Walk for Water & Ceremony Report

We walked forward for water

Jono and his son Sam traveled from Sydney for the walk and to spend time deepening relationships with the Mandjawuy family and take these photos.



Eric and Lynne have also arrived to stay in Mandjawuy. Lynne is volunteering as our first resident qualified teacher and Eric our resident handyman. They to joined the walk for water on the day and into the future.


We walked from the jungle edge where the water comes from the spring.



The old pipe that once watered the initial settlement now overgrown with Dhol, a big water rush that also bears one of the names of this place. The water comes from the land unchanged but like us takes the shapes it is given as it flows through space and time


At banyala, close to where this water mixes with the sea, the funeral of an old man was yet to finish

I remember how he would say ‘hello ngapipi’ to me. It means maternal uncle, Yolngu kinship runs in a circle.

He was close to the mandjawuy family

He was a senior man and Yarrinya has been closed awaiting the end of the funeral

We will not go there until the funeral is over


Translations across cultures are prone to misconception and the word funeral is a case in point

To napaki the word funeral probably conjure the idea of a service counted in minutes or a few hours followed with a body going into the ground or a furnace to end it.

Baparu is the Yolngu word for funeral but also the news of a death. It also means clan group.

Baparu is the critical pedagogical vehicle for Yolngu culture

All the layers of knowledge are conveyed by series of ceremonies from the first clensings at the time of death then with increasing intensity a few months later once everything is organised.

Male circumcision ceremonies also take place as the next generation become adults to be able the place of those who have gone


At the emotionally intense time of loss and awareness of death the structures and essence of life are taught and clan relations are affirmed.

Religion, education, politics and economy meet and mix at baparu

Different people have different responsibilities depending on who has died, others carry on regular responsibilities only attending some phases.

Economy does not stop as the people have always had to eat which takes a greater effort with so many people gathered.


The Yarrinya walk was not an option on Sunday and most of the family needed to attend the final day to sing and dance their songs and join others in theirs. We adapted the plan and those not required to be staying at Yilpra walked a few km from the spring source to a swimming hole in the morning before returning to the ceremony



Jono and Sam left on Sunday afternoon with experiences they will struggle to put into words back in Sydney.


They watched Wäka performing his dirrakay (ceremonial leader) role conducting the serious ceremony of song and dance. His fluid movements directing the painted men as they moved in perfect union as warriors approaching the shelter holding the body.


In pauses between clan song cycles senior people found time to talk to them

There is much excitement about the knowledge water project.


I feel this business is a turning point. Ms D Ngurruwutthun, the former principal, used to talk of the unseen world outside of current experience. Yolngu have been working towards this kind of empowerment since Wongu negotiated the return of his sons with Donald Thompson in 1934 and then Dula helped settle Yilpra and then Madjawuy as part of the homeland movement coming out of the bark petition in the late 1960’s.

Many promises have failed to deliver in the past and why is this different? The journey ahead is not without challenge but I believe what we are doing is a viable business embedded within the existing cultural social and conceptual context. The excitement is real and much is brought into the world by the weight of expectation.



We walked less and dance more than the plans of a month ago


The whistling duck song of the Munyuku baparu began a song cycle than ended at Mandjawuy, the other name we are using for the place of the knowledge water spring. The name we used in the campaign will not be spoken for a few years after the recent death of a family member by that name. I have known this place since 2005 but the constant presence of funerals is not easy to get used to. There was a significant death of a man no older than me while he was singing at this funeral.


Perhaps the awareness is greater because there is so much connectedness across the Yolngu population but they also reflect the shocking health statistics of closing the gap. This funeral was unusual as it was for someone we all would recognise as old. I have seen far too many people with so much more to offer leave us because of health problems with socioeconomic causes.


Part of the ceremonies include the painting of appropriate totems on the bellies of women of the right relationship to symbolise the renewal of life as other are born to take the role of the old and perpetuate this vibrant culture. Succession is challenging with elders going too soon but the members of the Mandjawuy family are no less determined to continue the journey towards empowerment in the modern world that their elders envisaged.


The knowledge water business will not solve everything for everyone but it will go a long way to addressing the socio-economic issues at the root of the closing the gap challenges through not just the employment and education funding but also shifting drinking behaviour from the sugar consumption responsible for countless years of lost life for yolngu.


Another time we will walk the song lines from yilpra to yarrinya and ponder the layers of the stories we encounter. Jono and Sam may be back for it and then many others who have supported us will also join. Maybe we will do it when we celebrate the launch of our completed facility. We will dance together as the sunsets at Yarrinya like on this previous visit with Bhavini, my wife whose significant support enabling the knowledge water project cannot be overstated.


Yaka gana




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