KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 3 / July-August-September 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

In July 2002, DEBORAH RUIZ WALL, a graduate of Tranby Aboriginal College in Glebe, went to Darwin for a holiday, visiting Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park. Apart from observing the crocodiles in Kakadu, she visited Nungalinya, an Aboriginal theological college. Following is a story of two inspiring indigenous teachers, HERMY MUNNICH and GAMIRITJ GURRUWIWI who Deborah met.

Profile 1
Turning a Corner

Hermy Munnich, Coordinator (Textile Arts), Nungalinya College, Darwin

LITTLE did she know that at Nungalinya College, her dream would come true. Hermy Munnich, 38, was an alcoholic, a mother at aged 16, divorced at 21 and at this tender age, she faced the challenge of raising three young children all on her own. Little wonder that she saw nothing but a bleak future.

It was when she enrolled in a secretarial course at the Northern Territory University (NTU) that she turned a corner, and never looked back. At NTU, she had to complete a work experience program, and that was how she came to be involved with Nungalinya. She worked there as a receptionist on a three month work experience program and while there, she applied for the position of Coordinator for the Certificate in Textile Art course.

She got the job. But first, she had to train for that position. In the morning, she was a student; in the afternoon, she was an administrative worker. This blended approach enabled the young Innisfail woman from Queensland to overcome the big learning curve.

Hermy who has Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Austrian heritage became a Teacher Assistant in her second year of training at Nungalinya. In that same year (1991), she completed the Diploma in Adult Education course at NTU. Today she is a fully qualified teacher at Nungalinya College.

A good role model for her students, she practices her art and craft outside the college. In March 2001, her work was selected in the highly competitive 20th National Craft Acquisition for Fabric Design. Only six works were chosen from many entries in the Northern Territory and her work was one of these.

Apart from developing art and craft, her students have to learn business skills. Hermy demonstrates from her own practice how this can be done. In her spare time, she sells her work at the Nightclift Market in Darwin. Her print design which shows the influence of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and urban art is sold through the local shops and the Christian churches' own distribution channels within Australia and overseas.

When asked who she remembers as an outstanding student in her classes, she mentioned Margaret Cuta, a 65-year old woman who completed the Fine Arts course and whose work now "graces the shops in Germany". Margaret, herself of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, continues to use Nungalinya's facilities to create her own fabric design.

Indeed Hermy has turned a corner, successfully raising her three daughters aged 12, 17 and 21, and a new addition to the family, a 7˝ month old baby, Joshua. She and her new husband, Rod Schloss both look after Joshua.

Today Hermy continues to exude a positive outlook, encouraging and helping students at Nungalinya through her teaching and life example. No matter if they are temporarily waylaid, Hermy is confident that they can get back on track and create, just like she did, a fulfilling life for themselves.

Profile 2
Where teaching and learning are inseparable

Gamiritj Gurruwiwi, teacher of Family and Community Services, Nungalinya College since 1992.

Gamiritj Gurruwiwi is from Elcho Island located at the very top end of the Northern Territory. Seventeen years ago, she was called to survey the level of care Arnhemland children were receiving from their families, identify any problems they were experiencing and determine whether parents were able to help their children.

She found out that there was a problem with gambling, that children of parents addicted to gambling were most vulnerable - getting into a lot of trouble and suffering from poor health. Today the situation had got worse. She said many children are ending up in hospital; young girls as early as 13 are falling pregnant and are finding no support, not even from their traditional extended family network.

"Premature parents," Gamiritj said, "need to grow up first themselves before they should have children." Over the last two years at Nungalinya College, the slogan, "Strong Woman, Strong Babies" is used consistently to drive home that point.

It was during her research work into families from 1985-1991 that Gamiritj discovered the problem of domestic violence and alcoholism. This twin problem is "slowly killing them inside," she said. Speaking Galpu, her native tongue, Arakun and other Aboriginal languages in Arnhemland and Alice Springs helped her greatly with her research work. She said many young people today are easily distracted with videos and films and are finding it hard to straddle between the Aboriginal and Western cultures that are now part of their lives.

"Kava", a mildly alcoholic drink offered to guests in a ceremonial ritual is being misused in 24-hour binges. What is needed, stated Gamiritj, is a change of outlook that honours and respects positive elements from their traditional and Western cultures. Her intimate understanding of the nature of this "culture shock" and her proficiency in Aboriginal languages provide a fertile ground for effectively teaching students who come to her for advice, even on personal matters.

She lists two of what she considers her main achievements:

  • disclosure of the depth and damage resulting from drinking, gambling, and domestic violence - and the family breakdown experienced by many Aboriginal communities.
  • "Bring these problems up on top… no need to hide them any more", she said.

    Gamiritj had a head start in earlier years when she took on the task of raising awareness in the wider community about these problems. Capturing the meaning of these problems is the first step, before change can take place.

  • playing the dual role of teacher and counsellor (on an informal basis).
  • Students from Aboriginal communities already know about "sharing", so apart from teaching them sewing, she shows them how to budget their money, how to use the library and update their existing knowledge through reading, and appreciate the value of micro-enterprises.

    Contrary to what people may think, Gamiritj doesn't believe Aboriginal culture will disappear when other cultures are grafted into it. She helps students negotiate and discern what options they can pick from their culturally diverse worlds. She encourages students to hold on to their stories, give voice to them, and pass them on to their children. As an illustration, she draws a small plant and says to them, "this plant will grow into a big tree, which is strong because it is deeply rooted in the ground." This tree she uses as a metaphor for the getting of wisdom.

    Gamiritj knows from her own experience what culture change is. Raised in Elcho Island, she is the fifth of nine children. Elcho Island was established as a Christian mission in 1942. Men and women lived in a traditional way - hunting and gathering food. Food consisted of a great variety of yams, wild honey, turtle, turtle eggs, wild berries, oysters, crabs, sea gull eggs, geese, long tortoise.

    When she was a child, she cleaned up the yards of missionaries on weekends or after school to save enough money to travel to big towns so she could fulfil her dream of "seeing the outside world".

    Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, their people from the Moliginbi and Goulburn Islands had contact with the Macassans (ancestors of modern day Indonesians), some of whom stayed on their land, shared food and intermarried with them. Their elders passed on stories about these people who had helped them. It was only in the early thirties when they made contact with white people for the first time.

    "Sharing Culture", a module offered at Nungalinya is about kinship and "our Law" (includes customs, tradition, religion). Part of this course teaches students how to dance and paint themselves. The modules are produced within the College and accredited. Leafing through a booklet, I read a Section called "Building Identity Teaching Our Way" and found trigger questions such as: Why teach language and culture in your school? How would you develop a language and culture program in your school.?

    As a demonstration of interfaith sharing, Gamiritj said Christian songs are translated into indigenous language and songs are sung in both English and their own language.

    Gamiritj hopes that students in Nungalinya will return to their own communities and apply the skills they have learnt from the College. One day she hopes that the College will be able to deliver mixed mode courses in remote areas, so that 30 weeks are spent in the College and 3 weeks in their own communities. If additional funding could be found, she would like separate rooms and workshops built for different types of craft work and a better place established for women.

    Her dream is partly fulfilled by a past student of Nungalinya, Susan Dhangal Yunupingu. Susan completed the women studies course and then the theology course at Nungalinya College. With her husband, David Djungadjunga Yunupingu who also completed the theology course, Susan works to help the community, using the skills they have both learnt.

    David runs the YMCA Community Youth Club, taking the children to Adelaide to attend the youth convention while Susan chairs the Homeland Centre at the Mathagal Outstation. The couple are outstanding organisers. Some years ago, the husband and wife team went to India to exchange and share their insights into community work. They were able to pick the best elements from the two cultures and apply them in their work.

    With an enlightened approach to teaching and learning that focuses on absorbing positive elements from diverse cultural influences yet never abandoning one's own traditional culture, Nungalinya College is fortunate to have Gamiritj on board.

    - Deborah Ruiz Wall

    Nungalinya College, a not-for-profit organisation, is a partnership of the Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Churches working together to provide training for indigenous ministers and leaders throughout Australia. Leadership formation and community development are emphasized. Courses are designed and developed through consultation with indigenous peoples. Funding for the College is obtained through private donations, bequests, sale of students art/craft work, and some government assistance. The College is also helped by volunteers.

    Donations can be sent to:
    Nungalinya College,
    PO Box 40371,
    Casuarina, NT 0811.

    Further information:
    Phone (08) 8927 1044
    Fax (08) 8927 2332,