannot access here. Like, yes… education, health, employment - and almost everything else that Non-Aboriginal people take for granted.
I know for certain that I for one would like to be able to get to a dentist when I really need one… without being forced by circumstance to wait, and wait and wait .. while my tooth threatens to implode. And I know that here in this Extremely Remote Aboriginal Community I am not alone.
There are two ways that my circumstances could be improved. Either our community could enjoy having a dentist visit us more often - every three months just isn’t good enough - especially when it turns into six months! Or our community could (should!) have a fully-funded and professionally-run Residential Aged Care facility for our Elders where they can be Aboriginal living their own culture, and not forced to live in an alien Mainstream-Kartiya care facility.
Our Elders deserve to be properly cared for: they are after all some of Australia’s last remaining Aboriginal people to have grown up in the “Old Ways” before the Kartiya (Strangers) arrived in their homelands!
And all of our community deserves to have the services they need to be able to care for their health - and that includes their teeth! As do all Aboriginal community members, everywhere… no matter where they live.
Do you agree?
If you’re a woman and would like to be Marlpa (Companion/Friend/Carer) to our Elders please email us at email@example.com
If you’d like to send us a donation to help our Elders to keep living together on their Women’s Law Ground please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org'