Most Australians love the outback of Australia – the dry, mostly featureless centre of Australia. But, Australia’s red centre is not empty. As well as the animals. reptiles and bird life, people live there. Here I am thinking of the original Australians, the aboriginals.
In the past extended family groups – tribes – would wander the huge spaces seldom having contact with other humans. These days because of the needs for schooling, health services and post offices (welfare payments), there are a sprinkling of small towns across the inland. These don’t show on normal maps, but they are there.
As part of my work, I visited and consulted with some of the remotest of these Aboriginal settlements. It was a great privilege. I don’t know if I taught them anything but the aboriginal people certainly taught me many things.
At the time, there was a kind of plague of petrol sniffing amongst the children and young people. This practice permanently damages the brain and turns addicts into zombies. I talked to community leaders and with groups of children in tiny primary schools.
On one occasion, a group of small children (5 to 8 years) sat before me on a mat. Despite my best efforts, I realized they were looking at me, but they weren’t listening. Instead, they were murmuring amongst themselves and staring at my legs. In the heat of that day I was wearing shorts. Bit by bit they shuffled on their bottoms until they surrounded me. It became obvious that the focus of their attention was my left leg. As the result of a motorbike accident years before I had lost the calf muscle of this leg. What remained was a long, snake-like scar. To my surprise some of the children reached forward and touched the scar – running their fingers up and down it. Soon they were talking excitedly to each other and then they all were laughing. Some were rolling around the floor. I had lost them.
I asked the teacher at the back of the room to explain to me what was happening? “The children are telling each other that you must have been a very naughty boy” she replied. It seemed that the idea that this white man who they identified as a ‘naughty boy’, should come all this way to tell them to be ‘good’, tickled their fancy. That was the end of the class.
Over a cup of tea, their teacher explained.
In these settlements, traditional Aboriginal laws were still in force. One of the penalties involved destroying the calf muscle of one leg. This is how it worked. When a man committed a grave misdemeanor, for instance, sleeping with another man’s wife, he had to be punished. The men and youths of the tribe would chase him and spear him in one of his calf muscles. When this painful injury healed, it would leave a prominent and permanent scar. After this his wrong doing would never again be mentioned and he would be free to participate in all the activities of the tribe. But the scar would remain and everyone who saw it would know he had been a ‘naughty boy’. This was the conclusion the children reached about me and this is what amused them so much.
In another small settlement, I met with two community leaders. The meeting was in a house and as is customary, the wife and children were also present. A toddler caught my eye. Early in the meeting the child went outside and was playing with sticks in the red sand. Shortly after this he disappeared into the bush. I pointed this out to his father but he showed no concern.
This settlement was on the edge of the Simpson Desert. To me it appeared that the tot was walking straight into the desert. In that direction, there was was no human habituation for 3000+ kilometers.
For the next 90 minutes, I watched the bush track down which the child had disappeared. In that time, a couple of adults emerged from the bush, but there was no sign of the child.
My anxiety for the child was more than I could manage. ‘Your toddler has been missing for close to two hours. Shouldn’t we go and look for him?” I asked.
The father replied, “There is no need to worry. We know where he is?”
“How can that be? Who knows where he is?” I replied.
“You don’t understand the ways of the tribe,” the father replied. “In the tribe, every child belongs to the whole community. And everyone tracks the children”.
For a person from a western culture, this concept takes a bit of understanding. In the aboriginal tribe, it is understood that every child is owned by everyone in the tribe. When the children wander in the bush, it is the responsibility of every adult and teen to note the child’s tracks (footprints in the sand) and follow them. The child may be out of sight of the parent, but some members of the tribe, will always know the location of the child. In this way, the child’s safety is assured.
It reminds me of the poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, The Gate of the Year (1908).
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
‘Safer than a known way’. With the whole tribe watching over the children the trackless desert is ‘safer than a known way’.
I feel for today’s parents. Many if not most of them are very isolated. They feel that the responsibility for raising their child(ren) is theirs and theirs alone. As for additional support, many are far from grandparents. They live in suburbs where their neighbours are strangers. The schools provide counsellors and there are therapists they can engage but this is not the same as the care of a community. And it is not just the care of babies and toddlers that I am talking about. In our job, we know of many teens and young adults whose lives are a muddle and who are plagued by anger and self-destructive thoughts. Often there is only one parent who bears this load. For many it is all too much. Isolation, and the lack of community, can make both parent and child desperate.
Watching how adults relate to children in church and teens around church gatherings can be hurtful; hurtful to the child, hurtful to the parents and, hurtful to me. The attitudes I have often seen in action seems to emphasise – ‘Can’t you control your child?’, or ‘These teens need to learn some discipline’. The concept that these babies, children and teens are owned by us, belong to us, their Church family, is not something we are familiar with.
But it could be easier than we think.
In recent years, I have been surprised at how babies, tots, children and teens reach out to me. Given a little encouragement they will be smiling at me, playing with me, hugging me and talking with me. Many of them love nothing more than to sleep-over in our house and I know some of them want to come and live with us. I can understand why they would be like this with my wife Pauline, but to craggy old me – now that’s a puzzle? Maybe what I am feeling and observing is very deep in the human psyche. Maybe we all want to, need to, live in communities where everyone tracks the children – and everyone else, including us. It could be that because of our ancient heritage and our genes we are not comfortable with the isolation of suburban living.
Jesus calls us into community. Not a sham community – a friendly greeting and nothing more. But real community – in many ways like the community I observed out in the desert. Why not journey together with the parents, babies, children and teens – love them as our own? My experience suggests that they will love us in return.
It occurs to me that ‘Everybody Tracks the Children’ could be a natural extension of our centre’s mission statement ‘Reaching Out and Welcoming In’.