As the bus skidded to a halt in the middle of a town that seemed to emerge from nowhere, the first thing I noticed was that it was still warm, even at nine o’clock in June. I thanked the bus driver, and said goodbye to the juxtaposed red of the Greyhound Bus, and began lugging my six weeks’ worth of luggage the two hundred metres or so towards the Katherine Motel – my new home; cursing myself for packing so many jumpers. The streets were mostly empty. I wondered if the few people I saw wandering around had homes to go to: I soon learned that homelessness is one of the biggest issues facing Katherine. I felt their eyes on me as I carted my oversized cargo, and rip-off Gucci carry on suitcase down the street. Never before had I felt so obviously different and alone – two things in that moment, in this town that I desperately did not want to be.
As I quickly turned the corner into the Motel, I wondered where in the world I was and whether I would ever get used to this strange place. Little did I know, that in six weeks’ time I would be lying on my bed, at the mercy of a Melbourne winter, wishing that I had never left.
Sitting here, typing away on my computer, on a park bench somewhere on the edge of Albert Park Lake, I can see the jagged Melbourne skyline with its high rises and busy freeways, and I think back to my time in Katherine; where the sky never seemed to hold a cloud, where the Earth seemed to stretch on for miles, and where the sunsets were so red that it made the post cards look like water colour. But Katherine wasn’t the only reason I long to go back; because if you peel your eyes away from the fluorescent blue sky and the dust ridden cars for a moment, you’ll notice that somewhere along the main street, between a pharmacy and a petrol station sits a terrace building with three triangular roofs, and a mixture of orange and cream coloured bricks that seem to perfectly match the landscape. If you were to walk towards it you would eventually see a sign hanging above the footpath that read ‘NAAJA; North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.’ This was the reason I was in Katherine, and the people and the work that happened inside that small terrace building in the middle of a main street somewhere in the Northern Territory was nothing short of extraordinary.
It is really easy to feel small, sitting here on my park bench with the world racing around me, but being part of an organization like NAAJA – albeit for only six weeks – which single handily provides hope to Aboriginal people who feel swept up in a constantly changing, jargon filled legal system – gave me a sense of belonging, purpose and moral responsibility that I will crave for the rest of my life. Whether it was being called ‘family’ by a passing Aboriginal man when he found out I was working with NAAJA, or feeling the energy in the rural Aboriginal communities of Bulman and Beswick when they heard that the ‘NAAJA mob were here.’ These little things are what made you feel like you were a part of something bigger.
I found myself climbing the stairs of the little terrace building on my first day, rounding the corner into the Civil section of NAAJA, not entirely sure who I would meet, or what the next six weeks would entail. Needless to say, I did not expect to be given a task list on my first day, and to feel so enormously inexperienced. At that moment, sitting at my desk, with a pile of client files on the table next to me I never imagined that a few weeks from now I would have drafted closing letters to clients, letters to the Department of Housing, Freedom of Information requests, escorted a client to deal with a Centrelink issue, called clients asking for information, drafted statutory declarations and grant of aid letters and requests and be the support person for a client in the children’s court.
I grew a huge sense of respect for the staff working in the NAAJA Civil Section with the endless files piled sky high on their desks, and not enough hours in the year to deal with them all. Yet somehow, they always managed to be on time.
I will never forget my visit to the remote and dusty Aboriginal communities of Bulman and Beswick, and neither will my clothes – which I am probably going to have to burn now. The first thing I noticed was the houses – built strategically for their environment, all fifteen or so of them. There were two ‘wings’ as I decided to call them, connected by a sort of caged off wind tunnel in between. I learned that this was the communal living area, and that the residents sleep in the ‘wings’. To me – a budding young Melbournite, they looked like nothing more than sheds, but the longer we stayed, the more I started to realise the necessity of them. I was visiting in the cooler months and still could not stop the sweat pouring off me – I can’t imagine what it must be like fifteen degrees warmer. The one thing I will remember most about the communities were the dogs. But if I told you about them– you probably wouldn’t believe me, so I guess you will have to see that part for yourself.
I will tell you about the people though; the determined residents who had experienced too much of the law, and who knew that the person they wanted to speak to was the ‘Ombudsman mob’: it seemed that people had so many valid reasons to complain about Government actions that lots of people knew that the Ombudsman existed, even if they didn’t know a lot about the process.
My job was to make file notes of the conversation between the lawyer and the client. Most of the time this meant sitting cross legged on a blanket outside of the client’s house and listening to their stories, and watching the lawyers figure out how best to help them, taking into account what they wanted; legal options; non-legal options; and their ability to access services. Sometimes there was a gulf between the client’s understanding of the law and legal process, and what those laws and legal processes actually were.
Melbourne doesn’t quite seem the same to me now that I have experienced the lifestyle of the Northern Territory, and have spent six weeks participating in an organization so meaningful. I hope that I can one day go back.
I loved my lunch times at the Finch café across the street; my community experiences, the clients that I had the pleasure of working for; the kind and caring staff of the NAAJA Civil team that I will never forget; the cheeky clients; the burning heat; the tropical air; the adventures at Edith falls, the Katherine Show, setting off fireworks and nearly dying on Northern Territory Day, Katherine Gorge, Litchfield National Park and all of its magnificent waterfalls; the simple life of Katherine.
I would highly recommend this placement to anyone that wants an adventure, to be thrown into the deep end and come out the other side with a broad range of legal skills and a newfound passion for justice. For anyone who wants to experience the warm and free lifestyle of Katherine, and to escape the claustrophobic feeling of a big city. Most importantly, for anyone who wants to give their life some purpose and contribute to an organization that is nothing short of extraordinary.
I could not have done this without the supportive guidance of the Aurora team behind me, and their constant weekly feedback about my experiences.
The only thing I would have done differently… is stayed longer.