“So, who wants to go to Pukatja?”.
We were sitting around our Basecamp dining table which had only recently been set up, with a couple of newbies from Victoria who had only just arrived at camp, discussing a plan which had only just been decided on.
The past week had been a series of umms and ahhhh with regards to Pukatja. Every year Fusion gets invited by the Uniting Church to help in a remote community over Easter weekend. Our challenge this year was there was no accommodation and a thousand unanswered questions about what would happen over the weekend and what our task there was. It maybe involved a few church services, each in a language we didn’t know, with unexplained cultural aspects, and very undetermined start and finish times. It maybe involved doing festivals with the kids, or maybe storytelling, or perhaps just sitting with them. Maybe we’d be helping the Salvation Army do a sausage sizzle and serve hot cross buns, and that would be it.
Can we take our cameras? Dunno. Will they object to having their picture taken if we do? Dunno.
Haw many of us should go? Dunno. Is there phone reception? Dunno.
Could we sleep in that person’s backyard, like they suggested? Dunno. Would we have access to a kitchen? Dunno. Showers? Dunno.
With many ‘dunno’s hanging over us, we still had to answer that first question: Who wants to go?
S0me hands shot straight up. Others took a little longer to get there.
Regardless of where we were internally at that point, the very next morning, at 8am, eight of us piled into the van and heading into the very unknown.
Pukatja, previously known as Ernabella, is a community across the border in South Australia. It took us about 5 hours to drive there, with only one toilet stop. It took us a little bit longer because we couldn’t find our accommodation, which ended up being the floor of a TAFE building. Better than a backyard.
What we experienced was far more intense than we expected, in many ways. Our first night was a shambles. We showed up for a church service, and while our intrepid leader Rose made her way around the elders of the town introducing herself, the rest of us stood wild-eyed and bewildered watching something we only barely understood.
“Hey you.” An elder beckoned us over. “These kids are watching you.”
What looked like a small army of children stacked on top a nearby picnic table stared shyly in our direction. We shyly stared back.
Should we go over there? Dunno. What if we sat down? Dunno. What do we do with the kids if we do make contact? Dunno. Do we look like clueless white people right now? Probably.
Luckily we were saved by an invitation from up the front to come up and introduce ourselves and talk about the Pilgrimage to Uluru. We were off the hook. For now.
How do we make contact? How do we go into a strange community with complex issues and start to do things with the kids? Are we crossing a cultural boundary, or perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic?
It took us a while to grapple with these questions, and we overthought it all and avoided the issue until our brains hurt.
In the end it was simple; we went over to where the kids were, and we sat down. Within seconds each and every one of us had at least one child on top of them.
“What your name? What’s this? What’s her name? Can I take photo? Can I get on your back? Can we go to the swings?”
The man who’d invited us, Peter, joked that to get by in Anangu culture you only had to know one word: ‘Wampa’. It means ‘I don’t know’. Couple that with a ¯\_(?)_/¯ and you can respond to anything the Anangu throw at you.
We went in to Pukatja requiring an answer for everything before deciding how to respond. Is this ok? What if I upset someone? What if we look like idiots? These kids, on the other hand, had decided to act and use their questions as a way to connect.
By the end of our time in Pukatja we had ‘wampa’ down pat. And once we got the hang of it, so much more was able to happen.
Stick around for part 2.