Growing up in Tasmania there was, I suppose, a certain inevitability that I would find myself heading north from time to time. Just as the Tamar empties into the sea… As a girl I journeyed to Victoria, home state of my parents. I visited Sydney, birthplace of my father. Then, at 17 I left home for University at ANU in Canberra. My first trip overseas at 19 was to south-east Asia. The student’s luxury of a three month holiday, I went to Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. I was meant to head south from KL to Indonesia to improve my language skills, but my sensing took me north, north and ever north. I think I would have gone beyond Laos but for instability in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Oh, and very little money. My first job after Honours year was in the Northern Territory. At 22 I found myself in the coastal community of Maningrida in Arnhem Land. North, north and ever north, on an outstation settled in the dunes, gazing out across the Arafura Sea, on the northern edge of the continent.
Though so long ago, these thoughts come to mind because last week my djabba [japa] ‘brother’, the Nakkara man who so generously sat with me, week after week after month, through all the seasons of the decade I worked in Arnhem Land … last week djabba left the world. I won’t name him or post a photo, in respect to custom, but I will share some thoughts of him. He was about 15 years older than me I think, though his birthdate was never recorded. A quiet and patient man with two wives and two children when we first met, and determined enough to return to his country at Nabbarla Kinindawabba , about 15k from the government settlement of Maningrida. Maningrida was established as a trading post in 1957 on Ndjébbana land and had become the gathering place for at least 10 neighbouring tribes of the area. It was therefore a richly multilingual centre with a store, a clinic, a school, a post office and a red dirt airstrip.
The land of the Nakkara people was adjacent to Maningrida and there were generally good relations and intermarriage with the Ndjébbana people. I had been employed by the Education Department’s Bilingual section to record and document Nakkara, so that there would be a dictionary and reading materials for proposed bilingual programs in the school. In order to do this, I had to find a way to travel to where my brother and the Nakkara community were living on their land. At first I would catch a lift with one or another truck that agreed to drop me off there. Later I bought a trail bike and could be more independent. Djabba showed me where to pitch my tent, and set up my card table and reel to reel. In time we built a small stringy bark and tin shelter, where I lived.
Most days djabba would come over and sit quietly with me as we made our way through vocabulary items, illustrated books, my endless paradigms, and in time he would share beautiful winding stories of the past. Often I would spend the day on long walks with the women and children gathering shellfish, bush vegetables and firewood. The men would be fishing further along the coast or hunting for red meat inland.
It seemed to me that my progress in learning the language was slow. The morphology was complex and my analytical mind was, I see now, more focused on solving the patterns and the paradigms than attaining greater fluency. I seemed to have enough knowledge for everyday conversation, and I wanted to dive into the maze and work out where all the paths went. Djabba was kind and patient with me and picked up on my approach. But his favourite thing was to look through the book of fish with colour plates and descriptions. He could identify what seemed like hundreds of different fish, each with a Nakkara name. A coastal man, this was his passion, part of his knowledge.
He was a skilled hunter and fisherman. One day I saw him stand up from around his fire about 30 metres away, pick up a fish wire and fling it onto the dunes about 10 metres from where I was sitting. The strong wire prongs of the spear had pierced and trapped a red bellied black snake that was racing for cover. The snake was dead. I was a little shaken. Djabba sat down again and quietly finished his meal. He was different to some others there on the little homeland centre for the Yurrbukka clan. He did not smoke tobacco. He did not drink tea. But he particularly loved fish and shellfish, wallaby, yams and damper.
I am so glad I went back to visit him in 2019. And yes, I’ll soon be heading north again to attend his funeral and to gather with friends and family, to honour the life of an elder of the Yurrbukka clan of the Nakkara people.