Story Archive

ELDERS-2

Old Man Hermann

Posted on July 28, 2012 by
Raymond
on the road at
Tjilpa Camp
Hermann Malbunka Hermann Malbunka Hermann Malbunka Hermann Malbunka Mavis Malunka Mavis & Hermann current photos »

Dementia was once considered to be a form of madness. Think of the kings who went “mad” or references to people with “shaking disease.” One can only wonder what 'treatments' were prescribed for the poor bastards.

My friend Tony Garbellini, a man in whose photographic memory the name of each Blue Mountain plant and animal was stored, now can't remember how to eat. He was only in his fifties when the mist of unknowing enveloped him.

As tragic as it is, the names of the plants and animals that Tony has forgotten are recorded elsewhere. There are botanical books and photographic studies to secure each variation and species.



The loss of memory for Aboriginal Elder, Herman Malbunka, is a tragedy of both personal and cultural proportions. Herman, at 71, might be the oldest aboriginal man in the Hermannsburg community now that the ancient Nugget has passed away at 100 years of age. He was born in a humpy and lived in one again when he married Mavis fifty years ago. In the 1960's, he and Mavis again built humpys on their homelands of Ipolera to show the government how committed they were to moving to the traditional country.

All the old people of that era tell me that the forties and fifties were a relatively happy time. The last really bad drought had passed and the community now had fresh water piped in from Koporilja Springs. Vegetables were grown in the gardens and some income was generated by the tanning industry. Men like Herman worked as stockmen.

Industrious German Lutheran missionaries had created a fortress in Hermannsburg against the systemic murder, rape and dispossession of aboriginal people. The triple epidemics of alcohol, welfare and diabetes had not yet stolen the nomadic soul.

I have known old Herman for about five years now and watched his mind become more confused as each year passes. His English was never good but it now acts like barbed wire on the Western Front as he lunges towards finality. Increasingly his thoughts are blurted out like a man struggling for breathe.

I was leading a group of writers a few years back and was asking him about the old days. Suddenly he turned to everyone, profound shock branded on his face  ... it's all gone ... it's all gone!

Through the dementia the old man saw the truth. Herman had witnessed the last remnants of traditional society. He had watched his grandfather, Ezekial Malbunka, lead the men in ceremony. He also knew Ezekial had run almost 200 miles to Alice Springs when the old pastor, Carl  Strehlow, was taken gravely ill. In his more coherent days, Herman explained how Ezekial had sung the sun to stay high in the sky and ran in a kind of elevated state for 2 days.

The world that inhabited this old man's mind will never revolve again. Even if he could pass on the stories, the Aboriginal children now talk on Facebook and flock to see visiting American rap dancers like Bobby Soxers to Frank Sinatra. Meetings with white lawyers have long replaced ceremony that provided spiritual sustenance.

Herman is right. Not only have the stories disappeared but the context in which they gave meaning to traditional people has vanished. Paradoxically, deep culture and mystical belief serves the purpose of organizing and explaining life in the real world. It cannot exist where the fundamentals have shifted so radically to welfare and royalties.

I sat with Herman for hours the other day. I managed to get a little information about his droving days ... too right ... I was proper stockman ... was all I could get. I know he was a big man , a powerful elder and a leader in the Land Rights movement.

I was happy just to sit with this old man from another world. No need to try and talk ... too much talk ... Herman said recently ... well ain't that the truth. His eyes just stare now, at what I don't know. Maybe at the red sandstone bluff in front of us that stands at the head of the Tjilpa Valley. The Tjilpa was a native cat or quoll and is Hermann's Dreaming.

There is a men's place at the end of the valley that he told me about some years ago. I choose to believe, without any evidence, that the old man's mind goes there, perhaps to a story that might now exist only in the fractured gorges of his dementia, mental fragments of Ezekial and the other men stamping the ground and singing through the night.

Hermann smiles occasionally and he mostly seems happy. Especially if I bring a fresh packet of cigarettes. Mavis hides them and only issues one or two at a time. She looks after him as a devoted wife ... I love him ... she told me the other day.

But it's all very sad - I look at Herman. His empty eyes echo the lost world  - it's all gone ... it's all gone.


Comments
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Vicky
Reply
Hi Raymond I have been faihtfully reading your blog and have been meaning to let you know how much I am enjoying it. This post was enough to shake me out of my commenting inertia. Thanks for your wonderful insight and the wonderful way you articulate large and important concepts. I really miss the desert, and I feel very privileged to be able to vicariously experience these things through you.x
Raymond
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Hi Vicky.. thank you for that. I have been pondering how to write about old Herman for a while. I think there is a book in his eyes. Raymond x
kate
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Herman's eyes were empty but mine were full...of tears. What a moving, beautiful piece. Thank you Raymond
Raymond
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That's good. I think of the book 'Cry the Beloved Country'. I think our grief for what has been lost has been stopped by our attempts to pretend it hasn't.
Marg
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Very sad. Both for what was gone and what now is.
Raymond
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I agree. I am at a stage though that I think the climate of thought has to change. I thought hard about writing this story because it suggests the traditional world that has gone. That is my belief. There is also an enormous emotional and financial investment in pretending it hasn't.
Robert Ah Hoon
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Wonderfully sad, Raymond. Thanks for the memories.... Robert
Raymond
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Hey Robert. That's an interesting idea ... wonderfully sad. I think I know what you mean. Perhaps like relief that pathos gives. Glad you are coming to Burra Robert for us to create some more memories.
Robert
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Thanks for the pen-portrait of Herman Malbunka Raymond. No doubt an era is ending, and much of the culture has disappeared. But some stories and some power remains for those who will listen.I have been reflecting on what I saw and felt in Tjilpa Valley. Have you noticed the scatter of flint blades made from the fine-grained rock that looks like milk chocolate, or perhaps toffee? They are some of the finest tools I've ever seen, and I wondered at the origin of the rock. Not quite as glassy as the 'Darwin glass' tools from the meteorite impact in Tasmania, but perhaps the 'milk chocolate rock' is connected with the comet explosion at Tnorala? One tool I handled was clearly made for a right-handed person to use for very delicate work, and my mind jumped straight to the initiation scars on the chests of the old guys in the black and white photos in the art shop in Alice Springs. It was while I was handling one of the tools that I noticed a dingo watching me closely. It was not until I put it down respectfully that he looked away and then quietly disappeared. Cheers Rob
Raymond
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That is fascinating Robert. I have also experienced an event in Tjilpa Valley that I shall write about sometime. It is the sort of thing that makes you question the dividing line between belief and reality.
Mark Raine
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Respectfully written Raymond , a proper gentleman Herman ..
Raymond
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As are you old mate!
SHANTIEMAN
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Won't crack any funnies on this blog Raymond. Just so sad that these for real people are slowly leaving the plannet, and we will be left with so many arseholes commenting on how good was the disco music of the 70s was. (which should be banned for producing so many tossers)This I think was just a great but sad blog to read.
Raymond
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Hey Shantieman. It is my opinion that old men like Herman leave the world poorer for not being able to tell their stories. I did like the Bee Gees though .. staying alive .. staying alive .. uh uh uh uh .. staying alive!
Julia
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Raymond, do you think Herman would be able to "tell his story" in his native tongue...?
Raymond
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Hey Julia. Thats an excellent point but he still has dementia in both languages. The other issue is that there is really no one to tell the stories to. The stories were part of a meaningful and instructive pattern of life that no longer exists. Otherwise they are just stories.
Julia
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It's all gone... it's all gone...
Julia
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...and you are the story-teller...
Stuart
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I remember sitting around with Herman a few years ago. His eyes saw things that I couldn't even then. I managed to do a quick sketch of him that he recognised had caught something. He looked at it and said 'you magic man'. I'll always treasure that, but he is the real magic man. Great and moving piece Raymond, I know how much Herman and Mavis mean to you. Best Stuart
Raymond
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Hi Stuart... that's a lovely story that gets straight to the heart of Herman... Even now he comes out with things that seem sage like to me. Yes .. hes a proper magic man.
Julia
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Hi, Stuart... how would you feel about sharing your sketch? I'd love to see it...
stuart
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Hi Julia, Thanks to your request I have moved images from my Larapinta sketchbooks to my website (stuartwhitelaw.com). There are 2 sketches of Herman amongst them. Click on the Larapinta trail sketchbook page, click on the first image then scroll through.
Raymond
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Thanks Stuart.
Julia
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Wow! Thank you, I found the second sketch you did of Herman even more powerful than the first! Certainly something there... and thank you for sharing your sketch-book, complete with such personal commentry... Jxx
Rowdy
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Hi Raymond, just wanted to comment on Herman perhaps speaking of his early years in language. My old mum had dementia before she died and one Christmas when I was looking after her - I was almost was at breaking point - particularly as she was out of her familiar surroundings and so I suspect was more anxious - but I had one of those God given moments when I said something about her childhood and a load of stories came pouring out - neither myself or my siblings had a hint of any of the stories while she was 'a mother'. It made it much easier for me to understand her and to feel a great love for her as my mother. Maybe the stories from Herman might be there even further back than his stockman days - a tape recorder? Funnily enough I was reminded of my mother the first time I met Herman. Cheers to you and Tommie
Raymond
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Hey Rowdy. Thats interesting. Better still I could do it in language with an interpreter... It would be wonderful to capture some of the stories of his childhood. From everything I can gather it was a really happy one as well. Hope you are well. Off to Bouilia tomorrow and I don't even know where it is. R and Tommie.
Julia
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This sounds really important work, Raymond. If it's "all gone" there won't be many opportunities like this... people need to know where they have come from, and others need to understand, too...
Raymond
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I think there are two side to this. One the sadness around Herman's dementia but also the fact that the people for whom the stories are important have changed. The children could be sitting down with Herman but they are listening to rap dancers. The traditional world has gone, not just Herman's memories of it.
silvia ;-)
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You missed the yearly camel races at Boulia, the most important event in Boulia! 100 km SW of Winton: If Lark Quarry Environmental Park is open (again) it is a very worthwhile look as well. The story of dinosaurs, the most concentrated dinosaur footprints in the world. An absolutely amazing find. Yes, you'll be a tourist, but every now and then some great tourist stuff happens.
Raymond
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Hi Sylvis .. thanks for that info . I don't being a tourist occasionally. It sounds like an incredibly interesting place with the 'min min' light museum as well. Won't get away until Friday morning but think Ill stay a few days.
Raymond
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Hi Cecilia. Just realized who Silvia was. It's your SWAGGER name. Hope you are well
Jenni
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Hi Raymond, what a haunting piece of writing, perhaps your best so far. If this is an indication of what your new occupation as a travelling storyteller is going to be all about, then I'll be there with bells on bud! Several things occurred to me whilst reading this: 1) Yes it is sad that Herman has developed dementia and that his world has vanished and that you were no longer able to tap into your old friend. 2) It is sadder that a trend appears to be forming amongst many of his kindred youth who only interested in his-tory as a form of tokenism, tales of long ago as if a catalyst for tourism and the mighty dollar. 3) when looking at the pictures of him, he has a kind, proud and knowing presence of things seen and unseen. Quiet time together maybe the answer as he may simply be incapable of expressing himself on demand. 4) The reason why shows like who do you think you are are so popular is because of generational gap: the old ones, (perhaps rightly) thought their story was not important or the young ones were not interested; and so the art of oral history, (which in itself IS the essence of storytelling) passes into the realm of antiquity and knowledge is lost. 5)It is important for someone to make an effort toward capturing the lives, mythos, and legends of such people as Herman, because although aboriginal youth may not be interested right now, it will be too late and all gone by the time they are...but perhaps faith has guided you there for a reason.
Raymond
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Hi Jenni .. Thanks for your thought provoking comment. The fact that I have so many suggests that the blog worked. Deep down I think Herman saw the whole picture: its all gone. There is no culture if the kids don't care. Aboriginal people were deeply superstitious and their magic didn't work against guns. That's why many became Christian. They saw it as stronger magic. I can't blame the kids because 150 years later the stories have no real role in their lives. The stories were not just about mythology showed where water was, whether they were men or women sites. All sorts of practical things. Things that were needed and used. I agree about tokenism. More subversive is that knowing stories has become a way to speak for country and get mining royalties... Its all gone. Something will replace it but I am not confident.
Jenni
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I disagree that there is no culture if the kids don't care, although I think I do understand where you are coming from. I cannot pretend to be an expert on aboriginal culture as in truth I'm ignorant in it. What I can relate to is the sense of loss. The loss of language, history and country. My father never really forgave his mother-in-law for not teaching her daughter and grandchildren her native language as he, to this day, believes once a race loses it's native tongue it truly loses its' sense of identity. Her reason was her husband forbade it to be spoken. His reason? English was the language of Australia. What she would tell us were tales tall and true of the old ways and the old country which I was never really sure if they were true or not. Her ancestors rejoiced in storytelling, music and poetry but as did she and her family just not in the language she continued to read and write in until her death aged 98. My limited understanding of the present state of Aboriginal circumstances presents me with of a picture of utter confusion. Its like 150 years later and Mainstream Australia is still insistent upon forcing Aboriginals to assimilate at the cost of their very fabric and identity. If the kids don't care perhaps its because not because they are unwilling to embrace their culture but because no matter what they do they know they hopes of winning is slim.
Raymond
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Hi Jenni. I think traditional aboriginal culture relied on passing knowledge down to children as its fundamental process of renewal. Without that process it is doomed. The kids have to develop their own culture now. It may be an amalgam of old beliefs and new. That also might not be a good thing. I have spoken to many young people who think diabetes is due to having a bone pointed as they drink their coke by the bucket full. In any case. I really think the piece is a tribute to an old man and an acknowledgement of his loss. Off to Boulia tomorrow and maybe I'll see the min min lights. I'll definitely see the dinasaur bones they recently found. c ya R
Jenni
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Yep, you're right. Its a touching piece of work. Enjoy the dinosaurs