As our tiny six-seater plane rattled over the Tiwi Islands, I could see evidence of the closely guarded protection of the land and its people, beneath me. “Where are all the people?” I thought as I watched the exotic beaches turn into an endless thick blanket of trees suffocating the dirt ground below. I soon noticed a clearing approaching us in the distance. With only a dozen buildings, it was hardly a sign of much civilisation! But an excitement bubbled up within me, because despite the lack of visible human life, I knew that there was a people and a culture on this rural land that would now, to me, become unhidden. This experience was a unique opportunity that many people, even Australians only 80km south of the cluster of islands, could only dream of and it is one that I will never forget.
The clearing I saw from the plane happened to be our home for the following two weeks. Tiwi College is a boarding school for Tiwi teenagers. We spent that time helping where we were needed and getting to know the students.
Despite being on a remote island, I saw that the modern world was beginning to sneak its way into this isolated culture. A traditional Tiwi dance and song would be followed by crumping to Usher; forbiddance of talking to their own brothers without someone else with them, didn’t stop the girls from talking about kissing boys; and a fear of disobeying cultural rules did not necessarily exist when it came to disobeying the school rules.
The culture was fascinating to see, but it was the relationships with the girls that I cherished most of all. There was one girl in particular, Rose*, who was extremely withdrawn. She didn’t say a word, even when spoken to. I had heard from the other girls about the violence in their communities and I wondered about Rose’s background – she seemed so hopeless. Everyday I would ask her how she was. At first, the only reply I received was a shrug, which then turned into a nod, followed by an, “alright, miss”. One day, I smiled across the room at Rose and without a word; she started a game with me. The simple action of throwing and catching a ball was what gave me a glimpse of her smile for the first time.
“Miss, walk with me”. It was the next day and I had to take a moment to control my immediate urge to jump up and down. I had wanted to befriend this girl and now finally, she had accepted me! Over our last few days, she opened up to me about her life. Persistence had paid off. I was able to build a relationship with Rose, showing her that there is hope and she does have a future.
Effectively, that was the whole reason we were there. To show the youth of a remote island that they are loved and have a bright future ahead of them. One thing I noticed about the indigenous is that they are very good observers. They watch you and pick up on things. Demonstration was our main method; living amongst the students, getting to know them, and ultimately, showing them love through our actions and the way we live our day-to-day lives.
As I stepped back onto the plane, I felt so fortunate to have been able to experience this new, fascinating culture, and build relationships with the girls on Tiwi. It didn’t take me long to see for myself that the Tiwi people have huge hearts and big personalities, and I was honoured to spend those two weeks with them.
*name changed for privacy