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The making of contemporary Aboriginal learning and literacy: Ngaanyatjarra engagement with changing western practices was a seminar given by Inge Kral today at the Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research. The seminar raised questions about reading and writing practices in Indigenous communities, and about the survival of small Indigenous communities faced with increasing demands from governments for paper work.

Inge showed how the Ngaanyatjarra (who live in the Western Desert of Australia) first encountered reading and writing in missionary work starting in the late 1930s, and how older people's literacy mostly centered on reading the Bible in Ngaanyatjarra and song books, on writing letters in Ngaanyatjarra to distant relations in school hostels and gaols, and letters to the Government asking for things like bores, roads and so on. These days, letters to family members are less important, since people have phones. People don't do much writing and reading at home, but they do write eulogies which are printed in orders of service for funerals. And young people play elaborate letter games with graffiti and tags.

Inge arranged for literacy testing of more than 500 Ngaanyatjarra people on the CDEP work-for-the dole scheme. The results suggested that about a third of these workers were able to read and write English well enough to tackle vocational training. This proportion didn't vary much by age, suggesting that there probably hasn't been a decline in English literacy since the days of mission schools, although Ngaanyatjarra literacy may be more common among older people. However, she noted that many people did not have much "administrative literacy" - the means to read official documents like letters from the Government , and to look after important papers like licences for driving and firearms, and tax-file numbers. These have been looked after collectively in offices such as council offices and arts organisation offices. But the change in welfare and administrative structures will probably mean that this service disappears or is reduced.

Here's an example of the sort of problem that administrative illiteracy creates:

In her mid 70s, an illiterate woman joined an Arts Centre CDEP project, and started to paint. Her bright flower-filled landscapes became popular, and, since 40% of the sale price goes to the Arts Centre, her earnings play a part in keeping the Arts Centre viable. And the 50% that she earned helped her live in modest comfort and help her family. Recently she asked the arts coordinator to look at some unopened official-looking envelopes she'd been carrying around in her bag. Here they are, summarised.

Letter 1. [from the government] Your old age pension has been suspended because you earn too much.
Letter 2. [from the government] Your old age pension has been cancelled because you earn too much.
Letter 3. [from the government] You owe us $10,000 because you earned too much while on the old age pension. Please pay within 28 days.
Letter 4. [from debt collectors] Give us $10,000.

An added problem is that because she is no longer a pensioner, she is no longer entitled to a pensioner flat, and there is no other accommodation available to her. So, financially she'd be better off if she stopped painting and went back on the old age pension. But her family and the Arts Centre would be worse off, as would the businesses in the community which would lose the additional spending.

How do you explain that to her? The arts coordinator refused to do it - telling Centrelink that they'd have to do the explaining. In fact, many people, illiterate and literate, would be confused by the situation she found herself in.

After Inge's paper, Nic Peterson said that he thought some of the despair in Aboriginal communities comes from the realisation of the more educated that they will probably never learn enough in order to be administratively literate. Schooling is only the first step. "Administrative literacy", alas, means life-long learning of something that isn't terribly interesting - new systems, new forms, new organisations, new charges - change, change, change. And what for? Someone's bright idea about what would be convenient for the organisation.

I think that, before any change is brought in, there should be an audit of how many hours it will take for the sufferers of the change to learn to cope with it. And that should be set off against how many hours of staff-time the organisation will save by adopting the change, and how much it will cost to put on extra staff to help clients through the change. I bet a lot of changes would not be made if governments had to undertake such audits and pay for the learning expenses incurred by their clients.


The bit about administrative literacy... absolutely spot on!

And it's such a 'hidden' challenge too.

I mean, most people here at Ngukurr struggle to fill in their CDEP timesheets themselves, yet the government seems to be expect people to understand all kinds of bureaucratic stuff.

Just one more thing to indicate how much people in communities live their lives behind the eight ball.

Another consequence of lack of institutional literacy is worry about dealing with medical things. I used to read mail for some of my consultants and I remember one time when one lady had received a card from the hospital reminding her about a cataract operation she was due for. It had her abbreviated flight details, appointment time and patient number. A lot of this had been arranged by the clinic and this was the first official notification she got, and she didn't know what to make of it, how to interpret it or anything, and she was very worried about it.

The real cost of change...

Off-topic, but it reminds me by analogy of the real cost of produce, and how the cost of organic fruit and veg reflects this, while the lower cost of conventional fruit and veg does not. By choosing conventional fruit and veg we choose to delay paying the real cost to our environment of fruit and veg production.

And by analogy, back to the topic at hand, by not paying the real 'cost' of change when implementing it, we/the government/whoever chooses to delay the real social, economic, political cost of change.

And more on the cost of change - of doing it badly - there's a really good article in the National Indigenous Times on the Wadeye community of the Northern Territory. It's about how the Government has suppressed a report into how badly it failed in its post ATSIC "bold experiment" to improve the delivery of government services to Aboriginal communities " over three years - 200 babies born and the construction of just a handful of new houses. No wonder they've been trying to focus attention away from this, and onto the alleged dysfunctionality of community members.

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