From The Red Earth Of Titjikala Rises A Legacy Built On Trust And Respect

If you drive south from Alice Springs for 130km or so, past the red sand dunes of the Simpson desert and the discarded ribbons of old tyres that line the outback roadside, you will come to the remote Aboriginal township of Titjikala.

Few tourists stop here and it’s little wonder: at the 2011 census the town recorded just 200 people.

In early June, the population of Titjikala, also known as Tapatjatjaka by locals, nearly doubled when 170 members of the Army Aboriginal community assistance program (Aacap) arrived for their four-month stay.

Aacap has been running for 18 years, but is still one of the army’s least known projects.

More than 40 Indigenous communities have benefited from the program, jointly funded by the army and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which has housed the Indigenous affairs portfolio since Tony Abbott became prime minister in 2013.

The department works with state and territory governments to identify remote communities that could benefit from training and infrastructure projects. Once a shortlist has been settled, bureaucrats consult elders and other leaders on what projects the community needs.

Past projects have included building schools, clinics and airstrips.

This year marks the start of one of the most ambitious and long-running projects yet. Army tradesmen and women have begun constructing a waste management system, two duplex houses and a changing room for the football oval.

The project also includes staffing the clinic with a full-time doctor and dentist, and mentoring and training programs in cooking, first aid, welding and multimedia.

The young men who successfully finish the welding course will be awarded a nationally recognised certificate that opens up their job prospects.

“Mines use [our training] as a probation period,” a mentor and army reservist, Gary Keegan, said. “They take some of the lads who’ve finished into a trainee program.”

Keegan has taken part in 11 Aacap projects, and gets great satisfaction from being a mentor to young Aboriginal men and women.

“If you can get one person qualified, you’ve done your job,” he said. “We learn from them, they learn from us. It’s win-win.”

Ernest Warrior is an Indigenous member of the force who has family connections in Titjikala. He is the liaison between the army and the community on this year’s project.

“We’ve got the young fellas going for the programs now. So ... within the community, they’ll look at that and they’ll say, righty-oh, Aacap was here, they taught these young laddies multimedia and stuff, and they’re back in the community doing that,” he said.

A Titjikala Hawks player, Shaun Marshall, takes a mark during a friendly game against an army team. The Hawks won. A Titjikala Hawks player, Shaun Marshall, takes a mark during a friendly game against an army team. The Hawks won. Photograph: CPL Steve Duncan/Australian Defence

Warrior admits the community took a while to warm to its visitors.

“I think they were a little bit nervous at first, with the army coming in. It looked probably like an invasion I suppose. But after a while, things started happening,” he said.

Locals are shy and somewhat cautious of outsiders, so the force has engaged in cultural exchanges to try to build trust.

Weekend hunts for witchetty grubs proved popular, as did a Naidoc week football match in which the home side comprehensively crushed the army.

A Friday night concert by former Redgum singer John Schumann drew a crowd; many were initially attracted by the prospect of free damper and soup made by trainees in the cooking program.

Schumann wrote the anti-Vietnam war anthem I Was Only 19. He was commissioned by the former chief of army, David Morrison, to write a song before the centenary of the Anzac landing that acknowledged the often overlooked contribution of Indigenous servicemen and women.

Lyrics such as “he fought for someone else’s king in the land they took away” struck a chord with locals who had gathered at the town’s basketball court to mark the end of the week-long celebration of Indigenous history and culture.

“It’s a good time for Aacap to do [its projects at] any time, but during Naidoc week it’s a better time, a more positive time,” Warrior said.

Major Christopher Sampson, who oversees Aacap on the ground, said learning about other cultures was one of the biggest benefits.

Army tradesmen and women are often sent to an area before combat missions to set up camp, and are the first on the scene after natural disasters. Having cultural training and sensitivities is vital.

“I can pick up the camp that we’ve got here in Titjikala and I can transfer that to Afghanistan or Iraq or Pakistan for flood assist, or any of those sorts of activities,” Sampson said. “The training that we do here has a very real transverse sort of opportunity for a deployment as well. That’s why this is such great training, because we can transfer these skills.

“Essentially, this is our training run before we go and do it in real time overseas somewhere.”

Sampson, whose background is in army construction, is particularly proud of the lasting legacy the waste management system will have on the township, although he acknowledges it does not employ local workers, and will not employ them for future maintenance. Ownership of that will go to the Northern Territory government.

Titjikala has septic tanks that tend to overflow into houses and gardens when over-used. The new system uses a series of ponds to separate waste and water, which eventually disperses in an evaporation pond.

Sampson hopes the new two-bedroom houses will help ease overcrowding.

Major Chris Sampson shows the waste treatment system to senator Nigel Scullion, Indigenous affairs minister, and Colonel Stephen Gliddon (left). Major Chris Sampson shows the waste treatment system to senator Nigel Scullion, Indigenous affairs minister, and Colonel Stephen Gliddon (left). Photograph: CPL Steve Duncan/Australian Defence

“I get a great sense of pride in seeing my tradesmen, soldiers, doing the job that they love to do and doing it in such a fashion that they’re delivering something [that has a] long-standing effect for a part of Australian society that really deserves it,” he said.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet put in $6m for this year’s Aacap, and the army will put in between $5m and $6m more before the program ends. Of that, $50,000 is spent on health services.

Officer Valentina Nikiforova, who runs the first aid training course, says the community gets $450,000 worth of health outcomes for that cash, including the use of an army vet to treat some of the dogs that roam the community.

Dr Brenton Systermans, an army reservist who has worked in several Indigenous communities, has seen at least 50 patients in the past four weeks.

Titjikala has managed to steer clear of some of the social and health problems that plague other remote communities, partly through strong community leadership and a deep connection to culture. But it still has its troubles.

Alcohol has been banned since an alcohol management plan was signed in 2014, but locals can – and do – drink just outside the town’s perimeter, as evidenced by a pile of empty beer cans lying beside a fence.

Although it has a clinic with a full-time rural health nurse, Titjikala’s proximity to Alice Springs means it has missed out on a dialysis machine. And the visiting dentist has not been in two years.

Nikiforova hopes initiatives such as the first aid training course and the makeshift gym will help the community take aspects of its healthcare into its own hands.

For her, having a properly fitted-out gym with a trained instructor is number one on the wishlist.

Systermans is more circumspect. “An airstrip for the town for evacuation purposes would be fantastic,” he said.

With the 2015 program due to wrap up in October, it is unlikely that those ambitions will be fulfilled.

There’s always 2016, when the Aacap squad ventures to Laura, in the Cape York region of northern Queensland.

Shalailah Medhora travelled to Titjikala with the army, which covered all costs.

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