“Always hold it tight, like this” my teacher instructed solemnly, as she gripped the pandanus coils firmly between her first and second fingers, her thumb guiding the stiches into perfect alignment. “Always”. I took the partly stitched basket from her and attempted the same, but my stitches would not settle in an even pattern and my progress was slow. Before long I was developing blisters on my fingers and my grip loosened. My teacher looked up from the other side of the outdoor classroom, where she was helping another student, and the reminder was repeated: “Always”.
The students were a group of balanda (non-Aboriginal) women, from Sydney, Canberra, and Darwin, aged between 27 and 59 years, with a variety of occupations and conventional western lifestyles. A group of eight of us set out from Darwin to remote East Arnhemland to learn the art of weaving pandanus baskets from the indigenous women living there. As it turned out, we learnt much more than that.
Mapuru is a homeland community in north-east Arnhemland. It is 10 minutes charter flight from Elcho Island, and several hours by road from any shop, petrol station or medical facility. Approximately 100 people live amongst the 9 or so houses. All have a family connection to the country upon which they live. A number of Aboriginal languages are spoken there, with English studied at the learning centre which has a visiting teacher 3 days a week. Mapuru operates its own small store as a co-op, but fresh food is rare and expensive, unless it is hunted.
The weaving workshops are coordinated by two elderly women sisters, their daughters and granddaughters, who invite women to come and camp at Mapuru for a week and be taught something of the art and culture of pandanus basket weaving. The pandanus is gathered from the surrounding country, stripped, and dyed using a variety of roots, leaves, and berries. The dried pandanus is woven into baskets of beautiful colour. The finished products include modern basket designs of all styles and shapes. Traditional woven dilly bags with intricate patterns are also produced, with no need for needles or scissors.
Our group set off from Darwin early in the morning, travelling south via Katherine, about 600km east along the Central Arnhem highway and finally north along a 4WD access road to Mapuru, arriving late at night. We had brought our own food and camping gear, packed on top of a Troopy. Our camping area had been swept, and firewood chopped and piled up for our arrival. We felt warmly welcomed by the community.
The following morning, as we boiled our billy, the women were spreading out mats under a traditional wood and bark shelter for the workshop. Beautiful baskets were everywhere, with bundles of coloured pandanus already prepared for us to start weaving. The women sat cross-legged on the mat all day long, weaving their own baskets in between teaching, helping, advising. Some of my fellow students, with previous craft or sewing skills, grasped the technique more easily than I did. It seemed to me that every time I became discouraged, one of the elderly sisters would notice. She would gently take my basket, and quietly and quickly tighten, straighten, coil and stitch it into a manageable shape again. The young women, their granddaughters, would chat about colours and styles, and help us with the difficult parts. By the end of the week, each visitor proudly took home a small basket or two of her own creation.
We enjoyed refreshing morning and afternoon swims at the nearby waterhole, accompanied by several friendly local children. The gorgeous children followed us everywhere, eager to practise their English, to show us flora and fauna, and to patiently teach us about the complex kinship system which describes and defines connections between people. They piled into the Troopy to come and collect pandanus, hunt for mangrove worms and generally laugh at these balanda who couldn’t go anywhere without hats and boots and cameras and backpacks weighing them down. When my mother was overwhelmed by the mangrove mud, one little sister led her to a hidden stream on drier land and helped her wash her feet.
Out on trips to the surrounding country, we caught a glimpse of the rich law and history of the land and the people. The women took us to a bubbling stream, which is a sacred and special place, and called out to introduce us to the country and the ancestors. They collected mangrove worms, and offered them to us to try. “Don’t be afraid” we were told, “it is my grandmother’s totem”.
While we practised the skills of stripping pandanus, coiling and weaving, we got to know each other. We practised the skill of connecting. Not networking, or texting, but sitting quietly together on a mat in the shade, sharing pre-sugared tea scooped from a soup tureen, and learning from one another. Knowledge and laughter were freely and generously shared.
One afternoon I walked to another campfire with my drum of flour and asked for advice about making damper. I lost count of the number of children who came to look at this balanda woman who didn’t know how to bake bread. An opportunity for a lesson was not lost: it was explained to the children in their own language that I was learning, just as they should learn their numbers and their spelling at school. While I kneaded, I heard stories from my teacher. As a child she had walked across country with her parents, following the timber felling work. Her father was paid only in scoops of tea, sugar, and flour. She married an ‘old man’ chosen by her parents, and had five daughters. It was her vision for the future that the weaving workshops could grow into a real business, so that the women could work on their own land, and bring up their children and grandchildren in a safe environment, with knowledge and pride in their own culture.
Our damper was perfect. “Now you will be able to cook it anywhere” she announced, pleased with my progress, “even in an oven”.
When it was time to go home, there were hugs and tears. We felt that we were leaving family. Back in my office, if I close my eyes, I can take myself to Mapuru. I see dark graceful arms reaching for brilliant green leaves, a palette of coloured pandanus waiting to be chosen and woven; I hear children calling out ‘sister, look’, women laughing; I taste over-sugared tea and freshly baked damper. And I feel connected.
Read Estelle Roberts story (pdf)