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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Aboriginal 'Strong Man' Program

Travis Bruce

Everything our government has tried to do to fix the problems of the desert Aboriginal people has failed. And because self abuse is out of control, the government is planning yet another intervention and no matter how great the good intentions may be, it too will probably fail.
Now there is the 'Strong Man initiative'. Every night, around 500 homeless Aborigines sleep rough in Katherine, 250 kilometres south of Darwin. And every day, men wrecked by chronic alcohol and drug abuse turn up at the Strongbala, or the Strong Man program, set up near centuries-old ceremonial grounds. Women are not welcome here, this is "men's business".

In a few run down buildings and shelters along a bush track, the men clean themselves up, get health checks, eat healthy meals and receive training for jobs. And there are no handouts - they have to work, mowing lawns, washing dishes, cleaning toilets and no drunks are allowed.

Travis Bruce, an Aboriginal health worker, says it is important for the men to have a place where they can reconnect with their culture and restore their dignity and self-esteem. He says the men feel free at a men-only ceremonial place, to "talk about their problems and get things off their chests, rather than hoarding it all up and hiding their feelings".

Patrick Ah Kit, a sexual health worker, says he can speak openly to the men at Strongbala about health issues, including sexually transmitted infections, because they sit in a traditional men's place. "We just couldn't have the frank exchanges we do if we were somewhere else." Aboriginal elders who volunteer their time, teach the men how to hunt in the traditional way and gather bush medicine and tucker. There are plans for the men to take tourists on bush-tucker walks and teach them how to throw boomerangs.

The program's aim is to train the men for jobs in construction, Aboriginal arts and crafts, horticulture, and literacy and numeracy education which will eventually lead to self-sufficiency. And there are people willing to help - a contract has already been secured for the men to build a bike track.

But there's a catch. John Fletcher, head of the Wurli Wurlinjang Health Service, says there are no specific government grants available for programs like Strongbala and the program desperately needs funding to continue. Initial federal funding for the program organised by the Federal Indigenous Health Minister, Warren Snowdon, is running out and requests to the Northern Territory government for support have so far been ignored.

Katherine court, police and government agencies are sending men to Strongbala instead of jail. "This is not 'poor bugger me' or bleeding hearts stuff, it's about men having a go to stand tall and be involved in their future and they are doing it here," Fletcher says.

With so many good people willing to help and the billions of dollars already spent, why can't we fix this problem?