The vast expanse of Martu land in Western Australia spans the Percival Lakes, the Pilbara, the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson deserts.
The custodians of these lands were among the very last Aboriginal people to have made contact with European settlers, and right up until the sixties, many were still living completely traditional lifestyles. There are Martu people living today who can recount the first moment they saw a white person.
World Vision Australia operates a successful early childhood program in three Martu communities, where local early childhood workers and World Vision facilitators draw on traditional cultural teaching to provide maternal and child health and early childhood education. The Martu peoples’ history of relatively recent contact means traditional knowledge and culture remains central to the communities’ way of life, but its remoteness is also one of the challenges to World Vision’s work in the region.
Yvonne Mkandra, World Vision Australia’s Pilbara region project manager, knows first hand the obstacles to education and early childhood development faced by the Martu communities. She says one of the most challenging aspects is also the most obvious, namely the sheer remoteness of these communities from essential services.
“Each of the communities have schools but those schools need to be staffed,” says Mkandara. “You need to have the resources to deliver the education that is required, but that in itself is a challenge because of the remoteness. Because it’s so hard to recruit staff, schools and organisations can struggle to find qualified people and this can affect the quality of education children out here receive.”
There is also the direct relationship between health and education, two factors that go hand-in-hand when it comes to addressing disadvantage in Indigenous communities.
“Health has a direct and major impact on how children perform at school,” explains Mkandara. “Their attendance at school and the ability of their parents to support them, to encourage that education and learning, also cuts across to environmental health. [Such as] getting essential housing services, ongoing maintenance and fixing plumbing issues - it’s all tied in together.”
Education and health factors lie at the heart of the systemic nature of disadvantage faced by many remote communities. Indigenous disadvantage also emerges from a history of land dispossession, racism, and flawed policy. Mkandara stresses the first step to addressing these challenges is to ensure they are considered and understood, as best they can be, from an Indigenous perspective.
“The historical factors are [comparatively] recent, from the forced removal of children to being forced to work for flour or alcohol, and poor government policies. Communities are still feeling the effects of that today, so when we work with community, in the back of our minds we are aware that the history is well and truly still a part of these people and the issues they face right now. It requires a careful and aware approach.”
Other major challenges include the fact many Martu people will frequently travel from community to community, making it difficult to keep track of a child’s enrolment or regularity of school attendance. Transiency affects the ability to ensure children are being properly immunized, while cultural factors, such as absences to attend ‘sorry business’ (funerals) can also present complexities to regular school attendance.
Language can also be a challenge to early childhood education with many Martu people speaking only their traditional language. However as Mkandara points out the cultivation of traditional language and knowledge and building a strong cultural identity is an important way forward in improving education and health outcomes.
World Vision works alongside communities to help improve early childhood education, acknowledging that the challenges faced by communities such as remoteness, poor health, historical factors and language barriers are specific to each community.
“We want to see children learning from their parents, be strong in their language and culture, and reaching important child development milestones”, says Mkandara.
This has been the approach adopted within the playgroups operating in Martu communities. Both community people and World Vision facilitators create playgroup activities ranging from painting to the singing of nursery rhymes in both traditional language and English. Traditional practices, such as honey ant collecting are incorporated into the playgroup’s activities, while healthy recipes based upon available local foods are shared with parents. The playgroups operate as ‘safe spaces’ - in which dialogue between parents and teachers is fostered and where community members can talk about issues important to them and the community. Within these spaces powerful support networks are emerging in the hope of creating strong governance systems for community.
“When a child is sure about their identity and who they are, and they’ve been exposed to their cultural strength and knowledge, they gain a lot of confidence. That confidence is what they need in order to take on something new - which is what they learn at school,” explains Mkandara. “Their own language is the key thing. If they feel strong and confident in their own language they can then take on English and other things. A big part of our work is promoting that connection to country, connection to culture, identity - and listening to elders telling their stories.”