On becoming a ‘countryman’- My first encounter with Aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory

In 2012 I joined a group of South African colleagues for an exchange programme/ study tour to Australia’s northern territory. I did not know what to expect but I was sure excited about seeing the country and interacting with different people. We had extensive tours in the area around world famous Kakadu National Park and some fantastic rock art sites in Aboriginal territory. I met and interacted with many Aboriginal Australians and felt a sense of kinship with them. The Aboriginal tribes here refer to white people as balanda. One of the white people in our group asked the Aboriginal people what they would call us the Black Africans who were in the group. The Aboriginal man smiled and said “these are countrymen!” And for the rest of the trip we referred to ourselves as countrymen or country man! It did not bother me in the least that I was not a man. The point is: the connection made on sacred territory.

I am generally interested in conservation of both cultural heritage and natural heritage. In my view there is no point separating these in the African context. I like to look at all conservation areas as cultural landscapes. The model of creating pristine landscapes that lock out communities from accessing their ancestral territories have failed. Conservationists and governments are looking at other ways. The answer, in my view lies with honest and constructive engagement with communities.

The Aboriginal tribes in Australia demonstrated to me an unparalleled understanding of their landscapes. They actively apply indigenous knowledge systems in forging sustainable resource management agendas in the most admirable fashion. I was in awe the whole time and I kept thinking about how we as Africans could honour our own ways of knowing and apply it in resource use as well as well as in all other facets of our lives. This encounter with the Aboriginal Australians sparked my interest in indigenous issues – I realized we share a similar cultural heritage(s).

One of the elders said to us “we do not own the land. The land owns us.” This is something that greatly struck me and is something that I continue to reflect on since land is at the centre of every conflict in Africa. What if we looked at land differently? The way we looked at it before the encounter with colonialism? I think we would open ourselves to a world of possibilities!    Sunset at Kakadu Pational ParkKangaroo rock art imageWith fellow countrymenKangaroos