Health in Arnhem land
1. Some reflections by Richard Trudgen
When the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem land came in 1948, they found that the Yolŋu people were in very good health with no chronic disease issues. This expedition only found two cases of scabies and rheumatic heart disease did not exist. The people also had perfect pearly white strong teeth.
Move the calendar forward some 60 years and things are very different. Yolŋu people now suffer from very high levels of chronic disease, diabetes and heart conditions. They also suffer from the highest rates of rheumatic heart disease in the world and their teeth are horrific.
Between these two dates Yolŋu people have moved from a very traditional lifestyle and diet to a more sedentary existence in our large communities, where they live in overcrowded Western housing and eat foods mainly bought from a store. Sadly this move from the traditional life style to welfare based Western living has happened in just a few generations. This occurred without any good analysis of the traditional lifestyle and diet versus the assumed Western Way.
Sadly the people believed that eating what they understood to be “White fella” foods would make them strong and healthy just like other Australians. When people first started eating Balanda foods they found that their babies and children grew bigger. Their assumption was that it was the Balanda food that made the difference. This Balanda food was white flour, tea and sugar. But they were also still eating a lot of their traditional foods and the Balanda white flour, tea and sugar was used to just fill in the lean periods when traditional foods were less available. They became convinced that it was the flower, tea and sugar that was making their children grow bigger and stronger. So when cash became available in the 1970s, through unemployment benefits, most of the people gave up harvesting their traditional foods and moved in closer to stores so they could buy what they saw as Balanda magic foods. Within three months of the unemployment benefits becoming available malnourished children were being flown from the Yolŋu communities to hospital. The availability of money also made it possible for people to buy tailor-made cigarettes. 20 and 30 years afterwards they are now suffering from very high levels of cancer and other lung conditions related to this exposure to tailor-made cigarettes.
For the last 30 years Yolŋu have been asking the question, “Why”? Why have they become so unhealthy when what they’re eating is Balanda food. They have trouble believing that a sophisticated people like Balanda would produce foods that are not good for them, and sell them.
Yolngu have not got access to good information in their own language to understand why they are sick, the cause and effect in relation to disease and what could make things better.
2. How did this Hope for Health start? By Dr Kama Trudgen
Dianne Biritjalawuy has recently made the difficult journey back from the brink of serious health issues. In response to an acute health scare, that left Dianne wheelchair bound with unstable ischemic heart disease and uncontrolled diabetes, I offered to cook for her, so that she could experience healing through real wholesome food. This experience was life changing! Dianne went from being unable to walk short distances, without feeling extremely breathless, to experiencing a new level of energy and vitality. She rapidly lost weight, her blood sugar levels normalized, and she was able to walk up hills with ease. Empowered to understand she could transform her own health, she was now hungry for more information and tools to continue this new way of living. She was supported with education in her own language, cooking lessons and help to access healthy food options not usually available in her remote community. Her recovery was so profound that other community members saw it as “evidence” for the first time, that nutrition was powerful and effective. This has caused a chain reaction where other community members are now actively seeking out support to see this same turnaround in their own health.
With Dianne, a group of Yolngu ladies from Elcho Island, all suffering from chronic diseases, are now on a quest to improve their own health and turn their community around. Together we have found that Yolngu who are not taking control of their health do not have:
- The chance to experience what wellness feels like as a result of good nutrition.
- Access to information about nutrition, communicated in a language and framework that makes sense for them.
- Existing skills to make healthy food choices, including understanding food labels, or how to cook modern foods.
- Access to a variety of nutritious whole foods.
This is why a healing retreat is required, to build knowledge and skills alongside ACTUAL experiences of feeling well as a result of living well. When you have no energy, vitality and strength, it’s incredibly difficult to take on new information about nutrition and lifestyle. It’s also challenging to adopt significant changes if you haven’t yet had an experience of their value.
A core group of women want to travel to an established Health Retreat, Living Valley Springs for intensive training. They know they need to start with their own health, in order to be catalysts for healing in their community. They want to create a space in Arnhem Land where a health retreat can be run for the whole community, incorporating Yolngu traditional knowledge with the best that modern nutrition has to offer.