#2 Never lonely in Australia

KES Failaka 1989

Harry Potter was in Gryffindor. Draco Malfoy was in Slytherin. Cedric Diggory was in Hufflepuff. I was in Failaka (pictured above). My primary school, Kuwait English School comprised 4 houses named after various areas of Kuwait – Burgan (blue), Ahmadi (green), Jahra (yellow) and the one that regularly won everything, Failaka (red). Just as in Hogwarts, we earned points every week for our houses. A rather good piece of homework could get you 2 house points. Going beyond expectations, 3 to 5 points. Bad behaviour in class got you demerit points for your House. For sports day and swimming gala, we left behind our affiliation with our classes and joined our new “brothers and sisters” against the “other lot”. We wore the red shirts proudly. Siblings would automatically be placed in the same House as the first child. (If you were wondering, I’m kneeling in the far right of the front row in the photo).

Here in Australia, during my research to write The Last Gundir, I was fascinated with the subject of skin moieties, somewhat analogous to the House system in school. I’ll give a summary here although Chapter 23 of The Last Gundir explains it in more detail.

Chapter 23 of The Last Gundir

An Aboriginal person of the south-east Queensland region belonged to one of four skin moieties, determined by the skin moiety of his/her mother. Two of the skin moieties were paired on one side (Banjur & Barang) and the other two on the other side (Choroin & Bonda). A child would automatically become the skin moiety paired with his/her mother’s one. If the mother was a Banjur, then her sons and daughters all became Barang. All people of the same moiety were recognised as brothers and sisters regardless of which tribe they came from. Affiliation by skin moiety was higher than affiliation by tribe or totem. In my novel, this theme is evident when the young kippas receive their tribal scars (having passed their Bora trials) but are then instructed to assemble into their skin moiety groups for the traditional kippa fight rather than remain in their tribal groups. Hence Koa and Maka, two robust kippas of the Joondaburrie tribe face off against each other in the novel.

Skin brothers and sisters had a reciprocal responsibility to look out for each other. Imagine a Yugambeh (Gold Coast) man turned up to Turrbal (Brisbane) country and stated that he wished to cross it to head to Noosa in Gubbi Gubbi country. He would announce his tribal (Yugambeh), totemic (emu) and skin moiety (Bonda) identities. The Turrbal would then find a Bonda man from within their tribe and inform him that his “brother” has turned up. The Turrbal man was then under tribal obligation to look after the stranger, to escort him across the country, to feed him, to keep him warm by the fire and maybe even tell personal stories to him. There were no exceptions to this rule, even if your Turrbal tribe had a feud with the Yugambeh tribe. Effectively, there was no such thing as “an only child”. An Aboriginal man travelling across various countries would have recognised brothers and sisters just waiting to afford him every assistance.

Diverging slightly off topic here – There is official text on the first page of your passport that states “The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.” This week (May 2021), the Australian Government made an absolute mockery of that text when they announced that Australian citizens living in India would be banned from returning to Australia with hefty fines and significant jail terms for any Aussie who dared to return home. With skin moieties, assistance and protection was implicit. It was never questioned or refused. This goes some way to understanding why Aboriginal people were always kind to strangers. In The Last Gundir, without giving any spoilers away, this explains why the “three ghosts” were treated so hospitably with one stating “…I had spent nearly five months with these hospitable natives of Moreton Bay. Their behaviour towards me and my companions had been so invariably kind and generous, that, notwithstanding the delight I felt at the idea of once more returning to my home, I did not leave them without sincere regret.” In the sequel to The Last Gundir, I explore this theme with respect to the “white-skinned red-clothed” strangers that suddenly turned up to Turrbal country in 1825. Was it this typical kindness that allowed the early vulnerable colony to survive? When there were at least 10 spears to every musket present in the colony, was it kindness that prevented an annihilation of the isolated colony?

Society was divided into these two halves, each mirroring the other. To complete the circle, the two halves had to come together. Therefore, each person had to find someone “on the other side” to marry. A Banjur could not marry another Banjur or a Barang. That would be seen as incest, even if it wasn’t so, biologically. A Banjur man was to find a woman of the Choroin skin moiety. Failing that, he could marry a woman of the Bonda skin moiety. There were further restrictions based on totems which were also placed in groups. For example, an emu man could not marry a woman of the honey bee or possum totems which were in the same associated group.

What all this meant was that I had to be very diligent with my characters when drafting the initial plot for The Last Gundir. I could not simply place my Aboriginal characters in various settings without bearing their affiliations in mind. In the first draft, I initially played out a rivalry between my characters Jarrah and Dural who fight each other in the traditional kippa fight. I then considered having a common love interest to make their adult conflict more juicy. Then I realised that Jarrah (Barang) and Dural (Choroin) fought each other as kippas because their skin moieties were in the opposite phratry. Therefore they absolutely could not have a common love interest later on in their lives. Similarly, Jarrah could not be involved in a love triangle between Maka and Merinda because Bunji and Maka fought against each other and were thus on opposite sides. Bunji and Jarrah are brothers meaning they have the same moiety. Therefore Jarrah and Maka are opposite sides so would never have a common love interest. I actually created an Excel file with skin moieties and totem affiliation confirmations for all my characters and often referred to it to ensure that the plot of the novel remained consistent with Aboriginal culture.

I found this kinship ideology to be remarkable. Imagine how the world would look like today if all its countries had adopted this type of association? There would likely be sincere diplomacy as countries would recognise powerful spiritual bonds that extended across borders. Global political disputes would have more chance of being resolved without pushing a button or pulling a trigger. A tourist could visit any country in the world knowing that she’d have her “brothers and sisters” there ready to offer her “every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.” It would be expected to show kindness to strangers because they could be your kin. Admittedly, the concept of “love at first sight” would no longer apply. One would not be able to approach a stranger and do a “Joey” (from FRIENDS) as there was a 50% chance that it would be considered incest by society…

Joey hits on a girl with his classic one-liner from FRIENDS.

Yet that was the world that existed on the continent of Australia. A truly fascinating system where family could be found wherever one roamed. Family that would be keen to look after you, to talk to you, to listen to you. No Aboriginal person would ever feel lonely. There would be no need whatsoever for a Minister of Loneliness. In 2018, the UK established such a Minister to tackle the growing problem of loneliness in the country. After an alarming increase in the number of suicides during the covid-19 pandemic, Japan has followed suit and appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Here in Australia, even before the covid-19 outbreak, there were a number of calls from Australian media for the government to intervene and appoint a similar Minister of Loneliness to tackle the entrenched social isolation. The health impacts of chronic social isolation have the same implications for heart disease and stroke as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (according to a UK study). In 2018, the Australian Psychological Society found that more than one in four Australians were lonely. And that was prior to the pandemic… Queensland are about to hold a parliamentary inquiry aimed at reducing loneliness. MPs in Victoria have already seriously proposed that the state establish a Minister of Loneliness.

The Aboriginal civilisation that thrived on spiritual values for tens of thousands of years here had no need whatsoever for such a Minister. The concept of skin moieties ensured an extended family wherever you roamed.

“Though they may appear wretched in condition, the natives of New Holland (Aboriginal people) are in reality far happier than we Europeans.” – 1st Lieutenant James Cook aboard HMB Endeavour.

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