On secondment in Nhulunbuy: why maths matters

Chris Simpson and Dana
Chris Simpson and Dana

I’ve been in Nhulunbuy (aka Gove) in north eastern Arnhem Land on secondment with Jawun. It has been an excellent experience for me so far – full of new people, cultures, ideas and challenges. And hot weather. The readout often says ‘ 36⁰, feels like 45⁰’.

Nhulunbuy is a mining town, mining bauxite since the 1970s. Since inception there have been thousands of miners living here working on the mine and the attached refinery. However the refinery is in ‘shutdown mode’ and more than 2500 employees have now left. That’s a big chunk of the town’s population.

The impending depletion of viable bauxite reserves presents challenges to the local Yolngu people, who have received royalty payments for the use of their land. Much of that money is apportioned by the Northern Land Council into various community organisations, including the Gumatj Corporation, who invest the money in developing sustainable local businesses, including a butcher, timber yard, nursery and the community store where I’m based for six weeks.

The store is run by local women, and the manager Dana is identified as an up-and-coming leader in the community. I am working closely with her, offering the support she needs to run the store without assistance from Balanda (a Yolgnu word meaning white person, derived from Hollander – the first white people they had contact with). Dana is learning how to place orders, run reports, roster staff, manage inventory and make decisions about what to stock.

My role is very much on the ground operations. English is Dana’s second language and her numerical skills could be better, so much of the advice I provide is essential for the profitable running of the store. When I arrived, around 50 percent of the stock in the store was being sold below cost price due to a maths error when the cost price was entered into the sales system. This simple assistance is bringing positive results each day and Dana becomes more confident in her abilities and incrementally assumes more responsibility.

She’s also very appreciative, and excited when she completes something new successfully, which is great for both of us.

As with every job there are complications and complexities that I didn’t anticipate. In my job in Melbourne I can be frustrated by a technology glitch which can make a task difficult, but here it can be deep cultural differences.

I benefited from an excellent cultural induction course, run by a group of the local elders, and I’ve managed to chat to them subsequently over a morning cup of coffee to learn more about the Yolgnu culture. I am still surprised by the notions Yolgnu people have to familial relationships, the concept of property and the emphasis placed on sharing, and how that’s manifested in work and daily life.

My initial impressions are that individual ownership doesn’t mean much. The concept of individual wealth, and materialism, seems almost entirely absent – anything that is held by one is shared among all, and as a result money doesn’t stay in one place very long.

If I ask someone whether they have a car, the response is likely to be ‘yes, my cousin has one’. This culture is also evident in the lack of the equivalents for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the Yolngu language. It’s disconcerting at first – especially working in a store – but makes sense once you understand the base assumption that everything is shared.

However, a more significant challenge relates to the concept of paid employment. Getting paid is a pretty key motivation for me to turn up to work every day, but for the Yolngu people that motivation is not quite so clear. There are issues relating to a culture of welfare and royalty dependence, and I am not blind to that, however there’s more to it. When pay day comes around an individual’s wage is almost instantly shared among the family group, which can be 10 or 20 people – so the individual motivation we derive from our pay cheque doesn’t apply in the same way here. It’s a real challenge and requires creative thinking to ensure that people actually turn up to work. It’s definitely not solved – but the emphasis here, and one which makes sense to me, is on creating role models for children among the employed adults. The kids go to school, the parents go to work – it’s a basic concept but is simple and therefore hopefully achievable.

Progress up here is threatened by alcohol and drugs and gambling. This community – Gunyangara – is supposedly dry, however drinking and violence are frequent. The statistics are well publicised – what I have seen first-hand is the complexity of the situation. What is clear is the importance of fundamental and consistent programs focused on skills and training to build the confidence of the local leaders and assist the Yolgnu people to build their communities in the way they intend.

Jawun forms partnerships to benefit corporate, government and Indigenous Australia. Together they improve the lives of Indigenous people around Australia by supporting Indigenous communities on the ground. Photo” Lou Law

7 thoughts on “On secondment in Nhulunbuy: why maths matters

  1. Chris – Clearly maths does matter and so does understanding cultural differences, and the difference we can make. Well done

  2. Impressive article and you have articulated clearly some of the cultural norms that most of us don’t really understand. Good work Chris.

  3. I very much enjoyed your insights into Nhulunbuy and the challenges associated with working in remote communities, some of which ring true to my own experiences on a Jawun secondment in Cape York. Your comments regarding individual and collective wealth and the link to motivation are food for thought. Enjoy the rest of your secondment!

  4. Sounds like the impact you are having in the community and in helping Dana will leave a lasting imprint on them. Great work Chris.

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