Wanderings in a Desert

By Donna Jacobs Sife

I have returned from the desert. I drove from Adelaide to Alice Springs in a campervan, stopping at schools to tell stories along the way, in towns like Woomera, Port Augusta and Coober Pedy. At night, I settled down in camping grounds to gaze at the immense canopy of stars and listen to the desert dogs howl. As an Australian Jew, I have two spiritual homes. I was on a heart quest to the Centre, to another Jerusalem - Uluru.

The landscape along the Stuart Highway in South Australia was sometimes so flat, so bleak, so barren that it was quite sickening to drive through. At one stage I stopped the van and stood at the side of the road and turned 360 deg. to see the entire curve of the world. No hills, no trees, nothing - just a slightly sour breeze, shiny black crows and huge wedge tailed eagles picking at the bones of the kangaroos left to rot by the side of the road.

But the Northern territory was like Eden. It was abundant with life, laid out by a master landscaper. With bush melons by the thousand lining the road to Uluru - deep blood red soil, grasses, trees, sweet breezes and birds of every colour and song.

The Rock does not reveal itself until you are ready to receive her. She graces you with a glimpse here and there until you have passed the sign that announces Aboriginal land, that you have entered National Park, and then, around a corner - there it is - magnificent , elegant, mythical. It teaches us something about the nature of the custodians of the land. You do not ask direct questions of Aborigines. Their way is to offer glimpses of themselves, of their Knowledge, until they deem you ready to receive it.

I knew there was a school at Uluru. My agent had suggested I ring when I get there if I wanted to perform. They invited me to come immediately, and I followed the directions, driving passed the sign that said Restricted Area - Aboriginal Community. Storytelling is a passport to the world. It was there that I lost my innocence.

It was there that I saw the shocking condition of a People so removed from my own experience. There was malnourishment and disease. Some children were born with foetal alcohol syndrome so that they are brain damaged before they enter the world. Here was a nation caught between two cultures - one imposed, unexplained and inappropriate, the other raped and mutilated. Damaged by the fenced areas of Crown Land so that they cannot roam as they should; through the theft of ceremonies, languages, and the loss of a way of being, that has now seeped back into the red earth, and is crying out in the whispers of the dust, the murmurs of the rocks, the sobbing in the wind.

The housing, the electricity, the education - much of what we give, often with the best of intention, seemed misplaced and foolish there, robbing them of their traditional life, and coming with an expectation that they become like us. What I saw was heart breaking and completely unacceptable. I became increasingly aware of the assumptions I was making with regards to this community. Do I know what the Aborigines feel or need? We don't really understand. Our own white consciousness just gets in the way.

It was a sobering and sad experience. I cried much of the way to Alice Springs. I have read of the deplorable health and living conditions, but seeing them is different. To think that James Cook, seeing the first Aborigines from his longship, named that land Manly, because of the marvellous specimens of humankind that they were. "What have we done" was the lament that accompanied the rumble of the engine as I drove away. It was easy to see only a bleak and barren road ahead.

I stayed at this community for only three days. Most of what I saw and heard was at ‘Rangerville’, where the teachers and rangers live. I do not claim that all aboriginal communities live in the conditions that I have described. There is a hyper-sensitivity to talking about these things. Once we saw the Aborigines as sub-human. Now there is a tendency to see them as super-human. Both attitudes are in fact two sides of the same coin. Finding a balance requires vigilance and continual self reflection.

The Aborigines are very clear about the way we must treat their land while we are there. At Uluru, nothing can be touched. Every stone is where it should be. They communicate their spirituality with enormous dignity. The entire place felt like a temple. Despite the 200 years of torment, they have maintained their essential relationship with the earth.

They may not have much to learn from us, but we have so much to learn from them.

The hope, I think, lies with the elders of their communities, some of whom are towering in their character and personal inner strength. From what I understand, the value system is still strong and sustaining. Many aborigines, against the odds, have found a way to bridge the two cultures, and are creatively responding to their own. Their future is complex and difficult, but in good hands. As for us whites, we can open our hearts, offer what we can to ease the symptoms of their pain, be willing to learn, support the ceremonial arts, and leave them to create their own future.

And in heaven’s name, sign a treaty. As an act of recognition, of trust, of justice. That is surely the way to create a fruitful, rich and fertile future.

In the Jewish calendar we are counting the Omer now. We are crossing the desert. For seven weeks we walk, facing our fears, self reflecting in preparation to receive the Torah. Soon, our Leader will climb a mountain and look down to see where it is his People stand. From whence they have come. What the land holds. And then he will look up and receive our Destiny from the Divine.

We all need to climb the mountain and look down. To know our history, and see all that has been left in its wake. To see where and how the People of this land stand. To inherit the truth, grieve it, and then carry it on our shoulders all the way to Jerusalem.

And to rise to our destiny - that of loving our neighbour as ourselves.

It is not for the Stolen Generation alone that we should being saying sorry. It is the loss of those extraordinary people that Cook saw as he sailed into our harbour two hundred years ago. It is for the disgraceful lack of understanding, for the brutal imposition of a race of people who foolishly thought they knew best.

And the greatest sorrow of all is for the loss of knowledge that we so desperately need , to save this earth of ours. To save ourselves.

Almost, almost - but not too late.