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Letterw from Downunder

A Sense Of Community

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

The aboriginal peoples of Australia arrived in Australia over 30,000 years ago, making them one of the longest surviving groups in the world. They remained isolated until some 500 years ago, only in the last 100 years being forced to slowly adapt to western values. While in our terms their culture remained 'primitive', they had a stable self-sufficient tribal society, a deep oral history, unique ceremonies, and fundamental beliefs that still form the basis for their ongoing culture and activities.

The two most important of these is the knowledge that they are at one with the land they live in, and that each tribe is a unit. Individuality is merged into these greater spheres, giving them an outlook so different to western perceptions that it is still not generally understood, and often not tolerated. It is also a barrier for non-aboriginals to become accepted by them, for, while they are generally tolerant of the presence of outsiders, achieving a tribal tie is difficult until their perspective is absorbed and the white man absorbs and lives in the same wavelength.

Their sense of community is so strong, however, that numbers of whites have, over the years, taken the trouble to learn what it means, have marveled at the oneness, and have attempted to adapt it to their own society. The great majority, however, has never had this inclination or opportunity, and today's Mr. Average stumbles along in a world where the individual is supreme, 'ME' is the operative, and one-upmanship the norm. Community has become foreign - a great and devastating loss, for this is one of the things that keep us sanely human, but one that thankfully has a vestige of resonance, an echo of memory in those bought up in close-knit communities - or, at least, have been forced to give consideration to others around them for some time. It's something you do not go to school for, learn from a book, or practice a few hours a day. It takes time, osmosis, and pervasive, unassuming example.

I was brought up at the end of the last great depression. We lived in a working class suburb of Melbourne, and my father was one of the lucky ones, for he had a full-time, steady job with the railways. There were 48 modest wooden or brick bungalows in our street; all occupied, some with widows, one with a family of three boys, one with three girls, but most with just one child. There were some 10 houses with no one in a job, many with part time cleaning or laundry work bringing a pittance, and about 10 with full time jobs. The one thing I will never forget, however, was the community of that street. No one went hungry. No one was looked down on as worthless. The kids all played together. (Well, not the child of the only family to own their own business. They were in movie-screen advertising, with an office in the city, and remained excluded by their "superiority.")

There was one telephone. Anyone could pay their 5 cents to use it. There was one former nurse. Any possible treatment and advice was free. We had one of the two radios. News was always current. We had special friends, we went to one of two schools, and our pleasures were quite simple - at least by today's standards. And, yes, we were happy. No one complained, except about the government or the weather - good, universal standbys. And there was enough in the purse to pay for my piano lessons.

We were not in the same league as the aboriginals, but we were a vibrant community without a whole lot of luxuries. Everyone was richer because we shared what we had, and although great anxieties remained, my memory is of a sense of real love and care in nearly everyone. I still cherish those feelings, but now have to pretty much confine them to family and friends. Progress (something that often makes us go backwards) has put the boot into city and suburban trust and togetherness.

Coming from god-fearing protestant stock, I was taught to work for what I wanted, to never want more than a reasonable amount, to stand up for what was mine, and to give to those less fortunate. "If you get high and mighty, my lad, the Lord on high will get almighty mad. Better to do without than cheat someone out of their worth. And we all have worth." And with that homily my mother gave me sixpence (10c). What did I spend it on? Two ice creams. One for me, one for the kid over the way whose father got 10 shillings ($1) per week "sustenance" from the government because he was a returned soldier.

It took me months to get over "stealing" a pencil from Sunday school. Can't get rid of those ethics. Don't want to. I'd much sooner have the worth and esteem of neighbours. Hasn't hurt, not once.


Read Past Downunder Columns by Lindsay Coker