Community Legal Stories: Volunteering in the Kimberley
The brutal Kimberley sun is bearing down, at least forty-eight degrees and threatening to fossilise me into the pavement. The cream pants I’d carefully selected for my legal work experience are tinted with the red sand that covers Australia’s remote northwest. I’m standing uncomfortably, a file cradled in my arms, waiting awkwardly for my client who I’ve been promised is on their way as sweat runs down my face.
Eventually, my client arrives, a full hour and a half late (this is not a surprise, it’s a phenomenon known as ‘Kimberley Time’), asks if I can help fix her book-up (a sort of credit style arrangement common in Indigenous communities) problem and then tells me that air-conditioning makes her uncomfortable and so could we conduct the interview in the blistering sun. Of course, I smile, and try not to think of the impending heatstroke.
I think of all the episodes of Suits and Law & Order I’ve seen, the lawyers with the killer wardrobes, quick wit and sparkling charisma. Clearly this stereotype has not yet reached the Kimberley, but as I pull out my pen and start to take a statement from the elderly Aboriginal woman in front of me, I forget about all that and again find myself so grateful for the opportunity to volunteer here.
Here are some of our frustrations, inspirations and laughs from our time volunteering at a community legal centre way up North in the Kimberley.
At times it feels like you’re fighting against aspects of the law that simply aren’t designed to deal with the Kimberley. After a few years at uni, I’d begun to think there was a law to deal with everything. That was until I tried to explain to someone that my client had no birthdate as they were born in the bush – this simple example is indicative of the frustrations and difficulties that are encountered every day.
The hardest part is coming to the horrible realisation that you can’t help someone, even though they are so deserving of it, and having to tell them. It is one thing to read about the injustices experienced by Indigenous people in Australia, but it is another to hear stories firsthand, really come to understand the emotional, financial and physical toll this had on people, and then have to tell someone that there is really nothing we can do to set it right.
We were moved by the stories and gained insight into the issues facing Indigenous communities. We feel if everyone could have had this experience, mainstream Australia’s attitude towards Indigenous issues would be very different.
And finally… EVERYWHERE is full of creatures that will eat you, sting you, bite you, scratch you or annoy you in some way, shape or form. Want to go for a stroll? Look out for snakes. Want to go for a swim? Look out for crocs. Want to sit casually in the shade minding your own business? Keep an eye out for wasps with stingers that closely resemble hospital grade surgical needles.
The biggest inspiration was people of the Kimberley. I’m not sure what it is about being surrounded by searing heat, killer crocodiles and approximately a thousand kilometres of unpopulated desert that makes the people of the Kimberley so wonderful, but there’s definitely something.
To the people who chatted with us in the street, the person who loaned us a car for four weeks despite having never met us and most of all my boss who seriously considered driving me to Darwin (well over 8 hours away) after I missed my connecting flight, thank you!
Over the course of our work experience we saw the unfaltering passion and dedication so many people have for their work. The next time I go to complain about how difficult my 3 page law assignment is as I sit in the air conditioned law library with Wi-Fi coverage, I’ll take more than a second to imagine having to travel for hours on roadless routes to reach remote indigenous communities, sitting out in the searing heat conducting meticulous interviews and taking more than a dozen statements back to the office to work on. The hard work and genuine commitment demonstrated by both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers in the Kimberley is phenomenal and very humbling.
Sometimes you start to wonder if the heat has actually made you go crazy, or if you are acting perfectly reasonably in the conditions. Example: realising the shade had moved off my parked car and it was quite literally an oven, and deciding to simply walk off, hitch a ride home with someone whose air-conditioning was already working, and come back at night once it had cooled down. I still stand by that move.
There are some real characters in the Kimberley. I remember looking at the reflection of ten or fifteen pairs of beady eyes as I scanned the crocodile infested waters of the Kimberley with my torch and thinking that I highly doubt the lawyers in the city would have invited the newbies to a spontaneous fishing trip to a spot that was only a few feet from roughly a dozen salt water crocs.
This work experience was undoubtedly the highlight of our law careers thus far. Volunteering in a place such as the Kimberley is extreme, so we would advise anyone just hoping to stick something on their resume to seriously question their motivations, but if you are honestly passionate about working in an environment that is quite literally the opposite of every lawyer movie ever made and are prepared to be moved, frustrated, infuriated, inspired, HOT and worked hard, we couldn’t recommend it enough.
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