Black History, White Lies: The Day an Aboriginal Man Revealed My Ignorance

Three of us are lying in the back of a rented camper in a carpark by Margaret River in Western Australia. Our noses are buried in books and our legs are twisted around a naked doona we bought from K-mart earlier in the day. We’ve been on the road for about a week now, and are growing more and more comfortable with the light layer of red sand that’s made a home in the roots of our hair.

“Hey girls!” we hear, as a man approaches the van. He looks like he’s in his mid-30s and he’s of Aboriginal appearance. He continues talking like he knows us except we’re not listening. We have never seen this man before and the three of us instinctively rise to protect ourselves as women are prone to do when they are approached by a male stranger.

“Oh, sorry girls. I thought youse was German! No bullshit!”, he says with a friendly smile. “They was drivin’ around in the same kind of van!”

We start making small talk with the man whose name was Malaak and soon we are bounding through the forest behind him searching for hairy marrons, a species of endangered crayfish (“I can’t believe youse ‘aven’t seen ‘em yet!”) and picking bush foods from the shrubs.

“You girls want a feed? We can catch one right now if you want!” he says enthusiastically, pointing down at the hairy marrons in the murky water below.

We can barely keep up in our bare feet and singlets and we didn’t know whether to be excited or wary. Is he drunk? Is that alcohol in the water bottle he is carrying? Are we safe? Should I put a jumper over my singlet? Do we really want to follow him into the bush? What are his ulterior motives?

The hesitations and questions that arise are directly correlated to the racist messaging that has funnelled through media channels since I was a small girl. Ugly stereotypes are swirling about in my subconscious, rising to the surface like a crocodile ready to defend its territory. My territory?

Reminder: his territory.

According to the Reconciliation Barometer’s Key Findings Fact Sheet of 2010, only 9% of Aboriginal Australians believe the media presents a balanced view of them. I will not hesitate when I say that I don’t think those numbers would be very different now, 9 years later.

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After running around the river for a while, we find ourselves squatting on a log jutting out across the river bank. The moon is plump and golden and seems to cloak Margaret River in a kind of ethereal glow.

“Let me tell youse girls some yarns! Wanna hear some yarns?”

We nod eagerly. We’ve never heard a yarn from an Aboriginal Australian, not in a way that wasn’t staged or done for the sake of upholding some kind of image. This is a great honour and we are keen to ask our questions.

As conversation starts to breathe a rhythm, I realise how little I know about the First Peoples. Where were these stories in our classrooms? Where were the Indigenous voices? Where was the emphasis on the true effects of colonisation?

Did you know, in a matter of 30 years in Tasmania, the Indigenous Aboriginal population fell from 5,000-10,000 to 300?

Malaak starts calling us sisters and soon, the local Noongar word for woman. By the end of the evening, he refers to us as spirits because “we’re all one here”.

He tells us that the reason women cannot play the didgeridoo is because the Noongar people believe the vibrations will damage a woman’s reproductive organs.

He tells us that the white fellas, our ancestors, poisoned their rivers and their creeks, so they had to go to the rivers the white fellas claimed as theirs, where they were greeted with guns and death.

“The white people thought we were dumb because we didn’t know their way of life. But we didn’t need a pen and paper to tell us how to look after our land... we’d been looking after it for a long time without their help. The white fellas were our friends at the start, we taught them everything we knew. Then some of them saw the prosperity of the land and got greedy.

Girls, if the land could speak, it would say it doesn’t care about your money.

Australia’s prosperity is on our broken backs.”

Their backs are still breaking. The war is not over.

One in 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults belong to the Stolen Generation.

He adjusts his straddle on the log and takes a swig of water.

“People look at me walking through the streets like I’m a foreigner, but this is my home… I still walk down the road and feel the compressed weight of the people saying I’m worthless. Even on paper forms we're a separate nation. "Are you Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander?"”

I’m sorry.

“I wanted to go to the Cronulla riots with my mob with our paint and our didgeridoos and yell “what the fuck are you fighting about? You haven’t made peace with us! The war is still happening here!” That would have really fucked them up, don’t you think? I would have liked to have seen that happen.”

He laughs, nodding up to the sky.

“Australia Day is like celebrating Hitler if he won the war. Australia Day feels like a celebration of war crimes. There has been no treaty, the war is still happening and the wound is still open.”

Change the date.

Aboriginal Australians are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous adults.

“You tell me I’m lazy because I don’t work, but you forget we never needed to work. For tens of thousands of years we survived working with nature, not against her. I would happily live out there with nothing. Sometimes I go out there for 2 weeks with nothing but the clothes on my back.”


The Aboriginal rock art in Western Australia’s Dampier Archipelago is at least twice as old as the Pyramids of Egypt.

How quickly he destroys everything I think I know about the history of the place I call home. How dare I expect Indigenous Australians to work and to embed themselves in their invader’s culture? How had I not understood their resentment and frustration until now?

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The more Malaak shares, the more we want to know. He shifts on the log and lets his legs dangle out to the water.

We ask him how he greets the land when he arrives at a new place. He tells us he picks up some earth and throws it towards the wind. Then he listens.

“One click, and you’re safe” he says, and clicks his fingers once.

“Two clicks, and you shouldn’t stay there for the night”.

He clicks his fingers twice and the sound echoes down the river. Beside the log we’re perched on something rustles in the bushes, frightening us, and he smiles. Two clicks.

~

Time seems like a strange commodity when you’re surrounded by nature and immersed in story. Nevertheless, time passes and the late evening breeze sweeps through the river and tickles our tanned bodies. Malaak turns to us and asks one final question:

“Imagine sitting here, on this log hundreds of years ago. What word would you use to describe this?” He turns to the sky of stars with arms outstretched to the river.

There is a pause before I turn to him and whisper, “home”.

He turns to me and nods, "yes, sister, you got it. This is home."

Slowly we scramble off the log and walk back to the van. Somehow our desire to meet cute boys at the local pub seems superficial, there are more important things to think about. 

“You girls want me to tell you some more yarns and show you some good spots tomorrow?” he asks after we hug him goodbye. We arrange to pick him up at 8am the following morning.

~

The following day, Malaak directs us out to the dirt roads that weave through the outskirts of Western Australian towns. We bring him a pie for breakfast from the local bakery. He smiles and thanks us but says “I don’t eat this stuff, but thanks for the thought girls.”

That morning he teaches us how to make bush cordial and catch a goanna and together we make damper over a fire from flour he’s brought in a zip-lock bag.

“Are you sure you don’t have any blackfella in you?” he asks us “’cause this is some of the best damper I ever had!”.

While we’re sitting around the fire, Malaak’s brother calls. We hear muffled sentences from the other end of the line asking him why he’s with white fellas and whether he’s safe.

While the damper cools, he pulls out some paint made from pigments from a sacred Indigenous site not far from where we are. Using sticks by the fire he silently paints artworks on our bodies. He paints a kangaroo on my arm, the spirit animal of his grandfather, a dolphin on my friend’s leg and a goanna on the back of the other.

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He tells us that only one other white fella knows the location of the pigment, and that sometimes they go out bush to sleep under the stars together. “I always keep one eye open though, a white fella in the bush with me. He’s my friend, by I always gotta have an eye open.”

At the end of the day, after spending eight hours circling through dirt roads, pulling up to river beds and swimming in water holes, I ask him what we can do to make things better. If three white women living comfortable lives in one of the world’s most expensive cities can do anything at all. 

“You’re a writer?” he asks me. “Good. You can tell this story. That’s all I ask. All I want is for people to tell our truth. "

~

I would like to acknowledge and pay my respect to the traditional owners of the Noongar boodja past, present and emerging, on which we met Malaak and had the great honour of sharing his spirit. 

“I’m Valid”: Conversations with an Afghani Orphan in Sri Lanka

“What really counted was the possibility of escape, a leap of freedom, out of the implacable ritual, a wild run for it that would give whatever chance for hope there was. Of course, hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like man, by a random bullet. But when I really thought it through, nothing was going to allow me such a luxury. Everything was against it…”  – Albert Camus, The Stranger

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I’m in Sri Lanka with Craig, a friend from my home town, and we’ve been having trouble sourcing cigarettes and beer. 

In the hostel we’ve checked in to, we ask a boisterous young man from Afghanistan, a man smoking and drinking a beer in the courtyard, whether he knows a place. He offers to take us himself so we say “sweet, in 15 minutes?” and he says “the future is unpredictable! The future is now! You never know what is going to happen!”. So we push our unwashed bodies off the couch, pull on our shoes and march out of the house.

From the hostel awning, we watch the afternoon storm roll in and settle above Colombo city. The rain begins to fall and our bare, sticky arms welcome it.

“When it rains we go inside and when it’s sunny we go in the shade.” The Afghani says. “If I say I love you, will you run away?”. He turns to us and flashes a smile, bringing a beedi to his lips before offering the packet to Craig.

The three of us walk through the bustling Sri Lankan streets with tobacco in our lungs. Later, we'll discover that smoking in major cities and train stations here is illegal, but at this point, the blissful ignorance that comes with arriving in a foreign land is enough to prevent us from questioning our cultural assumptions. 

The man whose name we don’t know tells us he’s been in Sri Lanka only a week or so and that it is here he tasted the ocean on his lips for the first time. I could sense the shock from Craig, an avid surfer, beside me.

“To me, this is heaven.” he says, with his hands outstretched. “Afghanistan was hell and now I have escaped, I am free!”.

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We learn he was an orphan. His father died when he was very young and his mother had to sell him like a slave. He lived on the streets and never went to school.

I don’t know what school is like, but I love learning. When I was little and working on a farm, whenever new people came, I would point to things in books and tell them to explain. This is how I learnt English.

We learn he also knows how to speak Persian and Indian and that he’s learning Spanish too, because he wants to marry a Spanish girl.

He weaves around tuk tuks on the bustling streets with agility. He looks over to us and smiles.

But last year, I found Mum on Facebook and yesterday, my VISA to Canada was approved so I can go and meet her! I don’t know what it’s like to have a Mum, but I have one! I messaged so many people on Facebook and many blocked me, but Mum wrote back and asked if I have a birthmark on my leg and I do.

He reaches down and pulls up a pant leg. There is a small birthmark, the size of a milk bottle lid, on the inside of his calf.

I have been looking for her for 20 years and she has been looking for me too. I am the happiest man in the world!

Craig and I look over to him and smile. “I bet you can’t wait to see her.”

“I’ll be her husband, I’ll be her son. I’ll be everything! I’ll dedicate my life to her and I’ll never leave her side man!”. He pulls the beedi from his mouth and drops it into a street bin. He turns to me and says “I call you man because you are outside. Women cannot go outside like this where I am from so you are a man”. He walks ahead.

We ask him what he did for work, before he came to Sri Lanka. He tells us he worked in search engine optimisation which meant presumably, he was one of those people many of us with websites outsource our SEO to. I wonder how often we think of the human life behind the email.

He tells us he loves to write as it was books that opened his eyes to the world.

Have you read Camus? The Stranger is my favourite book – it’s my life. Camus has written my life, we are like brothers. Growing up in Afghanistan, of course I was Muslim, but The Stranger broke me. It made me realise my life was based on one story.

I remember once I was writing for 7 days straight with no sleep. I took a lot of ecstasy and at the end of the week I fell asleep on the floor and I was exhausted. When I woke up, everything had been erased. People began talking, telling me they knew I was writing against the Taliban and against all the gods. I received a letter that told me to stop. That’s when I got out. You don’t understand. It’s different there.

We make our way to the counter that sells alcohol. $2.10 for a 500mL beer. Craig buys 6 and we start talking about how we will carry them back to the hostel.

“You enjoy her, she enjoys you and I enjoy the both of you” he says, a smile glued to his face. Later we tell him that we're simply friends and he can't believe it. Two friends of the opposite sex travelling together? He couldn't comprehend it. 

As we near the hostel entrance, I ask him what his name is, a nicety that is often futile in hostel lobbies, emerging only once a connection has been established.

“I’m Vaild*.
And yes, I’m valid too.” He laughs. “And you?”
“I’m Ruby”
“I’m Craig”
“Like Craigslist?”
“Yes, like Craigslist.”

We walk into the hostel together and open a beer.

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*His name is spelt Walid, but pronounced with a V. 
All shots taken with my little point and shoot film camera.

Crying On The Shoulder Of My Uber Driver

He pulls into the driveway and turns off the car. With tears in my eyes, I reach out to shake his hand. He leans in for a hug and we hold it for a while. I struggle to keep it together.

“Thank you for telling me your story” I say.
“Thank you for caring” he replies.

I grab my bags and swing the door shut. He waits in the driveway until I enter the house safely. I don’t look back.

~

Aba* smiles at me as I open the door, showing a mouth full of pearly whites. We get chatting straight away, and I ask whether he was born in Australia.

“I am from Rwanda” he says. “Rwanda is an African country near Uganda and the Congo. I have been in Australia three years now. I come to Australia to do my Masters with my wife and two little children. We had only $3000 in our bank account and we didn’t know where we were going to live or what we were going to do for work. Our English was very bad. I only speak French….”

He was unassuming and kind. I continued asking the standard Uber questions, but with a little more earnestness. “Most people ask these questions” he says, “but they don’t really want to listen”.

I asked him if he missed home.

“I don’t miss home, because home for me is not like home for you. I lost my parents and my brothers and sisters in mass killings when I was 16, a million dead in three months. I have nothing to miss, not really.”

I ask him if that was during the Rwandan genocide, with the Tutsis and the Hutus. He responds with, “you know about that?”, shocked that a young western woman would know of the genocidal mass slaughter of almost a million Rwandans over 100 days in 1994. (If we did, where were we? Why didn’t we do anything?) I told him I had seen Hotel Rwanda and he nodded. “That’s the one. But it was worse than that. It is something you can never explain, something too horrific to think about. But I remember it. I see every image and yet, I can’t describe it. I can’t say it, not even now…”

Aba stares out at the road ahead and I shy away in my passenger seat, watching the cars drive by, their lights like ribbons in the wind. I remember sobbing on a beanbag at a Rwandan charity evening after watching Hotel Rwanda, unable to process just how evil humans can be. The scene where the car is driving along a bumpy road at night, only to discover that all those bumps are human bodies haunts me.

And yet here before me is a survivor, a survivor that not only saw it, but felt it. 

“In our first week in Australia my family lived in a hotel, but we couldn’t afford it after that, so we moved to a hostel out of town. We were paying $500 for one room of bunk beds, and if they were busy more people would come and stay in our room too. It was hard, you know? We were running out of money very quickly and no one would give us a house- we didn’t have a rental history and we didn’t have enough money for bond. Most were asking for $6000 for 6 months. I didn’t even have $1000 to my name. So, one day I caught a train and thought to myself: I will just get off somewhere. I will just get off anywhere.”

He tells me he gets off at Parramatta station, an hour out of Sydney, and enters the first real-estate agent he passes on the main street. He talks to an agent and begs for a house. He tells him his story with faith in his heart and love in his eyes. He would give him every dollar his family owned. The man said he’d talk to his manager and to come back and see him in a couple of days.

Two days later he returned to the real estate agent with his wife, his four-month old, his two-year-old and their two bags of possessions. The man was moved by their sincerity and their need. He handed over a key to a unit in Blacktown and said: ‘Don’t tell my boss but go, go and move in and we’ll talk paperwork next week. Just get out of that damn hostel’. He walked up the road with his family and their bags and they moved under their first very own Australian roof. No bed, no mattress, no cutlery. Just two bags and each other. A week later they signed the papers and found a mattress on the side of the road. His wife was working, and he found a job too. He continued studying his Masters full time.

And then they struck luck, or maybe his Faith gave them a deserving gift. His wife got a promotion. They got permanent residency. He signed a contract for a full-time job. He bought a piece of land that, by the time it was registered, had doubled in value and thus no longer required a deposit. His two-storey house with a double garage is now being built. His children have just started at private schools. They have a bed to sleep on.

He calls his Australian life his resurrection. His second chance from his loving God. And he loves our country fiercely.

“I always hear people complaining that they will never be able to afford a house in this country and it makes me sad you know? Because I’ve only been here three years and I came with nothing. I have two children and a wife to provide for and I did it.” He did not speak boastfully, but with a kind of sadness. It was then that I understood the depth of my entitlement. The weight of my ignorance. My desperation to have things easy and to have things now.

~

I used to take out my phone when in an Uber. It was an automatic thing, like pulling out your phone when you’re on the toilet at work, or at a bus stop, or when your friend goes to the bathroom at a restaurant and you tell yourself you’ll look weird if you’re not doing SOMETHING. In an Uber, pulling out your phone builds a wall. We take comfort behind that wall, happy we don’t have to engage in surface level conversation with a stranger we’ll never see again. But the last few conversations I’ve had have taught me differently.

Uber has given a lot of people a chance to live. One girl I rode with was paying medical bills. Another was paying for his son’s education because he didn’t have a chance at a good education himself. Another was sending his earnings back home, so his family could eat and live and send his nieces and nephews to school. How many opportunities have Uber-users missed by pulling out their damned phones? How many people had stories they were willing to share if only a stranger cared about the questions they asked?

Aba taught me a lot about faith. He taught me a lot about my own privilege. He reminded me to listen and to think about what truly matters in my life. A Bible verse that has stayed with me, long past my Christian upbringing, seems fitting to leave at the end of this story in respect to Aba…

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for they may be angels in disguise” – Hebrews 13:2

 

*Name changed for privacy