A deep, low rumble resounds through the barrel of Djalu Gurruwiwi’s yidaki — his didgeridoo — like thunder on the horizon.
- The Gurruwiwi family say they are increasingly concerned for children living in unsafe housing at Birritjimi
- The community falls outside of NT Government and regional council service areas
- A bid is in for $15 million to move the 200 residents into housing elsewhere
It’s a sound which has attracted pilgrims from across the globe to Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north. Just ask Prince Charles, who was treated to the pleasure in 2018.
“It’s certainly beautiful to get to this part of the world and meet you,” His Royal Highness told Gurruwiwi after his performance.
“It’s taken me many years.”
But in his own community of Birritjimi, on the Gove Peninsula about 1,000km from Darwin, the Galpu clan elder said his family’s pleas for safer housing have gone unheard for years.
“We want people to start recognising us, hear our voices,” the elder said.
Gurruwiwi and his son Larry have travelled the world with their yidakis, starred in a big-screen film, and the elder’s design was even recently adopted by the Royal Australian Mint for a $1 coin.
But Larry said at home it was a different story.
“Me and my family, we are well-known. Well-known people, and my father,” he said.
“And it’s like, [here] they don’t care for us.”
A bid is finally underway to deal with the housing crisis at Birritjimi, which would cost millions and could see the entire community shifted out — but it’s not the fix the elder has been hoping for.
What is happening in Birritjimi?
The homes at Birritjimi were built in the 1970s to house the managers of a nearby mining operation.
Then known as Wallaby Beach, it was one of the most sought-after suburbs on the Gove Peninsula — a beachside locale just a stone’s throw from the now-mothballed alumina refinery that employed those who lived there.
But in expectation of its lease expiring, miner Rio Tinto gave it back to traditional owners in 2008.
Since then, the ageing and asbestos-riddled houses have deteriorated badly, with some already demolished, branded by the NT Government as “unfit to live in”.
Many are without regular plumbing and power — and some of the residents who do have electricity said they could often feel currents pulsing through the walls.
“It’s really bad,” said resident Zelda Gurruwiwi.
“People when they touch on the wall, lean on the wall, can feel electricity going through, make a shock to our skin.”
During wet season monsoons, the water pounds in from all sides and nearly all the houses have their windows either taped up or boarded to prevent them shattering during a storm.
Birritjimi is always the first place to get evacuated whenever a cyclone looms over the peninsula.
“For a long time we been worrying about our future,” said Zelda.
“We don’t want our kids to get sick, get sick from what these houses got, poison.”
Where did it start to turn bad?
After Rio Tinto gave it back to the Aboriginal land trust, Birritjimi landed in a loophole.
The community fell outside regional council and NT Government service areas, and the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, which assumed management, didn’t have the capacity to properly look after it.
Arnhem Land politician Yingiya Mark Guyula said the community was “stuck in a halfway gap”.
“The Government don’t want anything to do with this community, Rio Tinto don’t want anything to do with this community,” Mr Guyula said.
The NT Government said while it does conduct emergency maintenance it is “not responsible” for Birritjimi, and that management now rests with the Northern Land Council (NLC).
“However, recognising the importance of all Territorians having safe and appropriate housing, the NT Government … is providing critical essential services and housing maintenance to the Yolngu residents,” a spokeswoman said.
Those who live there say their requests for urgent maintenance can often take weeks to be serviced.
What’s the next step for these people?
Plans are afoot to try to move the residents — many of whom are from the same Galpu clan and Gurruwiwi family — out of Birritjimi and into different houses.
It’s not the first time this community has been shifted — in the early 2000s, prior to the Birritjimi land handback, the Gurruwiwi clan were forced out of a camp at a Gove beach in similar circumstances.
Now, the Rirratjingu corporation has applied for $15 million to see them shifted into houses in the nearby town of Nhulunbuy and Indigenous communities of Gunyangara and Yirrkala.
That application is currently sitting with the Commonwealth Government, with a spokesman saying a decision was expected by late this year or in early 2021.
But despite the NT Government and NLC attesting “the traditional owners do not wish for the new houses to be rebuilt at Birritjimi”, many are angered by the plans they see as pushing them out of land they deem as their tribal birthright.
“We don’t want to leave,” said Larry Gurruwiwi.
If the residents do leave, the remaining houses at Birritjimi were expected to be demolished.
And like his lightning totem, Djalu Gurruwiwi and his family will be forced to continue moving across the Arnhem Land landscape, the sound of their yidakis rumbling onwards, elsewhere, like thunder.
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