Over the last few days I hosted a workshop on becoming a healthy man at a conference called Surrender (www.surrender.org) which is held each year in Victoria and South Australia. I was given 90 minutes to explain how initiation helps men become elders in their community.
I looked up and noticed the room was filled with indigenous brothers, many from the Warlpiri people from desert east of Alice Springs. Living at the geographical heart of our nation, there are 3,000 who still live the ancient ways. Their wisdom holds keys to our future if we are to prosper as Australians. Reconciliation is not just saying sorry. It is learning to live in this land from wisdom that we badly need.
I didn’t want to do the white fella approach of telling the men present what I know, so I opened up the space so we could explore an understanding of what a man is.
My whiteboard quickly filled with words that describe what society or popular culture projects about men. Then a man near the back of the room asked “can you give a definitive word or phrase to describe a healthy man.” That’s what we white fellas want, some over-arching descriptor that summarises it for us all. I asked the group. After a silence, a young Warlpiri man noticed his elder shifting in his seat and encouraged him to get up. I stepped aside.
Wanta Jampijinpa Pawu-Kurlpurlurnu is a wise elder of the Warlpiri people. He doesn’t rush and he won’t speak in ways that the western mind can easily grasp. He invites you in to his worldview slowly, if you want to know. He will be generous if ears are open.
It is “Ngurra,” Wanta said. Home. In western thinking, home is a building, or a family that inhabits a building, or home. Or it is the sense of belonging, of safety, of being known. It is an “ever-full feeling” to quote the musician Michael Card. A place where the soul is at rest. But for the Warlpiri, it is so much more. It is the country, for that is the dwelling. So it is everything that inhabits that country, and everything that inhabits has a story, like the doorframe in our pantry that marks the growing heights of our boys over the last quarter of a century (that I refuse to paint over and will take with us when we eventually move house).
Ceremony is vital in this. Ceremony is mother because it nurtures us. Wanta says:
“Ceremony is not a thing to be entertaining and that’s all – it is teaching time for how we should walk in this country…. When you are little, you only learn the surface part. When men take you (into initiation) then you learn the underneath part. Women teach you how to eat food that is good for you and that makes your body strong. Now you have to go hand over in that kurdiji [initiation ceremony] and now they’ll teach you all that story about that plant. What time he’s coming, what time to expect him. They’ll do it in this funny thing you call dance, corroboree [laughs]. You know it is a bit like going to school. When kardiya [white fella] go to all this university, ceremony is like that one. To have this knowledge, knowing the way of learning about all these animals and plants.”
Learning the underneath parts helps the Warlpiri know when rain or wind is coming. They are “here”, so they see everything. They notice the ants.
Learning the underneath part is the kind of learning we white fellas used to do. We still do, to some extent, but not the myths, not the deeper meaning behind why we learn what we learn. Most importantly, we don’t learn how to make sense of life. This is integral to the Warlpiri. Ceremony connect them to law, to skin names (how to relate to one another and understand each other), to language, the deeper meaning of what we are saying, the stories behind our truths – and all of these connect us to country, to the land, to home.
Again, in Wanta’s words:
“Consider a music player: ipod or walkman. The battery is people and the battery charger is ceremony. Sometimes batteries go flat and die if they are not recharged. So too if people are not going to ceremony. They will not be refreshing or learning their knowledge about country. The knowledge for people is like the electricity for the battery. Now, the place where you put that battery is its little home – it slots in there. Similarly Warlpiri people’s home should be on their country; they belong there, it’s the right place for them. When the electricity, the battery, and the slot all come together then you can turn on the music player and listen to it: the whole system is functioning. You can learn from it now: learn to sing that song, to talk that language, that language of country.”
So much of what we carry as ills in the west (and our indigenous cousins, when they lose country, language, ceremony and skin names) are the result of the music stopping. Anxiety, depression, addiction, rush, there is no music. The batteries are flat. We don’t see, because to see, you must be here, and we are mostly somewhere else.
There are key divergences between white fella and black fella rites. We invite men to embrace five promises: life is hard, it is not about us, we are not that important, we are not in control, we are going to die. As I shared this at the workshop, one Warlpiri man said “that’s what we need to be freed from! That’s what you wounded us with!” I acknowledged this to be true, and explained that’s why the white fella needs to be wounded by these promises, or he will keep wounding others (and defiling himself) by controlling and diminishing those around him.
That’s what happens when a man does not know ngurra. When we are not home, we feel poor. The Warlpiri man has the despair of being empty. The restless white man wants to be full. So we white men hoard resources, take power, possess land. We spend our time filling the homelessness within us with MacMansions around us. We live two dimensional lives, staring at country through screens that disconnect it from the place it is in, further dislocating us from here. Home is here, always here, or it does not exist. When you are semi-nomadic, home has to be within you, not individually but interconnected with everyone and everything.
It is hard to find ngurra under neon lights and in air conditioning and in cars and carpet and concrete. These things don’t have deeper meaning, they have no story that is ours. They came from a factory, they were fabricated for comfort and convenience but they lack dimension. If we have nothing that gives us deeper meaning, and if we have no place to find deeper meaning, no ceremony to know how to live in ngurra, because we are orphaned from ngurra, we will never know home.
The stolen generation were not only taken from their parents (if that isn’t bad enough), they were taken from country. We could only do this to our indigenous neighbours because we did not know ngurra. Any wonder it will take us five generations to recover ourselves.
This story is beginning, again. When a Warlpiri man asks me my story in the interconnected web of life, I don’t know where to begin. I don’t need to know when trees bear berries. I buy them at the supermarket. I am in control. But I’m beginning to learn I am not. I’m leaning into the scarcity that opens depths within me. I’m learning this by engaging in nature more often and more deeply, and engaging with my inner life with more reflection and understanding. I’m coming alongside others more gently and quietly, to find the water of life running through their stories. I’m waking up. I’m finding ngurra humming within me. And I find it as an ache that takes me even deeper into knowing.
If you are curious, you can find out more about how the Warlpiri construct their meaning of home in this paper: http://www.nintione.com.au/resource/DKCRC-Report-41-Ngurra-kurlu.pdf