Kartiya are like Toyotas – Griffith Review

Extract from an article by Kim Mahood

‘Kartiya are like Toyotas. When they break down we get another one.’ – remark by a Western Desert woman about whitefellas who work in Indigenous communities

UNLIKE THE BROKEN Toyotas, which are abandoned where they fall, cannibalised, overturned, gutted and torched, the broken kartiya go away – albeit often feeling they have been cannibalised, overturned, gutted and torched. They leave behind them dying gardens and unfinished projects, misunderstandings and misplaced good intentions. The best leave foundations on which their replacements can build provisional shelters while they scout the terrain, while the worst leave funds unaccounted for, relationships in ruins and communities in chaos.

There are many reasons why kartiya break down. Some break themselves, bringing with them baggage lugged from other lives, investing in the people they’ve come to help qualities that are projections of their own anxieties and ideals. Eager and needy, they are prime material for white slavery, rushing to meet demands that increase in direct proportion to their willingness to respond to them. They create a legacy of expectation and dependency, coupled with one of failure and disappointment.

A more common cause of breakdown is the impossibility of carrying out the work you are expected to do. Two factors in particular are not included in any job description. The first is that if the work involves interaction with Aboriginal people, which is usually the case, this interaction will be so constant and demanding that there will be no time left to carry out the required tasks. The second is that by default the kartiya’s function is to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Blaming the kartiya is the lubricant that smooths the volatile frictions of community life. For someone of robust temperament and sound self-esteem this is irritating but manageable. If you have an overheated sense of responsibility or a tendency towards self-blame it’s an opportunity to experience the high point of personal failure.

SINCE THE REVELATIONS about child sexual abuse in remote Indigenous communities scorched the national consciousness a few years ago, conditions in remote communities and towns have been back in the public eye. The flaws and failures of self-determination have been exposed, and it has become possible to speak aloud truths that until recently would have seen the speaker branded a racist, and his or her voice neutralised. That some of the most articulate and influential voices are Aboriginal has made it possible for the private conversations many people have been having for years to enter the public domain.

There is, however, one story that doesn’t get much mileage: remote Indigenous Australia has a significant white population that is disproportionately influential while being unequipped, unprepared or unsuitable for the work it does. There are the good people, who are overworked and undervalued; and there are the sociopaths, the borderline criminals, the self-righteous bullies and the mentally unhinged, who gravitate to the positions no one else wants, entrench themselves and contribute in no small degree to the malaise that haunts Indigenous communities.

It is mandatory for anyone wishing to work in Antarctica to undergo a physical and psychological assessment to establish whether they will stand up to the stresses of isolation, the extreme environment and the intense proximity to other people. All the same factors exist in remote Aboriginal communities, along with confronting cross-cultural conditions. Yet there don’t appear to be any recognised training programs for people who aspire to work in a community, or screening criteria to weed out the mad, bad and incompetent who prowl the grey zone of Indigenous service delivery. The remote community is a kind of parallel universe, where career paths, if they exist at all, travel laterally or downwards. The famous quip about mercenaries, missionaries and misfits has a lot of truth in it, and each type covers a spectrum, from highly functional through incompetent to downright destructive. Under pressure, both strengths and weaknesses become exaggerated, and what, in normal circumstances would be merely a character trait (stubborn, orderly, conscientious, volatile, flexible, timid) can become the quality that makes or breaks you.

SOURCE: Manhood, Kim. “Kartiya are like Toyotas.” Griffith Review Essay: What is Australia for. Edition 36 [Viewed 19 January 2017]

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