An Oasis in the Desert

Whether it is the urban sprawl of our cities or our stunning coastline that never seems to end, Australia is big and diverse, in global terms. The largest space is occupied by the Australian desert: it is immense and extends for thousands of kilometers in every direction, flat and punctured with spinifex, with the occasional undulating sand hill and few signs of life to the untrained eye. It is uncharted territory for most due to its harsh conditions and remoteness.

Our geography may be big and diverse, but there is also incredible diversity in Australia’s people. Australia is a cultural melting pot of Aboriginal Australians and immigrants from around the world, some of whom have been here for a few years while others may have had families who settled here 200 years ago. Many in Australia have experienced massive change and upheaval in their lives as they settled into a new country with little knowledge of the language or customs, but few groups in Australia would have experienced such contrast as the Martu, a traditional desert Aboriginal people of the Western Deserts, Western Australia.

Until just over 100 years ago, Martu were a traditional hunter gather society, with the vast expanse of the desert as their home. As late as the 1970s, some Martu people were only coming across whitefellas for the first time. In that short space of time, these pujiman (bushmen) and their families have had to adjust to western society. The contrast is stark: consider being born in the desert and living a traditional hunter gatherer existence, arriving in a desert community when you were about five years old, 40 years later flying in an airplane to Singapore to attend an art exhibition and being picked up in a Lamborghini to drive around the bustling metropolis.

For those who would like to learn more, the extraordinary story of a group of 20 Martu women and children and their first contact with European Australians in 1964 is eloquently captured both in the book “Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert” and the acclaimed documentary “Contact”. Both are available from The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

SVA Consulting had the privilege of being asked to support Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ, meaning “Holding Culture”) by conducting an evaluation on the impact of their programs in the Western Desert. KJ has two interlinked objectives: to help Martu to retain culture, and thereby retain strong identity, social stability and resilience; and to help Martu to build a viable economy in their desert communities. KJ run a series of programs to connect young Martu with their elders whilst caring for, managing and learning about their country. By way of example, KJ’s ranger program now employs over 20 men in Jigalong, at least one member from every household in the community.

In these remote communities, over the past generation, there has been little for Martu to engage with in a meaningful way, particularly in regards to economic participation. This has contributed to the lack of aspiration or hope and uncertainty about their future. Meaningful and enjoyable work caring for their country has given young Martu a reason not to go into town (Newman) to drink, and as a result there has been a clear reduction in the consumption of alcohol. The work has provided an environment for Martu to share cultural knowledge and build pride, confidence and resilience in themselves and their communities.

These changes were facilitated by KJ’s inspirational leaders and staff (Martu and non-Martu) who have forged long-term trusted relationships and partnerships with Martu across the desert communities. It is by no account an ordinary job – the upheaval of their families to live and work in a remote community, the 24 hour nature of the role, the harsh conditions over summer and the patience, passion and care to persist against some significant challenges. These are not ordinary people.

Although we had both experienced working with Indigenous communities in Australia, our time in the desert with one of the last traditional Indigenous populations in the world forced a paradigm shift in how we think about meaningful change. The changes being achieved by Martu with the support of KJ are profound and have created a template for how remote communities across Australia can prosper.

Simon Faivel and Lisa Rudner – February 2012.


Editor’s note: In 2014 KJ engaged SVA Consulting to undertake an evaluative Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis of its on-country programs. You can read more about this engagement in this blog post.