Western Desert Dialysis: saving lives, history, language, culture and the kangaroo tail BBQ

In mid-February of this year I had the privilege of a six week secondment to the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) region of Central Australia.

Being a recent immigrant to Australia and having become a father to an Australian child I was driven to apply to know more about the Indigenous roots of our country and what corporate Australia can do to help build and develop a bright future for Indigenous peoples.

I was seconded to Western Desert Nganampa Waltyja Palyanjaku Tjutaku, headquartered out of Alice Springs. More commonly known as Western Desert Dialysis they are an Indigenous led healthcare provider created with the sole purpose of providing renal dialysis in the remote communities of Northern Territory, Western Australia and (hopefully soon) South Australia. They also act as a social care and wellbeing provider to Indigenous people in Alice Springs. My family has real experienced with renal failure, renal dialysis and organ transplants. So it was incredible that I was being given the chance to help provide assistance to an organisation that offers the services my grandfather received free of charge and within minutes of his home and family.

The brief was to design and implement a low cost, low labour recruitment strategy; a process that could be utilised on an irregular basis to source Renal Nursing staff.

On my very first day that brief changed to “if you don’t find us some nurses right now we will have to close one of our clinics and patients will have to leave their homes, their family and their culture behind to receive care 1000km away in Alice Springs” – no pressure then!

Working out of house / community centre / medical clinic I was immediately immersed in the aboriginal culture of Central Australia; some by choice, some not so. I had to be given a new name – “Kuminjay” as it is considered culturally inappropriate to share the same name as a recently deceased individual.

I was welcomed in to the “Waltya” or family with a Kangaroo Tail BBQ that resulted in the fire brigade turning up. It turns out fires are banned on a 47C day in Alice! I wouldn’t put kangaroo tail on my own dinner plate (especially with the burnt hair still on) but it was an incredible experience nonetheless and the smell will remain with me for a long time to come.

Whilst I was determined to deliver a great outcome for them, Western Desert Dialysis were also determined to make sure I received a real “outback education” including a visit to Australia’s most remote community – Kiwirrkurra in Western Australia. There I met the last Australian Indigenous people to meet and be impacted by western culture; as recently as 1984. A truly unique opportunity and one I will treasure forever.

They say that once you visit the deserts of Central Australia they never really leave you. Yes, I visited Uluru, Kata Tjuta (some may know it as the Olgas) and other great places on the tourist trails, but it is the seemingly endless long, thin sand dunes that are etched in my memory forever, and in the artwork on my walls at home. The personal pride I take in having helped Western Desert Dialysis is immense; to work for an organisation that is not only saving lives but also history, language and culture was incredible. Being able to give back to a health service that was linked to my own family history made it even better.

I learnt that even with the cultural awareness training, books, documentaries and TV debates we can all access that being immersed and witnessing the challenges facing the Arranthe, Anangu and Pintupi people of central Australia was an incredible way to learn. I don’t have a solution but I don’t think I should – and that is what I learnt.

We need to be empowering and engaging more Indigenous led organisations and people through education and knowledge sharing to develop the solution for themselves. When we see supranational government alliances teetering on the edge of collapse (think Brexit and the European Union) I am evermore convinced that the national government “one size fits all” Indigenous Affairs model will never truly work; even if their heart is in the right place, where culture and language differ so greatly from one community to another.

This was part of the long running Jawun secondment program (Jawun is a not-for-profit organisation which channels corporate, philanthropic and government resources into building the capacity and capabilities of Indigenous communities). KPMG is a supporter.


2 thoughts on “Western Desert Dialysis: saving lives, history, language, culture and the kangaroo tail BBQ

  1. Shellee Murphy-Oates

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    Thank you for sharing your personal story and it sounds like you brought a bit of the desert back with you. I can only imagine the trauma of having to travel that far for treatment, I hope you were able to find a nurse for that station.

  2. Marjorie Johnston

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    Thank you, David. I found this an absolutely great story – informative and inspirational and very interesting to hear your point about ‘one size fits’ not the solution. Your desert images certainly capture the fragility and significance of remote Australia and the indigenous people. I often think
    What would this country be without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and my answer is bleak and empty.

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