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- author Jackie French

Monday 5 September 2011

Guest Post: Indigenous Literacy Foundation Ambassador Andy Griffiths

KBR is thrilled to welcome author Andy Griffiths with this insightful guest post on his ambassadorship with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. We hope you love it as much as we do. For more information on the ILF and the amazing work they are doing, visit the website.

I’ve never been too much of a fan of dusty dirt roads, four wheel drives or the searing heat of Australia’s outback. So it’s somewhat ironic that for the last few years I’ve found myself clocking up thousands of kilometres a year on hot dusty dirt roads in four wheel drives to visit remote community schools in the Northern Territory as part of my work as an Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassador.

The funny thing is that far from being a drudge, these trips have become a genuine pleasure  because I know at the end of those hot dusty roads there’s going to be a group of bright-eyed, funny and enthusiastic children eager to welcome us into their beautiful communities and to tell their stories.

As a children’s author, the whole thrust of my work has been to help kids to discover the excitement and joy of literacy. Literacy is power: the power to gather information, the power to imagine alternative ways of living and being, and the power to make informed choices about one’s life.

So it came as a shock to learn that one third of Australia’s indigenous students do not have adequate reading literacy to meet real-life challenges, or that four out of five children living in very remote Indigenous communities can’t read to the accepted minimum standard.

How could it be, I wondered, that in a supposedly enlightened, educated and modern country we could have failed our indigenous population so badly?

As I was soon to discover, I wasn’t the only one to be wondering what had gone wrong. Suzy Wilson, a bookseller from Brisbane, had already asked the question, visited some of the communities in question and identified one of the most obvious answers: in many of these communities there was a chronic lack of books. At the Wugulaar community school, five hours south east of Darwin, the ‘library’ consisted of a tiny stack of books in the corner of the staffroom rescued from the library where the contents were periodically destroyed by floods.

Can you imagine trying to learn to read without books? It’s impossible, but relatively easy to imagine the flood of outrage that would ensue if this was discovered to be the case at one of our schools in the cities.

Believing that Indigneous people should enjoy the same education, employment and societal opportunities as other citizens, Suzy started the organisation that’s now known as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Working in partnership with the Fred Hollows Foundation it is a publishing industry initiative that aims to deliver—free of charge and with no strings attached—boxes of books and literacy resources that have been selected by community representatives as relevant to their community’s needs and reading interests.

Beginning only a little over five years ago, the ILP has now delivered more than 15,000 books into over 160 remote communities around Australia. This is in additon to pioneering the ‘Bookbuzz’ program which aims to provide a set of ten board books to each child from 0-3 years in these communities to start providing enjoyment of and familiarity with books and the printed text well before they get to school.

It also organises periodical trips into some of the communities for a range of ILP ambassadors to give workshops and participate in activities organised by the Fred Hollows Foundation.

Which is where I come in.

I’ve run workshops for visiting indigenous children at the Lodge in Canberra, thanks to our Patron Therese Rein, and in the Pan Macmillan boardroom on the twenty-third floor of a tower in Sydney.

But it’s visiting the communities that I love best.

Arriving at the oasis of the Manyallaluk community, two hours east of Katherine, is always a thrill. As we make our way up to the two room twenty student school the first thing I notice apart from the unbroken blue sky and the red dirt, is the silence.

Time moves differently here. All those things that seemed so urgent back in the city now seem like a long time ago and a long way away. Their sole teacher and principal, Oriel, welcomes us and the kids regard us shyly. Well, at least at first. Sometimes it’s not easy crossing the barrier between city and outback.

My tales of ‘cats being chased by rats with baseball bats’ and ‘big fat cows that go kapow’ don’t cut much ice here. Cats are nowhere near as plentiful as dogs in these communities, and the only cows I’ve seen are of the extremely thin and bony variety … not the comically rotund cows that I’m used to. And to make matters worse, the students soon let me know that they’re not called ‘cows’ … up here they’re known as ‘bullocky.’

At Daly River PS I tell them the story of my dog Sooty and how he used to chase cars and try to bite their tyres and how he got run over in the process. I love to end it with the gratuitous—and made-up detail—about how his ‘guts came out of his mouth’—always a reliable inducer of delighted groans of disgust, but not at this school. The kids just shrugged and one said, ‘that’s nothing! Last week a crocodile got run over by a semi-trailer … and we got photos!’ (I probably don’t need to tell you that the crocodile’s guts were actually coming out of its mouth.)

Working with these kids I’m continually reminded of how much I don’t know. One girl once told me that during the floods lots of animals float into their houses, including snakes. ‘You’re kidding!’ I said. ‘What do you do when you get a snake in your house?’ She looked at me as if I was an idiot. ‘Get a broom and get it out!’ she said matter-of-factly.

But while not all of the stories are as dramatic, they kids slowly reveal a rich lifestyle that involves many traditional and––to city dwellers––exotic activities. such as pig hunting, swimming in waterholes, festivals and hunting for emu eggs.

Along with fellow ambassadors Kate Grenville and Kaz Cook, I help them to write their stories down and illustrate them in their own simple books.

Language is not a problem for indigenous children––most of them know three or four aboriginal languages and dialects––and they begin school with a vocabulary of around 60,000 words compared to non-indigenous’ children’s relatively modest collection of around 5000.

Written English, however, is a challenge. Like children anywhere, however, the kids at Manyalluk are keen to be heard and to be understood and their persistence is remarkable. I don’t realise it at the time but Kate points out afterwards that very few of them write with the pronoun ‘I’ … they are all told from the collective pronoun ‘we’.

The importance of family and social grouping is reflected in indignenous languages which are based on a matrices system as opposed to binary. For example, in English we have two words for our parents’ parents: Grandpa and Grandma. Indigenous society has four: one for the mother’s father and another for the mother’s mother, and then two more: one for the father’s mother and one for the father’s father. And so it goes for brothers, sisters and cousins.

Researchers in WA have found that when asked to recall The Story of Ping (which is about a duck who lived with his mother and his father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins) indigenous students could recall the exact amount of sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins that Ping had—a detail that would be colourful but not crucial to the non-indigenous reader’s understanding of the story.

Many people make the mistake of assuming that Aboriginal culture is somehow more simplistic and primitive than modern European culture, but this would be ignoring the fact that Aboriginal occupancy of Australia goes back 60,000 years. Older than any other civilization—Ancient Egypt was a comparitively recent 5000 years ago—Aboriginals accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and developed a highly complex culture.

Aboriginal people were the first peoples to use ground edges on stone cutting tools and the first to use stone tools to grind seeds. And it was their invention of the boomerang that gave aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave the clue that curved surfaces lift more than flat ones: an clue that led him to achieve the world’s first powered flight and no doubt gave the Wright Brothers a crucial insight in their quest to build the worlds first airplane.

The ILP is growing fast and slowly, community by community, building bridges. We’ve really only just dipped our toes into what’s possible and look forward to many more opportunities for sharing books and stories. But even more importantly, even beyond words and stories, the efforts of the ILP are opening up the possibility of trust between two vastly different cultures.

Deb Dank, one of the ILP’s incredibly dedicated and hardworking project officers reports one woman from one of the communities as saying, ‘You mean people from the cities know about us? And they care?’

The Naked Boy and the Crocodile (Pan Macmillan), edited by Andy, comprises thirteen stories written by students in remote communities, collected by Andy for the ILF. Here is your chance to win one of three exclusive copies of the book. Enter now!

Learn more about the Indigenous Literacy Foundation at www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au. You can read more about Andy at www.andygriffiths.com.au.