Andrew Stojanovski, Dog Ear Cafe: How the Mt Theo Program beat the curse of petrol sniffing (Hybrid Publishers 2010)
Despite the subtitle, this is not a how-to book, but nor is it straightforward memoir. The author lived for more than 10 years at Yuendemu, a Warlpiri settlement in Central Australia. He worked for a number of different employers during his time there, but from the first months he saw his job as being to fill the whitefella (Kardiya in Warlpiri) functions in the campaign against the petrol sniffing that was devastating the young people, and imperilling the future, of the community. A number of qualities equipped him well for the job: he was young, and evidently possessed huge amounts of energy; he had studied anthropology, and was open to cultural differences; he had a deep seated, quasi spiritual yearning to know Indigenous Australia intimately as a way of understanding his own Australian identity; he wanted passionately to make a difference in the world. The book is as much his personal story as the story of the program.
Stojanowski says somewhere in the book that he has written it to fill his obligations to the people he worked with, so other people can learn from the Mt Theo success. I imagine any whitefella planning to work in a remote Aboriginal community would find useful information here: how to make sense of cultural attitudes and practices that derive their rationality from hunter-gatherer ways, and to come to see their counterparts that might seem like they’re simply rational as rooted in millennia of agriculture; the importance of non-violence if a white worker is to keep the confidence and trust of a traditional Aboriginal community; a little on the workings of Warlpiri skin-name system; how indispensably useful it is that a whitefella has ‘diplomatic immunity’ from the intricate web of avoidance and can’t-say-no obligations that bind initiated Warlpiri adults; that what a distant, bureaucratic perspective might see as ’empowerment’ can look like abandonment when seen up close; and much more.
The book is very readable. Its potential usefulness is fleshed out in wonderful anecdotes – yarns in fact. There are dramatic confrontations with young people out of their minds on petrol fumes, privileged visits to significant cultural sites, one or two ceremonies lyrically described, revelatory conversations with old men and women, places where Warlpiri and whitefella senses of humour are a perfect match. We get a richly textured picture of what it’s like to be a whitefella living and working closely and respectfully with Warlpiri people – elders and young people – in a Central Australian community. Stojanovski married soon after moving to Yuendemu, and his two daughters were born during his time there. He gives an unsparing, though tactful, account of the strain that his heroic dedication to the work placed on his marriage. I would have loved a chapter in which his wife told her story. As it stands, it’s hard to tell how much she was an equally heroic member of team Stojanowski, and how much a sufferer of collateral damage – though it’s fairly clear there were elements of both. I would also have liked a chapter from Peggy Nampijimba Brown, the old woman who challenged cultural norms by undertaking to look after other people’s children at Mt Theo, without whom nothing could have happened – but the detail of whose story Stojanovski can’t tell us. Those, of course, are other books.
In the shadow of the Howard–Brough–Rudd–Gillard–Macklin Intervention, which gives the message that Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are so dysfunctional that only military force can bring order, and in the more specific shadow of recent headlines about payback violence and exile from Yuendemu itself, this book is a challenging source of genuine light and realistic hope. It’s also a ripping good read.