FRIDAY AUGUST 2 TO FRIDAY 13 SEPTEMBER DOOMADGEE
I have gone into considerable detail in my following descriptions of life here – simply because it was so different and so outside the experiences and comprehension of the majority of Australians. I think it needed to be told “how it is”. I wish I had more photos to illustrate the text, but this was not a place where one felt free to wander and photograph.
Doomadgee is located by the north flowing Nicholson River, which at that point is wide, crocodile infested, and not particularly attractive. The community is on the west bank of the river. In the wet season, the cement ford across the river to parts east, usually gets covered by water too deep to traverse. All other roads out of Doomadgee are dirt and become impassable in the wet, so Doomadgee gets cut off by road from the outside world.
The surrounding country is flat and the typical savannah mix of shrubs, low straggly trees, and grasses. In August it was dry and dusty.
The community had a population of about 1600. The handful of white people who lived there were teachers, hospital staff, police, workers who kept things like the electricity plant, sewerage system and water supply, going; and council administrators. From what we saw, it was fair to say that, without white people running things, they would grind to a halt.
The place began as a mission settlement – at Old Doomadgee, on the coast to the north – in the early 1930’s. Due to regular cyclones, and problems getting fresh water, the mission was soon moved to the present inland location. Under the direction of the missionaries, the place was quite functional, although the Christian Brethren operated by a fairly strict set of rules. There was a cattle station, a piggery, vegetable growing that supplied the surrounding area. There was a school and sound education for the children, and health care. The mission supplied permanent and temporary stock workers to surrounding station, droving crews, and female domestic staff to the surrounding district.
In the late 1960’s, after some years of agitation by the labour movement, and by urban liberals, it was decreed that aboriginal stockmen and pastoral workers should be paid the same wages as their white counterparts. Many of the northern station owners then decided, that if they had to pay the same wages, white workers were preferable. They were more reliable, not disappearing for ceremonial or family business. The station owners were not prepared to go on supporting the often large family groups associated with the pastoral workers – who lived on the stations, on “their” country – and who had been supplied with food staples and clothing, as part of the workers’ “wages”.
The aboriginal groups thus displaced were forced to move to nearby towns, or to missions. The stockmen who had derived purpose and self esteem from their work, lost this. The family groups became dependent on welfare – mission and government based.
This was an example of a concept, driven by urban white idealists, that seemed fair and just, in theory – but which was not based on the realities of the situation. Aboriginal policy is littered with these! It could be argued that much greater disadvantage came from the equal pay decision, than benefit.
In this way, the population of Doomadgee came to consist of five different “families” or skin groups or clans – who had no natural kinship with each other and who, moreover, had long standing hatreds and feuds between them. These persist to this day, but were kept under some degree of control in the mission days.
In the early 1980’s, control of missions was handed back to “local control” – another idea that seemed right to the distant idealists, but which has proven to have created mammoth problems in the resulting aboriginal communities.
At this time there were some 800 people in Doomadgee. In 1983, control passed to the locals, under a Deed Of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) over a defined area. The last missionary departed in 1988.
So, we found a hugely dysfunctional community, crippled by feuding, totally welfare dependent, with a rapidly growing population as babies were born to teenage mothers, and with major drug, alcohol and gambling problems.
When we were there, the police numbered nine – a large number for a population of about 1600, but necessary. There was a police compound – securely fenced – that contained the police station and some police housing.
There was a small hospital that seemed to be reasonably well equipped. There were two doctors – one was an elderly man, rumoured to have alcohol issues; the other was African, newly in Australia, who was extremely difficult to understand, and who seemed to have limited capacity to comprehend English, let alone the aboriginal version of same! There were a number of nurses – white. The hospital also served the function that a chemist shop would in a normal town. One could not buy anything pharmaceutical at the store – not even Panadol, or cough mixture (contains alcohol!). You had to visit the hospital and see a staff member to obtain anything like that.
We were soon to find that the Flying Doctor plane was a regular arrival at Doomadgee – sometimes multiple times a day, and at least twice a week at night. Our house was at the end of the airstrip, and the arriving and departing plane flew very low, and loudly, over us!
The story was that the medical staff were too intimidated to treat even routine medical issues, but evacuated virtually every case to Mt Isa. This was because, earlier in the year, a toddler had died on the steps of the hospital, as her carers were taking her in for treatment. Because there must be “blame” assigned for such things, this was regarded as the fault of the hospital. So then there had to be a riot, to show their displeasure and extract payback. The fact that it was the Wet season and there was little else to do, may have had something to do with it all. Anyway, riot they did – spectacularly. The whites in the community had to take refuge in the police compound and planes were sent to fly them all out to Mt Isa. Eventually, after much damage about the place, for which the government funded repairs and replacements, things settled down again. But that was why matters medical were sent to Mt Isa, and why we found so much current fear amongst the white population, of doing something that would spark off another massive riot. Probably in the next Wet season!
There was one community store, which was also the fuel outlet. The store was basically a large, shed-like building, cavernous and echoing. In a small side section, opening into the main store, was a butcher’s shop, of sorts. This sold basic cuts of meat, although the cuts were pretty rough, and smallgoods. One paid the butcher in his shop – the meat did not get tallied through the store check out. Unfortunately his establishment smelt very strongly of rotten meat. The meat displayed was often green looking. The butcher himself did not look very clean. He shut the shop before school finishing time, each afternoon, so he could go out and about in the community in his ancient Mr Whippy van, selling soft serve ice creams to the kids. There was no way I was going to buy his meat, having smelled the place, but I had to go in there sometimes, to buy a packet of vacuum sealed bacon, shipped in from the outside world – smallgoods of any sort were not available out in the main store. So it became a matter of rush in, when there was no one else there, and try holding my breath while the transaction was completed!
The indigines were not totally reliant on this butcher, at least in the Dry season. Numbers of them went camping and fishing at the coast – at Old Doomadgee – getting fish and turtle. Some would spend time at Lawn Hill National Park, fishing, and there were other waterholes on creeks closer to Doomadgee, for day trips to fish. From what we heard, at least one of the locals was in the habit of killing cattle out in the bush, and selling the meat.
Fortunately, we were warned, right at the outset of our time there, by one of the other teachers, who worked in the store on Saturday mornings, not to buy any frozen goods from the store. They had been having regular problems with the freezers breaking down. Each of the large cabinet freezers had a thermometer on it. She said that the staff did not bother to read these and usually did not pick up a malfunctioning freezer until the contents had thawed. Then, they simply moved the goods to another one and re-froze them. She said it was quite possible that a chicken or packet of vegetables had been defrosted and refrozen four or five times! This knowledge reduced our food choices in Doomadgee yet further!
The community store was supplied from wholesalers through Mt Isa and, as at Adels, the supply truck came once a week. We soon got to know when that was and would try to get to the store quickly, after school on that day, in order to get the “fresh” fruit and vegies we wanted – the supplies never lasted long. These were horrendously expensive and very varied in quality. Prices were not displayed on much, and so purchasing was a mystery until reaching the checkout. On my first shop, I bought a rockmelon – no price displayed, of course. It was $8!
The store had most basics, though there were a lot of gaps. There would usually only be one brand of anything available, like tinned tomatoes. It also sold limited clothing, and thongs. Batteries and knives of any sort were in a locked cabinet. There were no pharmaceutical items, nor items like turps or methylated spirits (because these could be drunk in place of alcohol). They did seem to have huge quantities of cigarettes and tobacco available – probably the most comprehensive range of anything in the store!
Some local ladies were attempting to run the store. The checkout staff were locals. Working here met their CDEP (work for the dole) requirements. There had been a new, white, manageress appointed at the start of the year – she’d had experience running a community store in a community way down south. We got to know her husband, who was a teacher at the school. It seems she had tried to manage the place along more commercially efficient lines than had the previous manager. One of her innovations had been to instal some monitoring cameras at the checkouts. She then commenced to sack operators who were putting goods through without actually charging for them – apparently a common practice; as was stealing money from the register, and/or giving money to relatives as they came through. All fairly widespread practices, she found. Then the family of one sacked girl got upset, rounded up their friends and they all rioted – again, a common happening in this community. They torched her 4WD vehicle (a “normal” way of expressing displeasure with someone) and attacked the store – especially the cash registers – with machetes, also threatening her with same. This had happened several months previous but she was still down south, on medical/stress leave.
Obviously, the women who were trying to run the show had glaring gaps in their expertise. Apart from the freezer issues, ordering was obviously haphazard. They could be out of basics for a week or three.
The old practices in the store were clearly back! My first time in the store, my trolley contained only a few items – the rockmelon, a box of soy milk, a small tin of milk powder, some teabags, some potatoes and onions. The woman in front of me had a trolley piled really high. She asked the register girl for three cartons of cigarettes, too. The tally for her goods was $50. Mine came to $45. I noticed that the cartons of cigarettes were not registered at all, and only every fifth item or so – the cheaper ones – got tallied. I found it hard to believe my eyes – there was no attempt to conceal what was going on. This was before we had talked to our colleague about what had become of his wife – then much became clear.
The local ladies would not work on Saturdays, because the CDEP terms did not require it. The store was only open for groceries and fuel on Saturday mornings because some of the teachers staffed the registers! On weekdays, the store shut somewhere between 4 and 5pm – it was random – so having the teachers volunteer in the store was the only way people like teachers and other 9-5 workers in the place, could shop and get fuel.
We discovered very quickly that shopping in the store could be quite unpleasant because the hygiene of some of the locals was not great. Queuing at the checkout behind a person who had recently been eating turtle was definitely to be avoided!
Another aspect that struck us on the first store visit was the total lack of any printed material. No newspapers, magazines, books. No advertising material. No labels on things. Very few signs on anything. Reading was clearly foreign to most of the community.
At some stage, there had been a little caravan park, up by the main road, but this had fallen into disrepair. This was a pity, because – at least in the dry season – this could have been a good enterprise, employing locals. Not that we saw much indication that most locals were interested in being employed!
We were soon to discover that the school was unable to find people willing to be employed as cleaners. The teachers had to do whatever cleaning there was done! So the school was far from pristine. I think the hospital had similar issues. It was much easier to claim welfare than actually systematically work at something. Some were on the CDEP program, working some hours at the store, doing a few hours as teacher’s aide at the school, or cleaning up around the township and other assorted labouring work, for the hours required each week. It seemed to us that the CDEP program in Doomadgee was pretty token. The majority of the people did nothing for their welfare money, except – in the case of the teenage girls, breed! This gave them more money.
No one in the community seemed interested in capitalizing on the increasing tourist numbers going past in the dry season. Apart from the lack of any tourist accommodation, of any sort, there was a generally hostile air when tourists did deviate from the main road into the community, to get some fuel, visit the store, or just drive through for a look. They didn’t linger!
When the protracted Native Title negotiations were going on over the establishment of the zinc mine, one of the conditions imposed at the behest of the indigenous leaders was that the company had to train and employ a significant number of local indigenes. They were trying to do their bit, but had found it impossible to fill their quota with locals who wanted to work. This was yet another gap between theory of what seemed right, and the reality of how it is up here.
One of the main community leaders was a person of very mixed ancestry, only a very small proportion of it actually aboriginal. His reputation in the district was of a thug, and corrupt. He was often in trouble with the law over things like illegal firearms, illegal meat slaughtering and supply – of stolen cattle, assault and the like. After we left Adels, he organized a sit-in at the mine, over some manufactured grievance. It lasted for a couple of weeks and coincided with when he was supposed to appear in court over his latest charges. Of course, he did not attend! The sit-in occupied the mine’s kitchen and canteen area – of course! This ensured comforts for the sitters-in. The mine workers were fed at Adels Grove, for the duration.
Doomadgee was, technically, a “dry” community – no alcohol sold or permitted. But we were told, upon arrival, that a blind eye was turned to having beer. Spirits and fortified wine were out.
There was a steady stream of locals driving either to the east, to the Burketown hotel, or west, to the licensed Hells Gate Roadhouse, to purchase their supplies. Both places were about 90kms from Doomadgee. Under local pressure on the council grader drivers, the road was usually fairly well graded as far as Hells Gate – but deteriorated markedly beyond that. I presumed that in the Wet season, there would be enforced drying out – which might account for some of the aggression abounding at that time.
There was a local “party house” over the road from our place. This seemed to always contain a fairly large number of people. There was not enough housing in Doomadgee for the size of the population. There was usually a campfire going in the front yard of this house, and people sleeping around the yard on old mattresses. It seemed quite anomalous in the morning, to see a carton of long life milk and a box of Weetbix, sitting next to the campfire. They cooked their meat on the campfire, so the smell of charred meat often drifted across the road and filled our house.
It was certainly a noisy establishment, where there was no shortage of alcohol, most nights, although Thursday (welfare payment day) through to Sundays were the worst for noise. After that, we assumed, the money, and beer, were running short. There was much very loud arguing, abuse and name calling, foul language, and regular fights. We were told that someone had been murdered there, with a star picket, a couple of weeks before we arrived. Everyone knew who did it, but no-one was telling the police, it seemed. One of the little kids told John the name of the guy… “xxxx, he did it, Mister”.
Thursday and Friday are pension/CDEP “paydays” – hence the following few days are the roughest in the community. It could be almost quiet by Wednesdays. We became a bit accustomed to the general rowdiness of the place. Apart from the noise of arguments and fights, there were often vehicles hooning about, especially on drinking nights. The roaming packs of dogs fought a lot. There was also a mob of horses that roamed the streets – extra noisy when these were chased around by the dogs. Another party house, a few doors up, often had really loud music going all hours. We could hear it clearly; the couple of young teachers who had the house next door really suffered.
We did feel really sorry for the police who worked in this place. Theirs was a thankless and unrewarding life, it seemed, constantly trying to keep the peace and protect the people from themselves.
In the scrub, a distance beyond our place, were the remains of the old piggery. We soon found out that this was a not a direction we should go walking in – it was where the local youth, and some older ones – went to smoke gunja and sniff petrol. Both substances were much abused in the community.
We made an effort, at the outset of our time here, to go walking, for exercise. But we never felt really safe, doing this, because of the packs of dogs that often seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to attack. We always carried our walking poles, for that reason. During our time there, the pet dog of one of the teachers was badly injured by some local dogs that jumped the fence into its yard and savaged it.
We walked to and from school – only a couple of blocks. We usually did this together. I did not ever feel secure enough to go walking on my own. We knew that a young female teacher had been raped here, last year – and that this was not the first instance of a white female being attacked in the community. So, soon, the only walking we did was going back and forth to school. We felt that the Truck was actually safer from vandalism, parked at the house, rather than at the school!