I had a very enjoyable few days in Darwin at the end of my field trip, including a profitable [for them!] time at Charles Darwin University’s bookshop. I got some readers in Nyoongar and a few other languages, a rather nice Garrwa ethnobotany book, Coersive Reconciliation, and Marry Ellen Jordan’s Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land, which I read on the way back. These books will appear on ozpapers soon.
Balanda is definitely written for a white, middle class highly urban audience by a white, middle class, highly urban writer without any experience of community life beyond her year at Maningrida.
This isn’t a new book – it was published in 2002 and got reviewed a bit at the time, mostly by white, middle class highly urban reviewers.
Jordan steps outside her experience; she’s quite a good writer and she knows how to put a story together. However, she has externalised her own assumptions about communities to a very limited extent. That makes it even more of a book more about her than directly about her experiences.
One example: Jordan is critical (implicitly in a few places, explicitly in others) of gambling in Maningrida. She essentially equates it with casino gambling in cities. Many people do this (I’ve had this same conversation many times over the last few months) and it makes sense to do so in a white, middle class urban (protestant) culture where gambling is a ‘waste of money’. However, there are two big differences between a card party on balanda boulevard and going to the Casino in Darwin: 1) community gambling is part of a larger exchange network; and 2) the money stays within the community and the winners are subject to many of the same sharing pressures that wage-earners are. That is, a good percentage of profits made from winning at cards are immediately absorbed back into the community by the people who lost money and others who have a kinship claim on the winner.
Another detail surprised me: Jordan argues that poverty at Maningrida isn’t a problem; there’s money around, because there’s not much to spend it on. That’s a weird thing to say, given the other things she says in the book. As she notes, most of the population is on ‘welfare’ of some sort, either CDEP, pensions, disability, or another scheme. Welfare cheques don’t go very far when you’re feeding big families at community stores. I would like to see a simple analysis of average per capita disposable income in a community like Maningrida. Presumably CAEPR or another organisation has done this.