Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Outback take on Sydney icon: can you camp in it?

Tjuntjuntjara community school children

Stories to tell, in Sydney and back home: The Tjuntjuntjara students take in the Sydney Opera House and its surroundings. Photo: Kate Geraghty

In the Pitjantjatjara language Miss Lorraine teaches there are no words to describe what lies before her: the Sydney Opera House, a deep harbour puddling its feet and clusters of office towers.

One of her young charges, Lydon Stevens, gazes at the white-tiled sails and asks: ''Can you camp in it?''

The nearest the community elder, can find that comes close to describing the vista is ngurra pulkanga, meaning big camp.

The Tjuntjuntjara Community School in Western Australia from which she comes is a dot in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert, where its principal, Rikiesha Dawson, teaches 30 children from one of the most remote indigenous communities in Australia.


Three days ago six students, Miss Lorraine and Ms Dawson set off for Sydney in a bus travelling along a bush track that disappeared into spinifex.

For the first 136 kilometres the bus climbed 198 sand dunes. Two of the six children were carsick. There was an overnight stay at Wingellina School, and another four-hour journey crossing state borders, into South Australia and then the Northern Territory, before flying to Sydney where they are to perform for Indigenous Literacy Day celebrations on Wednesday.

But desert-children-come-to-the-city is not the only story they are showcasing. The students will read from a book they authored entitled, How Does Your Garden Grow, one of a series that has been funded by the Indigenous Literary Foundation to teach the shared values of reading, writing and storytelling among indigenous communities and to promote culturally relevant books. The Foundation has sent more than 100,000 books to 230 remote communities across Australia over the last three years.

The children of Tjuntjuntjara have a reading age of between eight and 11 years. They are mentored by elders like Miss Lorraine, and are enthusiastic about learning although school attendance is disrupted each term by "cultural business", including funerals and initiation ceremonies, according to Ms Dawson.

In the bush surrounding the Tjuntjuntjara grows wild bananas and a skinny bean with the taste of a snow pea. In the vegie patch the school has been cultivating carrots, sweet corn, pumpkin and growing sunflowers and nasturtiums, as well as a mulberry tree. Each child is in charge of their own vegetable and is responsible for its watering and care, said Ms Dawson. Once harvested, the children cook their produce.

"The vegie patch has proved a positive learning experience for the children, and has been incorporated into science lessons. The kids understand they can grow food and distinguish between what is healthy and what is not healthy and it gives them a sense of responsibility," Ms Dawson said.

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