Outdoor educator Mr Reg Ramsden is out of his element sitting in an office on a busy city street. Despite his North Shore upbringing and St Andrew’s education (class of 1984), Mr Ramsden is a country boy at heart. As soon as his working life began, he made his way straight up to the Northern Territory and he has been passionate about our nation’s diverse cultural background ever since.
As Mr Ramsden talks, two things become abundantly clear: his passion for educating young minds and his passion for Aboriginal culture. He speaks fervently about uniting these two passions with St Andrew’s — a school that already nurtures close connections with Aboriginal culture through such progressive initiatives as the Gawura School for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, now in its fifth year.
Year 10 and 11 students learning from the land and the people
According to Mr Ramsden, “There’s so much to learn out there about the nature, heritage and sheer size of this country!” Indeed, there is so much to learn from our country’s original inhabitants. In his eyes, the best classrooms for this kind of education are right in the midst of our nation’s diverse Aboriginal communities. So each year, Mr Ramsden escorts a group of Year 11 students from St Andrew’s Cathedral School to Australia’s red centre to meet a special community located there called Lilla.
Situated just below the King’s Canyon, Lilla is a community so small and remote that you could fit their entire population into a single classroom. So coming from the hustle and bustle of a dynamic urban centre, a cultural exchange to Lilla has a lot to offer the St Andrew’s students that visit. “There can be a big shift in the way students think about these communities after they’ve gone and experienced living amongst them,” says Outdoor educator, Miss Julie Batten. It is a very eye-opening and rewarding experience for all involved.
The Lilla community open up their lives to their visitors from St Andrew’s. Day-to-day activities such as jewellery-making, dot-painting and bush-tucker digging are all done side-by-side. But locals also open up more special parts of their lives to St Andrew’s students by showing them around their sacred sites such as the water hole and their women’s birth cave. Students spend an entire week with the Lilla community, where locals are always available to talk and are keen to share their dreamtime stories.
Visiting Lilla – Student perspectives
‘Pitchama naygooakoo nooragaroo nayooloo nyuntu nga tjukurpa wankahnye’ – this phrase, spoken in Loritja, translates into an invitation: ‘Come to my land, and I will tell you a dreamtime story’. If we extend invitations like this to share our stories and experiences with one another, just as Lilla have extended their own cultural experiences to St Andrew’s, there are volumes of wisdom and knowledge to be gained and invaluable relationships to be formed.
Some Year 10 St Andrew’s students share their experiences of Lilla:
‘It was challenging to adjust to a new culture and to live in a way that you wouldn’t normally live’, says Year 10 student Orin Nolly who visited Lilla in 2011. Linley Hurst, Orin’s peer who also made the journey to Lilla, adds ‘We slept outside in swags and some of the day-to-day activities were quite different, but you also realise how similar you are because you share the same humanity’.
Linley continues to share about children such as Vivian, a four-year old girl in the community who they grew a fondness for during their time in Lilla. ‘You’d always have them sitting on your lap or jumping on your back. The little ones were really fun, energetic and welcoming’, she says.‘
The opportunity to live amongst the Aboriginal community in Lilla provides a very personal, up-close perspective that is difficult to experience anywhere else. ‘I really liked it.’, Linley adds. ‘It was a great chance to learn about Indigenous culture’.
A Helping Hand
While the cultural exchange is an eye-opening experience, Mr Ramsden believes it needs to be spun into action. ‘I think the more we learn about these Aboriginal communities, the more we can say “I want to do my bit to help”’, he says.
The restoration of two community touchstones, the local school and church, have already begun as major projects for the SACS student visitors. Prior to its rebirth, the Lilla school suffered from decay and a serious weed infestation, in many instances preventing local children from having access to an education. Before the school re-opened, it took a minimum of four hours to travel to the nearest school, but now the most anyone has to travel is 20 minutes.
Before the church was reopened, it had been disused for 15 years. St Andrew’s responded to a call for help from a local elder and got to work assisting the community to rebuild their sacred building. It has been an important project for both the Lilla community and the surrounding outstations, allowing them the infrastructure in which they can worship God, as well as providing a gathering place where local adults can meet. St Andrew’s visitors organised a dedication service for the church once its restoration was complete, which was run by a minister from Alice Springs. Miss Batten describes her delight to see a large gathering of people turn up to dedicate the church, not only from Lilla but also from surrounding outstations.
‘Lilla has really shown a lot of gratitude’, says Miss Batten, ‘and the main way they show that is to simply spend time with us each afternoon and to share their lives with us. Each year they’ve shared more and more of that with St Andrew’s and I think that doing things like dot-painting with us or taking us bush-tucker digging is their special way of saying thank you’.
The future of a St Andrew’s and Lilla friendship
The relationship between St Andrew’s and the Lilla community is one that continues to flourish more and more with each visit. ‘I think this relationship is a real testimony to the respect that this community has for St Andrew’s and I think this is something that will continue to build over time.’ She adds, ‘In that first year when we were new, the relationship was a bit more timid, but now they look forward to our visits every year!’
This excursion is a cultural exchange that has been growing from strength to strength over the years and one that both communities are keen to maintain for the future. While Mr Ramsden will continue to take groups of St Andrew’s students to Lilla, possibilities for further cultural exchange are certainly on the cards.
Cross-cultural experiences provide students with a host of opportunities. On the one hand, becoming closely involved with another community and living with them for a week offers a rich, first-hand learning experience that an ordinary classroom cannot provide. On the other hand, ST Andrew’s students are also given the opportunity to invest themselves in the lives of another community by being generous with their time and effort to help out in significant ways.
Words: Micah Chua