To the other side of the universe

To begin this story properly I need to go back to July 2010 when I first went to Mäpuru for an Arnhem Weaving workshop (I love how reality is like a labyrinth; just when you think you are moving to the heart of something you are steered back to where you came from). 

On my first morning of our weaving workshop I sat next to an experienced weaver M, watching her hands rhythmically work with the pandanas. Soon after a young woman and her mother came and sat nearby. It wasn’t long before these women, D and L started to take on teaching me gunga djäma; one coil at a time, through the kala changes, slowly weaving me into their story. D asked me, ‘Are you adopted?’ I told her that no, I wasn’t adopted… well, I was soon after that. My new yukuyuku and ŋäma gave me my mälk, Baŋaḏitjan and began teaching me about my gurruṯu and country. I contemplated, What does this all mean for me? A question I am sure many Balanda have asked themselves when they are made part of the Yolŋu universe. J offered some insights as to why adoption happens with Yolŋu – perhaps Yolŋu are trying to make sense of a Balanda world, give clarity to how they should appropriately relate to Balanda. I was made a Yirritja woman, part of the Gupapuyŋugu clan. My bäpurru, the Guyumirrilil. All of a sudden, this identity Baŋaḏitjan, my place in the Yolŋu universe, spread around to all of the Yolŋu in Mäpuru. Walking around the community, people would call out and acknowledge me, ‘Yow Baŋaḏitjan!’ Very soon, the concept of Nia as identity, began to morph and that name left behind.   

To unpack all of my experiences relating to gurruṯu at Mäpuru since then will take time, but a feeling that has grown inside me each time I’ve gone back is the sense that I am a small child beginning my learning in the Yolŋu world as Baŋaḏitjan. All of the teaching that my mari’mus M and B have shared with me and my waku R, had begun to give me a tiny glimpse into the connections I had when I was being with… people, country, everything. At the time I struggled to comprehend the act that was taking place, the meaning underlying the teaching. Friday’s events have brought to the surface feelings and thoughts that have been germinating for a long time; I have a felt understanding of what these teachings mean, even if I can’t articulate a cognitive understanding.  


Meeting and getting to know M, a Balanda ḏirramu who was adopted by Yolŋu and given the mälk Bulany, has been a blessing in my life. Realising that we were ‘wrong mälk’ for each other (particularly as Baŋaḏitjan and Bulany are both Yirritja moiety) presented an ‘issue’ to be resolved. A possible way forward was for one of us to ask our Yolŋu family to change our mälk. It seemed fairer for me to do this as he had been adopted for longer and was more established in the Yolŋu world. A reluctance set over me and I put off speaking with my family. I knew that changing mälk was inevitable, it was a show of respect to our Yolŋu families and other Yolŋu we would come to know. Despite this, I was reluctant. [Unusual that I am writing this as a story for an audience… is that because I have told a few people about this blog?].All of the relationships I had established seemed relative to me being Baŋaḏitjan. Were they? How much did this affect how people related to me? 

A balance disrupted when I phoned my ŋäma on Friday to tell her about my love situation, ”Ŋarra djäl waŋgany Balanda ḏirramu ga nhanŋu Bulany mälk.” She repeatedly told me that I should be with Wämut. “Ŋarra marŋgi,” I told her I understood. Through my rough Gupapuyŋgu and her attempts at English we established that a mälk swap could be a way forward – despite my yukuyuku declaring, “Yaka!” when asked if I should swap (what did it mean to D to be my yukuyuku? I feel distant from her but maybe this meant nothing, we were sisters). Finally my ŋäma declared me to be Bilinydjan, her yapa. I am now Dhuwa, a Djambarrpuyŋu woman… to the other side of the Yolŋu universe. I am now the ‘right mälk’ to be with M, so everything’s ok, right? 

I still can’t get over the feelings of upset I experienced after this phone call. Part of me tried to drag myself into the trivial, I’m not even Yolŋu! but it didn’t feel like that. I felt like I was in a new place, like something foundational had shifted. Most of all, I was worried that all of the Yolŋu who had invested their energy in teaching me might feel like it had been a waste of time. Maybe they would be reluctant to teach me about my new gurruṯu. Thank goodness for the generous listening of M, A, Y and J who didn’t make me feel like it was all trivial. 

So what now? I return to Mäpuru as Bilinydjan, in an open relationship with Bulany and start again… a newborn in the Yolŋu universe.  

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