Aboriginal health

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excerpts from chapter seven…

It was evening and we were sitting down for supper when there was a light knock on the door. Two older men stood silent in the half-light of our veranda. I pulled the door behind me and joined them in the shadows.

‘You gotta come Doctor . . .’ A gangly figure leaned towards me in the gloom, his husky voice barely audible. ‘Bush Camp,’ he rasped.

‘What for?’

‘Sick one . . .’

Dinny – Teresa’s dad – was thin as a rake and a man of few words. Even his normally gregarious companion, rotund Rusty Nolan, seemed subdued.

‘His son bin real crook Doctor Bill,’ he whispered; ‘look like infection. Him really swell up . . .’

‘Where?’

‘Bush Camp: he’s a young bloke . . .’

Rusty waited to see if I understood. Every year, at the appointed season, the settlement is swept up into a confusing, thrilling whirlwind of ceremonial activity, barely concealed beneath the veneer of clock and store and dollar, sometimes breaking out in an anxious flurry of red headbands, women and children taking cover, breathless warnings of Kadaitcha men, sorcery and vendettas. Men’s Country becomes the epicentre of ritual and drama, off limits to the uninitiated, invisible to outsiders, as boys are made men according to the Law of the Tjukurrpa. I squeezed between Dinny and Rusty in the front of the bush ambulance.

‘You know that old man?’ asked Rusty, indicating a diminutive figure in the back of the vehicle, who reeled backwards as Rusty accelerated. I narrowed my eyes, trying to focus in the darkness as we bounced across the corrugations. ‘That old fella . . . you know! Kipara,’ said Rusty. ‘Number One Ngangkari,’ agreed Dinny, tut-tutting at my ignorance. I gave Rusty another perplexed look.

‘Witch doctor!’

Dinny began to murmur melodically, and then old Kipara was humming along in a gravelly falsetto. Rusty was grim-faced as he slowed down at a dry creek bed, then the vehicle pitched and we were sliding down the bank and into the soft sand and churning up the other side. We pulled up amidst a copse of mulga trees, headlights pouring into the night. Rusty signalled with a torch for me to follow and we set off through the spiky spinifex, Dinny and Kipara hot on our heels. In a clearing not far from the car we found three adolescents lying in a row in the half-light of a dying fire. Two of the boys got up and walked off into the scrub as we approached, leaving one boy, Bernard – Teresa and Brucie’s older brother – lying on the sand. Dinny began to poke at the fire, carefully arranging large pieces of wood, heaping up sand around the fire’s edge. I approached the prostrate figure, but Rusty laid a hand on my arm, signalling with his lips towards Kipara, who was lowering himself down onto the sand and beginning to examine his patient, carefully inspecting his swollen left arm in the firelight, looking into his eyes, his mouth, palpating chest and limbs. Chanting quietly all the while. The boy was conscious, but obviously in pain whenever Kipara touched the arm. The old man then conducted a sequence of ritualised manoeuvres – the massaging of the upper abdomen, the sucking and spitting of blood, the chanting and the remonstrating. Suddenly, with a victorious cry, he produced a thin sliver of polished wood – apparently from the arm – and exhibited it to his audience. Rising from the sandy bedside, Kipara grabbed my arm, a stern but conspiratorial eye fixing mine.

‘Now Doctor,’ he declared, ‘you gotta gib ’im that needle, that black and yellow tablet and panadol kutjarra!’

He glared at me for a moment to make sure I understood and, without further ado, clambered back into the vehicle – up front this time. Into my seat. Ah well: that would be intramuscular penicillin, oral flucloxacillin and a couple of painkillers for good measure – which all made sense! So I did – and the patient survived. As we clunked our way back across the spinifex plain, the ancient Ngintaka reverberating in the moonlight, I could hear the groaning throb of whirling bullroarers. I felt my heart skip a beat, my spirit sparkle, a sense of wonder and exhilaration.


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