April remembers living on mission

WISE ELDER: Aunty April Peter remembers her early days in a mission in Doomadgee. Photo: Robert McKechnie/Save the Children
WISE ELDER: Aunty April Peter remembers her early days in a mission in Doomadgee. Photo: Robert McKechnie/Save the Children

Aunty April Peter was taken from Burketown to a mission in Doomadgee in 1942, aged five. Her mother had died and she had no siblings. “The missionary man gave me bananas to eat all the way from Burketown, to try to stop me from crying.”

Aunty April remembers her mission days with fondness, but it was tough.

“I grew up in a dormitory for girls. We had to make our own breakfast by grinding wheat. We had a 44-gallon drum cut in half to use as a bath tub, and to boil our clothes in afterwards,” she said. “There was no pump for the water, we’d have to collect our own in a kerosene bucket.”

Aunty April’s wit is quick, regularly flashing a gummy smile and laughing joyfully at her own sharp jokes.

She wants to share her story with the children of Doomadgee. Growing up, Aunty April was only allowed to see her relatives on Sundays, after church. They’d take her out and show her the ways of the bush, tell her stories and pass on language.

She learned to harvest seeds from pandanus trees for the kids to eat which was good for their teeth. She learned to use tea-tree leaves to make medicinal tea and a rough leaf was good for exfoliating skin.

But it was difficult for traditions to be handed down living in missionary confines. Some kids April lived with could only talk with their parents through the fence.

April met her husband by reflecting the sun off a piece of glass to attract his attention from the boy’s dorm. They’d send each other messages by attaching them to rocks and hurling them over the fence. Soon after they met, they were forced to marry to avoid living in sin.

They were a good match and spent many years hunting, fishing and camping with their children.

It saddens Aunty April the current generation of ‘goonawunna’ (young children) have been cut off from their culture. So few have learnt the skills of the bush or carried on the languages.

“We were told not to share these things, or speak in language. If we were heard talking our language, we’d be made to stand up on a stool in front of the class. We’d get our mouth scrubbed down with a scrubbing brush, in front of everyone. And you’d get no sugar on your porridge!”

Aunty April says she reckons today’s mob of kids in Doomadgee are ‘getting on the right track’. But that it’s important they try to listen to the stories of their ancestors.

“We tell them to stand strong,” she says. “Don’t be like a tree that’s bending over. They’ve gotta stop, look and listen to us old people. One day they’re going to be leaders. We’ll be gone then. And our knowledge will be gone with us.”

“When I was born, in 1937, a big star ran across the sky,” Aunty April recalls. “In language, we call it ‘bunjirramurra’. That means the running star. It meant I was going to stay strong.”

Strong enough to reflect on a tough past without bitterness or regret. And to pass on what she knows of her people and her country to the kids in her community.