I said a sad final farewell to a friend recently. We started out some years ago as co-workers, but over the years became friends and I’ve had few friends who made me laugh as much as she did. We first met when I interviewed her for a job. It was the first time I had run an interview panel and I was quite nervous. She however was a complete wreck, and things were not going well. About half way through the interview in an effort to put her at ease, I confessed my own nervousness. We had a laugh, she relaxed and then said “I was so nervous this morning I’ve put my undies on back to front….jeeez I’m uncomfortable!” My rather dour co-panellist didn’t know where to look, but I knew we’d found the right person for the job.
Every day working with her, you generally got one pretty decent belly laugh. Her ‘creative’ use of English was legendary, and her capacity to confuse words was endless. She was never quite sure if a USB drive was a UFO or a UB40. And I will never forget the day she was talking to a group of young teachers about problems in the community with diabetes and confused ‘gangrene’ and ‘gonorrhoea’. But her humour and ability to laugh at herself invited people in and many a meaningful conversation with her began this way.
My friend was just shy of her fiftieth birthday. It was too young to leave us, and it was one of those things out of the blue that no one could predict. Except for one thing – my friend was Aboriginal; and as an Aboriginal person she was far more likely to die prematurely. The statistics around Aboriginal disadvantage are shameful and something we should all be aware of. Life expectancy is significantly lower, infant mortality is significantly higher, incarceration rates are disproportionally high and education attainment is well below average. The likes of Pauline and her ignorant band of followers will say that Aboriginal communities should just let go of the past and move on. That is a gross over-simplification and ignores just how recent Aboriginal dispossession is. When my friend was born in 1962, her birth was not counted in the census and her parents could not vote.
Working in the area of Aboriginal education or health often gets stressful. The issues are complex, the opinion’s diverse and the political stakes are always high. I remember asking my friend at a particularly torrid time whether she thought us ‘whitefellas’ should just get out of the way. In language far more colourful than can be printed in these pages, she told me she didn’t care what colour you were; if you genuinely wanted to see better outcomes for Aboriginal people, you were always welcome.
“Don’t tiptoe around us Nunga’s like we made of glass” she would say, “If you want to know something just ask and if you got an opinion, I want to hear it. I might not agree with you, but I want to hear it!” For her, ‘Closing the Gap’ and ‘Reconciliation’ were not vague Government policy statements but a way that she lived in the world. She helped build bridges into Aboriginal culture for so many of us in this community.
RIP Aunty Leanne Nash nee Bilney. May your life keep reminding all of us that Closing the Gap and Reconciliation are everybody’s business.
First published Port Lincoln Times August 2012