The indigenous community of Kalumburu is steeped in culture and tradition. They are extremely tactile people who thrive on hugs. Children with snotty noses, dirty faces and hands would snuggle in between my breasts and wrap their arms around my back while standing on my feet. I felt love, gentleness, sincerity and became accustomed to everyone touching me and the permanent stains on the front of my blouses.
Customs and rituals relating to funerals were of prime importance to the Aboriginal community and it was paramount that a large congregation gathered in order to show respect to the deceased and to honor the belief that the larger the congregation, the more popular and loved the deceased was. The funeral would take place when everyone arrived, which could take days, even weeks as they came by plane, by car, some walked. Everyone who lived at Kalumburu was expected to attend the service and often I would only hear that a funeral was being held just minutes before the service commenced. Every indigenous woman present would sob and wail as grieving is a community ritual, regardless of the relationship to the deceased and is only done for a short time and then suddenly it stops, the crying is ended.
It is disrespectful to use the name of the deceased person so as not to disturb the spirit of the person and this belief can be difficult to uphold. During the six months I lived at Kalumburu, I attended about 8-10 funerals to show my respect for the community. As a class room assistant, I was often tested by the children who tried to convince me that they had the same name as the deceased and from now on would be known by a different name.
My fondest memory of being at Kalumburu was my involvement in the school Tuckshop. Nurses from the Royal Flying Doctor service had approached me and suggested I work with the local women to establish and operate a much-needed Tuck Shop to solve two issues – absenteeism from school and the health of the children. It was promoted by providing lunches at no cost to children who had been at school for the entire morning session – often the children would come to school and then leave during the first lesson. The only experience I had previously had with Tuckshop was to ensure the rosters were published in a school newsletter and to balance the money at the end of each week. Now it was time for me to actually do the work, prepare the food, encourage the Mums to be part of this project, to buy the food, to convince the kids it was a great idea.
Simplicity was the best way to start with so the lunch consisted of a sandwich (sliced ham, cheese and tomato) a piece of fruit and a cold drink. Step two was to gather a small group of reliable and enthusiastic woman and for this I needed the assistance of someone from the community, a woman who could be a leader and Barbara soon became my friend and best worker. Initially, I was responsible for ensuring the food had been ordered from the community-operated store and the women had arrived at the school by 9am each morning. Some mornings it was necessary for me to walk to their homes and cajole and persuade them that their attendance was vitally important for the success of the project.
After a month or two of my role as co-ordinator of the Tuckshop, I spoke with Barbara and the other women and gently told them that I wanted them to own this project; sincerely praising them for their achievement and hard work, I suggested that the next day, they should start the morning preparation without me and I would join them for the busy time when lunches are served. Now it was time for Barbara to experience the disappointment of not having any helpers when she arrived in the morning and having to run around streets and encourage her helpers to join her. When I arrived later, I was dumb-founded by what the women had done and all I could do was laugh and laugh as neatly laid out on the tables and benches were the bread slices, cut in quarters, next to the ham slices, cut in quarters, next to the cheese slices, cut in quarters, next to the tomato slices – all waiting to be made into sandwich quarters. There was no time to panic, we had to quickly re-focus and somehow combine all the cut up pieces of ingredients and make them look like sandwiches. What a laugh – when all the kids had been fed, Barbara and I were hugging each other and laughing so hard I nearly fell over.
To obtain more information about Kalumburu School, visit
For more information about Kalumburu visit
To read my post Kalumburu Western Australia ( Part 1) please visit
More tales from our time in Kalumburu will be published in future posts.