Arriving at the Ajani Centre, I was immediately confronted by a row of florescent vested people sitting at tables, happily directing me to other people with lists eager to register me. A green band was placed around my wrist, I was sold a lunch ticket and handed a Bendigo Bank bag with lots of goodies.
Looking at the program, I noticed the first activity was a Welcome to Country with a Smoking Ceremony led by our aboriginal friend. We were invited to share in the ceremony by washing ourselves clean in the smoke created by green gum leaves on hot coals.
Moving inside for the white man’s welcome, I found myself without a seat and quickly secured a bench seat against the wall at the back of the scout hall within the complex. I was surprised to find several people standing at the back of the hall and around the entrance. A quick head count suggested around 200 people.
My interest was focused on the Indigenous Cultural conversation. I became much more focused when I read in the program Lawrence Moser, one of the speakers, was from Swan Hill. Over the course of the day I had several brief conversations with him.
My father had been a teacher at Swan Hill North Primary School. He taught a composite group of grades of 4,5 and 6 students of which a number were from local aboriginal families. I had played football at Swan Hill with one of his students, Micky Wise, a very good footballer from a well-known aboriginal family.
I asked Lawrence if he travelled back to Swan Hill these days. “No not really”, he said. “There’s not much there to go back to”. I found his comment interesting. I said my mother, who had lived much of her life in Swan Hill, had passed away recently and I had wondered if I would still feel a need to return to Swan Hill.
I shared with Lawrence that I was drawn back to the place where my mother lived while growing up, leaving school and working with her father on his Mallee wheat block. As a child it was a place I loved to go to, especially at Christmas when the nearby relatives came together for Christmas day.
There is nothing there now except a couple of old peppercorn trees to mark the place. When I last visited the farm, a wheat crop danced in the wind where once there was a wrought iron house surrounded by a veranda and protected from a hot north wind by a row of peppercorn trees.
Lawrence looked at me and said “Its mother earth. It’s where we are all drawn from and to where we will return. We all have a place somewhere to belong”. This was not a conversation I had expected to have when I decided to participate in Building Bridges.
We both acknowledged that life was not easy for young aboriginal people growing up in Swan Hill in the sixties and seventies.
As the day unfolded, I was to be reminded again of the tragic impact removing children from their mothers had on those families. I heard of the importance of families who stick together through all kinds of hardships and yet there emerges a joy that comes from a life lived as family. While there were many different stories shared by the speakers, family was a central theme to emerge for me.
I was reminded that many of those who come to our country as refugees speak other languages, only one of which is their mother tongue. They came to Australia, learned our language, become highly educated, successful professionals while living in, and participating in a very different culture.
Perhaps the moment of greatest impact on me was the expressed joy for being given the opportunity to have their story heard. Such a simple request, yet at times difficult to share and heart wrenching to listen to.
Ian Goldsmith, the facilitator for the day best summed up the quality of the speakers when he said, “Rather than prompt people with questions, I just let them tell their story.”
What did I expect from Building Bridges? Looking back, I sort of went out of duty to support those who had worked so hard to put the day together. Had I been asked this question before the event I would have been a bit vague about what I expected. Was I glad I went? Absolutely!