Bitjan bili rrambaŋi, yaka gäna: a rambling story from my field notebook

Fieldwork photo (2008): yapa waiting around in town


Bitjan bili rrambaŋi, yaka gäna, is something of a Yolŋu refrain, which translates as something like, ‘always together/close/level/at one, not separate/different, or alone.’ In my own mind (and in my notebooks), it also sits alongside the more implicit, ‘always kin, always on Country.’ Both are relevant to the following story, as they reflect the significance and value of everyday social processes described therein.

The following case-study is taken from field notebook, from November 2007. It was the final car trip that we were able to make to the nearby township before the rains of the wet season arrived, making roads and rivers impassable.


I have posted an earlier draft version of this case hereon before. It is one of my favourites (though it always makes me homesick for camp). Also, marrkap-mirri, thoughts of my wäwa Don who is no longer with us. Bitjan bili ŋanapurru yukurra gäma nhuŋu memory, wäwa. x


‘I was woken up late on Saturday night by galay Mary who needed me to help her transfer the money over via the new dial-up internet, so wäwa Don, Kevin and Johnny, waku David, and yapa B_____ (with the two little twinny boys) could catch the morning charter flight home from nearby Coastal Town Camp. They had all flown in to attend a funeral ceremony some two or three days before.


Galay transferred $400 into wäwa’s bank-account, which yapayukurraŋayathama – was ‘carrying/holding’ – the bank-card for. Come morning, however, yapa rang to say that the flights were all booked. This was a polite request for me to drive out and pick them up in Mätjala-Witij (my and dhuway’s car).[1]  I arranged to meet yapa outside Woolworths.


Ten minutes after arriving in town yapa appeared all smiles – three shopping bags, col’ drink and chips – her handbag hanging off her shoulder, cigarette in hand and a new mobile phone around her neck on a ‘blinged up’ Elvis Presley lanyard.[2]  She was beaming. I smiled broadly. It was so good to see her. I got and and gave her a big hug hello,


Warwuyun ŋarra nhumalaŋgu” (‘[I] was worrying for you’), I said, “you called and then disappeared, and I didn’t hear . . .”


Waa-ay, marrkapmirri gutha’, marŋgi nhe . . . ” (‘Waa-ay, love’ed little sister, you know . . . ‘), she said with a laughing smile.


She introduced me to our gutharra and ŋandi, who had given her a lift into town. We chatted a while, but I was keen to get going because I didn’t want to have to drive back after dark. The roads were already partially washed away with the first rains of the season. I posited quietly that we go and get petrol for the drive home before picking up wäwa walala (‘[all] the brothers’).


“Yoo I have to get rrupiya (‘money’) first.”


I wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to get cash out at the petrol station, but before I could say as much yapa was off in the general direction of the bank, having left her bags and phone, etcetera, in pile on the ground for me to look after. She returned a while later (stuffing dollar-bills into her purse) with a few people I recognized as close kin from Point Beach Camp (our ŋandi bäpurru, and ŋandi Country). We drove to the petrol station.


I took the opportunity to go to the bathroom before we picked wäwa walala up, bought some col’ drink and lollies, and handed yapa back the change. We drove through town, out onto the peninsular, toward Coastal Town Camp. Yapa pointed out the yacht club on our right. There were flashy white yachts and motor-boats moored along the beach, glistening, rolling gently in the water. We drove on a little way before turning off to the right, onto the unsealed road.


I drove at a snail’s pace past houses and hearths, to ‘number six house,’ which was hard to miss, given the wall-size number ‘6’ painted on the side of the house in green. Number six house is one of a cluster of some seven houses, situated a little way up from the water line, nestled in between Djomula’ trees (‘coastal Casuarina trees’). There were clusters of family mob sitting under the trees (on ubiquitous Indonesian import, plastic woven mats, and bed-sheets), painted up with white clay for ceremony . . . resting and waiting in between ceremonial sets.


I spotted wäwa Terry sitting with two similarly aged older men, drinking tea on a bed-sheet under one of the trees. He seemed bright and almost commanding, which was something of a surprise given his characteristically unassuming gentle self. He gestured for me to collect his backpack from the fork of a nearby tree. The bag was open, and as I pulled it down I noted that there was a large nylon fishing-net inside, weighed down with a pair of bilma (‘clap sticks’). I smiled inwardly, gesturing to yapa that I was going to put it back over in the car. (It’s always a real coup when anyone – or any ‘camp’, rather – acquires a fishing-net; they are one of the more valued items that circulate among and between camps and communities on the Homelands.) Yapa nodded back, smiling knowingly, and then it was over to number six house to collect her bag, bed-sheet and pillow.


All the doors were ajar and louvers open. We tiptoed carefully through the front room so as not to step on anyone – women and children sleeping out the hottest hours of the day together, on mattresses on the floor. We took yapa’s bags back to the car where wäwa Terry was waiting to let us know that he was going to stay. There was another ceremony coming, in less than a week, he explained. Okay. Where were the other two wäwas? Terry gestured in the direction of the yacht club, which is one of the only establishments selling alcohol in the township that is welcoming of Yolŋu patrons. Without a word we were back into the car and driving up to the yacht club.


I pulled into the gravel car-park near the boat ramp. Yapa pointed out the car that they had come in – a dented and rather weathered white Toyota van. I pulled up next to it. The sliding door was open, and leaning out of it was a very surprised wäwa Johnny.


Ya, ya! Marrtija!” (‘Hey, hey! Let’s go!) I exclaimed, teasing, smiling at his tipsy surprise.


And poor wäwa – before he could even gather his thoughts, or say a word he was in the back of the car with his seat-belt buckled! Clearly startled by the sudden appearance of his authoritative (and disapproving) older sister. It wasn’t long, however, before he was back to his jovial celebratory self; chatting and hustling in the hope that yapa would agree that he should have a few last drinks to ‘say goodbye.’ She handed him a fifty-dollar note, rolling her eyes in tired humour. Just then, other wäwa, wäwa Don emerged with a number of other men – all of them painted up handsomely, all in the best of spirits and high humour. It was lovely to see him. We all milled about, chatting and catching up . . .


Yol ŋayi Balanda dirramu, wäwa?” (‘who is that Balanda man, wäwa?), I asked in a whisper.


“Peter . . . ‘Paul’ . . . wo mak Peter” (‘Peter . . . ‘Paul’ . . . or perhaps maybe Peter’), he replied with a joking smile.


Close enough! I was curious as to who this Balanda man was; I felt some distant kind of affiliation with him or something – here we were two Balanda sitting at the wheel of functioning cars (a very Balanda thing) waiting for our Yolŋu gurrutu to decide what we’re all doing. I ate a carrot and switched the engine off. Five, ten minutes later yapa posited that we drive back to Coastal Town Camp to drop the wäwas off, so that they could sing for one last manikay (‘[ceremonial] song’) to ‘say goodbye’ to the deceased, while we were shopping . . . before we all head back to camp.


Yooo, ma” (‘Yeeah, ok’) I replied, adding that we should leave as soon as possible because the track to camp was danger after the dark . . . full of potholes and obstructed by branches and debri where it wasn’t already washed away . . . etcetera. We were going shopping.


“Half an hour and we’ll pick them up from number six house,” I added (as if I had some control of the situation).


We dropped the wäwas off, handed over a few cigarettes to family who came to say hello, before turning the car back around, to head back out toward town to go shopping. We’d only driven one hundred meters or so, however, when we spotted waku David walking along the side of the road with two yawarriny (initiated, unmarried, young men), our close kin from Peninsular Camp. Waku David flagged us down; he wanted to come shopping. The two young men stood at a distance behind waku, smiling wryly. A young woman driving any car was always cause for comment and a source of amusement. And here I was a young Balanda woman who was not only driving a car and taxi’ing people around but speaking broken Yolŋu matha, and talking directly to David who is a man not many years my senior who, although my close adoptive waku is not my real ‘actual’ waku so (for those with an imagination) could be my (potential) secret lover. Waku decided to come with us, but had to fill his water bottle up first. Bottle full from the beach-side tap, he returned and jumped in the car. I pulled out onto the sealed road to town.


“To Captain Cook” posited waku quietly. ‘Captain Cook’ is the name of one of the two shopping centres in the township.


“But that shop is expensive,” I replied, “Woolworths is heaps cheaper, isn’t it?”


Yoo, yurru too much humbug from the drunkens for money [at Woolworths].”


Fair enough, I thought, realising then that I should have filled an extra jerry-can up with petrol given all this ‘going up and down’ driving business, as they say. I suggested that I should perhaps just drop them off at Captain Cook, and go back to the petrol station to get some more petrol, while they were shopping.


“Yo, ma”.


As we approached town proper along Matthew Flinders drive, however, waku David suggested that we all go to the petrol station. I kept driving past the turnoff to Captain Cook.


A little way along, yapa pointed out a white cross on the side of the road. It was decorated with plastic flowers. That’s where our waku rolled his car four times, she explained. We drove on. Petrol station pull’im up. I topped up the tank and filled an additional jerry-can with petrol, and then it was back to Captain Cook. It was three o’clock. The sun was losing its bite.


Captain Cook pull’im up. I was careful to park away from the taxi rank, where we would have been be expected to stop and chat forever. Yapa gave waku twenty dollars. We walked through the automatic doors into the air-conditioning, with an audible, collective sigh. I pointed out an outboard motor for sale in the hardware-ish shop as we walked through to the supermarket. We had been thinking about all ‘chucking in’ for an outboard to get to M____ Island for turtle eggs. One after the other we clicked through the turnstile into the supermarket.


Little gaminyarr (six years old) took control of the trolley, and we followed behind him, throwing in the usual staples making our way up and down the isles. Flour, sugar, tea-leab’, milk powder, oats, a few vegetables, rice, etcetera. Trolley full, we shuffled back through the checkout. Yapa topped the ‘amount owing’ up with cartons of cigarettes, which is usual practice on large shopping trips. We paid with wäwa Kevin’s bank-card, using the money that we’d made selling painted hollow-logs to the local art-centre two weeks before. I pushed the trolley out of the supermarket. Gaminyarr began throwing a tantrum, refusing to move beyond the video store. I took the trolley outside, and waku David and I started unpacking.


Yapa and gaminyarr emerged fifteen minutes or so later, gaminyarr all smiles with an arm-full of old action-mirri picture (‘pictures that have or possess the quality of “action” – i.e. action flicks). Yapa was looking a bit frazzled. Five minutes and we were back on the road to Coastal Town Camp. Fifteen minutes or so and we were pulling up again at number six house, where two wäwas were sitting on the veranda, green cans (‘VB’) in hand. Wäwa Johnny walked over to the car to introduce me to my gathu and dhuway, who came to say hello. We chatted for a while before wäwa asked [me] if they were going to ‘say goodbye’ for one more song. They were having such a good time, I couldn’t possibly say no.


Yo . . . yo”  (‘Yes . . . yeah.’)


I put my feet up on the dash board in a very unladylike, very ‘Balanda-like’ fashion, leaned my head against the headrest and closed my eyes. A while later I sat back up and rummaged around to find another carrot to eat. Sitting half in the car half out I ate my carrot, leaning on the window frame, watching the ceremony. Peter-Paul-Peter (the Balanda owner/driver of the white van) caught my eye to ask (in Yolŋu sign language, no less!) if I would please give a certain young woman sitting on the bed-sheet nearby a carrot. I rummaged through the shopping bags in the back and walked over to where the lady was seated. I put a few carrots and apples on the bed-sheet beside her, gesturing toward Peter-Paul-Peter in explanation, before asking for some rolling tobacco, and sitting down. I sat rolling a cigarette wondering to myself, how it might be so that he too, had come to find himself enmeshed in the social fabric out here. He was clearly a love’ed and valued part of the community.


The ceremonial set finished with a chorused “aiy!!” and, as if this was his cue, gaminyarr started throwing a tantrum. Yapa picked him up and motioned that we might, perhaps best go.


Marrtjina neh?” (‘[shall we] go/move?’)


Ma, ŋali . . . ” (‘Ok/yes, shall we . . . ‘) I replied.


Three wäwas made their way over to the car after us, and hopped in. I started the engine and pulled out onto the gravel road as slow as slow (haunted by the repetitive warning I was given when working as an applied anthropologist, “do not, under any circumstances, reverse your car in small communities”). Second gear, and wäwa Johnny called the car to a halt – he had to get his lighter off gathu, who he had just spotted. She had his lighter.


Ya, marraŋa!” (‘Ya, get it!’), I replied (in the imperative form).


Wäwa jumped out, disappeared for a moment, and returned with our gathu. There were goodbyes and chats, yapa handed gathu a packet of cigarettes through the window, and we were off. Out of camp and onto the sealed road that passes by the yacht club, refinery, through town and back on the highway. We’d only made it a few hundred meters, however, before wäwa Johnny was chattering jovially hustling for yapa and I to agree that they should buy a six pack of beer for the drive home (negotiated down from half a carton by a now weary yapa). Yapa turned to me and asked loudly,


“No ŋänitji in your car isn’t it?” (‘No alcohol in your car, isn’t it?’)


Nhumalaŋgu decision, yapa” (‘Your [plural] decision, yapa’).


I regretted saying this as soon as I had, because I realised that I had missed my cue to allow yapa to indirectly say ‘no,’ by eliciting a ‘Balanda response’ – a proprietorial assertion – over the car. But I missed my cue. My reply was as good as a collective agreement. We were making one last stop at the yacht club for takeaways. Yapa handed wäwa a twenty-dollar note, warning him that he daren’t return with any more than a six-pack. He was in and out in directly in the best of moods.


We were back on the road. Three celebratory brothers in the back, waku David in the very back, yapa in the passenger seat with Bäru (my dog) at her feet, and gaminyarr on her lap . . . everyone in the back sitting among piles of shopping bags, all our windows down, all of us smoking, now late afternoon.


The sun had weakened behind the storm clouds that were building to North-ish. By five o’clock we were on the Arnhem Highway. Every time a car approached wäwa Don insisted that we all hide our cigarettes, in case it was the police – convinced that it’s illegal to smoke and drive.


Well out of town and the road narrowed to single gravel passage through the open eucalypt forest, palms with new fronds, and the undergrowth newly green after the season’s fires. Yapa, the brothers, and waku David talking about manikay and laughing about the silly ‘drunkens’ and the antics of the last few days. Half an hour, and we take the turn off toward camp. Two hours of rough tracks, up and over the ridge (half washed out already with the beginning of wet season rains), following talk as we go – wäwa-walala pointing out waku wäŋa (‘waku Country’), ŋandi wäŋa (‘Mother Country’), the direction wäwa Don and Kevin footwalked to the Township to get ŋarali (‘tobacco’) that time [ . . . . ] Along the ridge and up the hill, knowing now that family back in camp would be able to hear the drone of the car engine. Back down, and coming up to the ridge where watu walala waŋarr (‘the dog waŋarr’) went . . . and over there, up past G___ where there are galka (‘sorcerers’) . . .  and something about the cat up that way . . .  the dry season hunting ground on the flat near the P____  river [ . . . . ] Late now, and watching for gatapaŋa (‘buffalo’), coming down the last hill before camp and the dogs have all come out to meet us, barking in the headlights and wagging their tails – and shit – there is old ‘Ama (our old Mother, who suffers from dementia)! We all let out cheer and laughed – ‘Ama was standing right in the middle of the road, smiling and waving blindly in the headlights. Yapa scolded her for walking out of camp alone, at night. She joined yapa and Bäru and gaminyarr in the front passenger seat, and a few minutes later we pulled in home.


I dropped the bottom-campers down at the green house and the top-campers up at the red house, where the fire was going. Dhuway was waiting on the verandah. And it was nine o’clock.’




[1] which was the only functioning car at the time

[2] Elvis Presley is *huge* in Arnhem Land!




Filed under Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

2 responses to “Bitjan bili rrambaŋi, yaka gäna: a rambling story from my field notebook

  1. Galay Jazlie

    This made my heart glow with warm fuzz. Is the bit about old lady mukul walking out true? I wish I saw that. Hope you come back soon. J.

    • Sure is! She used to go walking off quite a bit when she was more steady on her feet. I can’t wait to be back – as soon as I possibly can, which is as soon as this thesis is submitted. Please give my love to everyone. X

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