Bukmak Dhäwu Napurrung (Our full story!)

Just over 60 years ago, the Yolngu people were living traditionally in north east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, enjoying excellent health. When the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land arrived in 1948, they found the Yolngu people were in very good health, with no chronic disease apparent. As recently as the 1970s, Yolngu were renowned for their self-sufficiency and optimal health.

Assimilation into the wider Australian culture catapulted them into a sedentary Western way of life, living in remote townships, smoking and eating refined foods with little information on associated health impacts. White flour, black tea and white sugar quickly became staples along with soft drinks and other processed foods. Today, they find themselves in the midst of a devastating health crisis, losing friends and family daily to preventable health conditions. Their health is at crisis point with chronic disease responsible for up to 80% of the mortality gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with “diabetes accounting for 12%.” (2013, Cost of best ­practice primary care management of chronic disease in a remote Aboriginal community, Medical Journal of Australia).

It is an extremely strange cultural concept for Yolngu people that mainstream companies are producing foods, made available in their community that are not good for regular consumption. People have had very limited access to information in their own language, to analyse and understand the factors that have brought them from a healthy self reliant people, to a malnourished, disempowered group.  And they have little evidence that changing diet to healthy natural foods can transform a person’s health.

The average breakfast in Galiwin’ku.

In this context our program co-founders(read Dianne’s story below), a brilliant Yolngu cultural consultant suffering from chronic disease and a Non-indigenous mother with medical training, discovered together that the key to empowering remote Indigenous people to improve their own health was the opportunity to experience personally the effect of healthy natural foods along with quality education.

This experience lead to the investigation of intensive health retreats incorporating culturally relevant education to set Yolngu people on the road of lifestyle change for good health.  The first retreat participants formed a Working Group and determined that access to these lifestyle change intensives for their remote community could turn around the current hopelessness in their community.

How it all began: Dianne’s Story

In 2013 Elcho Island /Galiwin’ku resident Dianne Biritjalawuy experienced an acute health scare that left her wheelchair bound with symptoms of unstable ischemic heart disease and uncontrolled diabetes. She was just 47 years old. She turned to her friend Dr. Kama Trudgen, for answers and assistance. Kama has been living and raising her family and doing volunteer community development work on Elcho Island since 2009. Kama devised the best solution she could with the resources available and for 1 and half weeks Kama cooked dinners for Dianne and together they worked on changing her diet.

The experience was dramatic and transformative. Dianne went from being unable to walk even short distances, to experiencing new levels of vitality. Her ‘original’ energy was being restored. She rapidly lost weight, her blood sugar levels normalised and within two months she was able to walk up hills with ease. Dianne’s recovery was so profound that other Yolngu saw it as evidence of the power and effectiveness of nutrition. Soon, a group of 12 women, including Diane, were discussing with Kama how they could experience this health transformation on a deeper level.

These women, working with Tim and Kama Trudgen of Why Warriors, fundraised over $60,000 and in May 2015 and attended a two week health retreat at Living Valley Springs (LVS) in South East Queensland.  They knew they needed to restore their own rom walngaw, – way to vitality – in order to be catalysts for health and healing in their community. The experience was transformative, and began the Hope For Health journey on Elcho Island.
This group of Yolngu women had discovered that true health, once experienced, can be lived.

These same twelve women are now on a quest to achieve vibrant health for all Yolngu people. They have become the driving force behind Hope for Health, many of them actively involved in the program’s Strategic Management Committee, working to make their vision real and to share their experiences and what they have learnt through the retreat experience and participating in Hope For Health activities.

What is Hope For Health today?

Our Vision:  We see the Indigenous people of Arnhem Land reclaiming rom walngaw – the Yolngu way of vitality – achieving vibrant health, for their families and their communities.

Our Mission: With Traditional knowledge as our guide, we provide Yolngu people with the experience, knowledge, and resources to rediscover true health.

Hope For Health is a cross-cultural, experiential, two-way education program that utilises a community development framework to provide Yolngu of North East Arnhem Land (Northern Territory, Australia) with a preventative approach to poor health related to chronic disease.

The program combines modern approaches to nutrition and health with traditional Yolngu practices, aiming to create a locally understood and valued preventative health approach; one which engages Yolngu people to protect, promote and facilitate the reclamation of rom walngaw – way to vitality.

The dietary framework for the the program is based on research and collaboration with Yolngu Elders and community leaders with specialised knowledge of traditional diet and lifestyle. We continue to work with One Health Organisation and Living Valley Springs to create a model that builds on traditional practice and incorporates modern approaches to nutrition and lifestyle.

Hope For Health’s Strategic Management Committee, made up of 12 local Yolngu people, actively participate in and guide the program through regular meetings and activity review.

The program uses an immersive, experiential approach to connecting participants with the idea of ‘good health’ through a Traditional Health Retreat conducted annually on Elcho Island (the first was held in 2016). This retreat was supported by a number of health professionals from around Australia who donated their time and included Yolngu traditional healing as well as daily education on nutrition and health facilitated in local language.

A key component of the program involves training a team of Yolngu as Health Coaches, to work with local health professionals to ensure the community receives accurate health information customised to suit cultural-linguistic  realities, social needs and to adapt to shift systemic barriers Yolngu face in changing diet and lifestyle.

Trainee health coaches have completed a Retreat and participate in regular training in nutrition and health, cooking and exercise facilitation. They deliver cooking and exercise workshops for program participants on a weekly basis.

Beyond just the need for good teaching on nutrition, Health Coaches must slowly work with participants on systemic other barriers that directly impact their ability to live healthily such as; access to regular income, difficulties in storing fresh produce at home, night-time ramblers that keep people up, regular funerals that interrupt program activities and take people away from home, the burden of grief and family stress from things such as drug abuse or depression.  This cannot be overcome independently and often requires engagement with family and the gradual coming together of former and current program participants with other of influence in the community.

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