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21 Nov 2018 at 12:00AM

New Beginnings | Children's Ground in the Top End

When Children’s Ground left Kakadu in 2017, Cecily Djandjomerr and Roxanne Naborlhborlh decided they wanted to continue their Children’s Ground journey. To do this, they wanted to return to their traditional lands in Marlkawo, central Arnhem Land. Mark Djandjomerr, the traditional owner and older brother to Cecily and Shirley supported the move. The old people had said that the country was waiting for them to return. For the past 30 years, people have only stayed there for short periods of time. Roxanne Naborlhborlh grew up in Kakadu. It has been a dream of the family to return for many years.   

Cecily, in her wheelchair, was determined to return to her country with Children’s Ground. Shirley and Raymond had decided to leave Gunbulunya and return to their homelands. After a generation away from their country, it was a big step.  The families wanted to get away from the stress of Jabiru: poor housing, poor health, social issues related to alcohol and no employment. People also wanted to make sure their work in educating their children within their culture and family was kept alive. Cecily and Roxanne asked Children’s Ground to support them all to return.  

Children’s Ground is owned by the people. With this request, the board faced a hard decision. We wanted to keep our commitment to these incredible community leaders who achieved so much in Kakadu. With support from philanthropy, we decided we could support the family to return and to try to live back on their homelands. For Children’s Ground, it was a chance to see if a smaller version of Children’s Ground could work for outstations. There are over 500 communities of less than 200 people in the Northern Territory. Many don’t have access to basic services.  

Returning to live at Marlkawo has been led by Cecily Djandjomerr, Shirley Djandjomerr, Selone Djandjomerr,  Roxanne Nabhorlhborlh and Raymond Guymala  There are two houses for the families, solar power (which had to be fixed) and pit toilets. The scenery is idyllic - surrounded by a stunning river – and no crocodiles! This is a tiny outstation with a big heart and big story.  This is an area of outstations where people are related by culture, law and land – by story and ceremony. It is not just about Marlkawo, but the many other outstations that connect these families. The balanda (non-Aboriginal) staff are slowly getting to know the people and the region. The Bininj (Aboriginal) families are excited about being home.   

It has been a huge term – with staff setting up, living in tents, organising toilets and setting up a bush home. The telecommunications are now working with internet arriving. That was a day to celebrate for the staff!  So was the delivery of two new pit toilets!  Russell set up an amazing bush shower, outdoor kitchen and bush office.  

This term, the young men built a learning shelter – the Children’s Ground class room. During a visit from St. Ignatius College at the end of term 2, the students and the community built bike tracks.  We are loving being here living and working alongside the families. The most wonderful thing is watching the children. Away from the distractions from town and surrounded by bush, there is peace. Kids wake up early and ready to go.  In the Top End, Children’s Ground is run by a small team of balanda and Bininj staff – with two balanda staff on site at any time and local Bininj teachers. Together, they deliver early years, primary, creative arts, enterprise, culture and community development.  

This is a small group of families in a remote outstation – working to create a new future away from Jabiru and the stress of living with no employment, poor housing and social issues from alcohol and royalty payments. Formal learning happens six days a week during the dry season, with a bush trip with families often on the seventh day.  

Kids often start the day often before 8am. Caitlin, our teacher, says that the quality of learning is incredible - solid and undistracted. The day starts with a run along the air strip. Then to the shelter, where numeracy, literacy and culture are part of everyday learning.

After a morning session in the shelter classroom, the afternoon session is often by the river or out bush, doing another learning session: creative arts, health and wellbeing or more numeracy and literacy.  

There are many other times outside of the formal learning day that families and kids connect. After another break, there is often a third session – getting in cars and going bush to sacred sites and onto country where kids learn about place, history, culture and law. Kids connect – they play and learn. They are with families. It is safe and alive.  

If we are at home, it is an ‘after hours’ game of sport.   It is hard to explain the sheer beauty of Marlkawo and what it offers to the mind, body and spirit. Term three showed us that it is possible to return to country. That families and kids come to life, the stress of town life slips away, adults engage with kids and kids engage in learning with even a greater focus than what we experienced in Kakadu.  

Families want to stay. They want Children’s Ground to stay. We have been assessing and planning over this time. We have been connecting with other organisations and communities to see if it is possible to sustain operations out here. While there is still some planning to go, we have decided that we will continue, on a small scale, to support families. We are committing for another year. We will enter the wet season at the end of term four and will have a new plan with families.    

It is incredible what philanthropy is able to achieve. A few key philanthropists agreed to back these families and the results are inspiring.  

We have been quiet about this journey to give the family the time and space to see what would happen. When we all step back and see the life in the kids, the pride in the families, the quality of the learning, the depth of the history – we know that magic is happening and we are keen to keep this journey alive.  There is much to celebrate. 

Above (L-R): Kaylene Djandomerr, Annie Cameron and children – Susan Redford, Keith Narborlhborlh, Stewart Djandjomerr and Lemain Cooper  

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