This week I met with a Noongar elder to share the details of a forthcoming book that, in part, will chronicle our shared stories. Myrtle Yarran and I talked about a time more than 70 years ago when her father and mine first met at the little wheatbelt railway siding of Badjaling. Here’s what I read to her:
It had been a tiring day for Bob Mead. He had been fox hunting all day and was walking along a dusty road towards his home at Badjaling. Foxes were an introduced species, and they caused a lot of trouble to the farmers who worked in the area, so Bob found some satisfaction in proving his hunting skills and at the same time collecting a small payment from the white farmers who hired him. The Nyungar people were barely recognised by the farmers, but they were considered useful when it came to getting rid of pests like foxes.
As he made his way to Badjaling, with a bundle of fox carcasses dragging behind him, Bob spotted the new school teacher. He was a young man, only twenty-one years of age, but already going bald at the front. They chatted for a while about the fox hunting expedition, then, with a twinkle in his eye the Nyungar elder said: “Mr Douglas, say ngangk!” The young Irishman had been told that the Badjaling people only spoke English; this was his first realisation that while English was used widely, there was something about these people that he had yet to learn.
His first attempt at repeating the word Bob had asked him to say wasn’t too successful, so Bob called over his seven-year-old son Aubrey, one of the thirty-eight children who attended the tiny corrugated iron school now in the hands of this young teacher. Aubrey screwed up his nose and said, “ngangk.” The teacher screwed up his nose and tried again to repeat the word.
“When you can say that word, I’ll teach you another one,” Bob said. “Ngangk is our Nyungar word for mother, and it’s also the word for the sun in the sky because the sun is the mother of us all.” Wilf Douglas had received his first lesson in both the Nyungar language and traditional Nyungar beliefs.
When my Dad received the gift of that first word from Myrtle’s Dad, few people had ever written the Noongar language. He took that gift with appreciation and over many years wrote down and described the language, giving it back to the custodians of that language in a format that would help preserve it forever.
Each day we receive gifts from the people around us – a kind word, a shared story, an expression of concern or love. When someone shares a word, don’t brush it off or disregard what was said. Receive it as a gift. These are blessings that represent something of the person who has made the gift, but they are not gifts for us to hold for ourselves. As we receive them we have a responsibility to consider how we can return them with an added blessing.