Putting the Hope into Hope Vale
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THREE little boys, aged about eight or nine, are sitting in front of a computer. One is manipulating the mouse, one operating the keyboard and one is half-reading a picture book while he also looks at the computer. What are they looking at?
It's a series of video clips - presumably available on YouTube or some similar site - of former Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league player Sonny Bill Williams.
The clip should have been titled Sonny Bill's Greatest Hits. For Sonny Bill, in his earliest years especially, had a trademark shoulder charge that was absolutely lethal. And that was what was showing on the computer screen, one bone-jarring, teeth-rattling hit after another.
Without introducing myself, I say to the boys: "He's pretty good, that Sonny Bill, isn't he?"
"He's great," the trio's leader, a bright kid with a mohawk hairdo, yells back without looking up from the screen.
Using rugby league, the common tongue of Queensland, especially far north Queensland, we have established a tiny connection.
This encounter takes place in the Aboriginal community of Hope Vale, about 45km north of Cooktown on the Cape York Peninsula. Apart from the ubiquity of rugby league in Queensland, what strikes me most about it is the kids' mastery of the computer.
"I'm a Bulldogs fan," I offer to the boys. "I go for the Tigers," mohawk says. "But my uncle goes for the Bulldogs."
By now the boys have already switched to a clip called Billy Slater's trio, which shows a brace of tries scored by the Queenslander who plays for Melbourne and Australia.
The boys' ease with the technology is impressive. They can slow it down, replay it, switch from one player to another. The boy with the mouse and the boy with the keyboard seem to work in perfect sync. Truly, kids are incredible. Their ability to adapt and to learn, when they are interested, is epic.
This little encounter takes place in the Indigenous Knowledge and Technology Centre in Hope Vale.
It has been open only a few months but it is one of the most impressive and marvellous things you could see.
In a field where all seems so often to be bad news, the IKTC is unadulterated good news. It is overseen by Shirley Costello, the centre's co-ordinator. Costello is a great woman. I can tell you that after two days' acquaintance. A former schoolteacher and a former member of the Hope Vale Council, she runs the IKTC every day. Her rapport with kids of all ages, her common sense and creative approach to getting the best out of the centre are entirely admirable.
I am deeply aware that I am no expert on this matter and that I work for a newspaper that has several of the best experts in the business working for it or writing occasionally. I am merely the pygmy who sits on the giants' shoulders to see farther. I have been to a lot of Southeast Asian and other Third World aid projects, and as a foreign editor I wanted for a long time to visit some of my fellow countrymen whose experience is perhaps most foreign to mine. Hope Vale is only the second Queensland Aboriginal community I've visited.
I wish I had more Aboriginal friends, more contact with the communities. Like every other Australian, I don't know the solutions to Aborigines' problems. But I do know that the IKTC is making a real contribution.
I understand that when a lot of people are drunk, Hope Vale can be a very distraught place. I don't want to minimise the difficulties people there face and the damage that can be done to them.
Nor are they the only problems. Over several hours one night the mayor and the council administrator tried to explain the complexities of the workings of native title. After a time my brain ached. No Australians should have to confront this level of complexity in carrying out normal economic activities. But I can report that my two days wandering around Hope Vale were friendly, enjoyable and not without hope.
The IKTC is an innovative centre based on the idea that the Internet can play a role in liberating remote communities. In particular it can spark interest in otherwise bored kids. Good policy for Aborigines, I opine humbly, is policy that connects them to the rest of Australia. The good people of Hope Vale want to be connected. For all the money that has been spent and all the reports and consultants and all the rest, sometimes we fail to do the most obvious things to connect Aborigines to the rest of Australia.
For example, Hope Vale is about 45km north of Cooktown. This is already quite a bit of isolation. I drove up to Cooktown from Cairns with some friends and it's a pretty long drive even by Australian standards.
Going up through the Daintree, you are struck by how utterly empty and beautiful the area is. It's a demanding four-wheel drive across some low rivers, at one point requiring a ferry crossing, up a lot of steep hills on winding, dirt roads.
It took us five hours. I should think it's almost impossible if it's raining.
A friendly greenie - a nice person even if I didn't agree with his views - put it to me that native title had been great for north Queensland because it protected the land. It meant there had been no development at all. Well, that's just great unless you happen to be a human being living in north Queensland who would prefer a life of work, fulfilment, happiness and affluence to one of idleness, alienation, poverty and despair.
Coming back to Cairns we drove the inland highway, which is sealed all the way and a much easier drive. But it, too, is just eerily empty, except for dead wallabies all along the unfenced road and an almost India-like parade of unrestrained cattle grazing at the road's edge. Roads are very, very important in Queensland.
Hope Vale has its own primary school. But for high school, Hope Vale's kids have to get a bus to Cooktown. They often arrive a bit hot and bothered after their long journey, but that is the least of their problems.
The road between Cooktown and Hope Vale has long stretches that are unsealed. In the wet, the school bus can't get through, so no matter how devoted you are to school, you just can't get there.
Now governments have a lot of trouble solving deep inter-generational disadvantage. But surely they can pave the damn road. Hope Vale's leaders, its mayor Greg McLean and the other councillors and folks I met, don't want to isolate Hope Vale from the rest of Australia. They're building an arts centre and want to attract tourists. There's already a business taking guided tours around the caves and cave paintings.
At the IKTC there are 20 or so computers, donated from businesses that don't use them anymore. Hope Vale residents have been trained to maintain and repair them. The Queensland Government sponsors more than a dozen such centres across the Cape but I think Hope Vale is the only one with a full time director in Shirley Costello. Her salary is secured for only one year.
During the day the computers are mostly used by adults. But if a primary school pupil is suspended from school they will come to the centre and Costello, co-ordinating their work with the school, will make them do three pages of school work, then let them have a half hour on the computers. YouTube clips of US president-elect Barack Obama have been a hit with the kids.
The younger children use computers where harmful sites have been blocked as far as possible. I saw some teenage girls working on MySpace and sending emails to friends.
The Hope Vale council believed in the project so much it vacated its own council chambers to house the IKTC. Can you imagine Canberra's MPs giving up parliament's chambers for an innovative school?
The IKTC has also attracted the support of philanthropists and other government agencies. While I was there, men from the local language group were learning how to film their own language instruction sessions. Some of the community are interested in putting a lot of cultural knowledge on websites they are developing. IKTC's backers hope kids will use it eventually for distance education and finding job opportunities. Maybe local businesses will market products on the web.
It's not the solution to everything but it's a real contribution, a connection for Hope Vale to the wider world that is full of opportunity, full of hope.
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