It is not everyday that a girl arrives with a pot of hot salty tea from a distant place, and invites you to sit down, share it and begin a conversation in memory of a number of people who died in that distant place.
Looking down at the pot of simmering pinkness Chris hesitated and said he was only used to drinking one kind of tea. I smiled, said this tea was not going to harm him and I asked Chris to trust me. But I was also nervous myself.
For the past year I have been living 200km away in Gija country, where I worked for some Indigenous artists. But this was Miriwoong country, a neighbouring region in the East Kimberley. I knew these people, though not so well. But like me, they also made art. Somehow today, I felt unsure and I wondered who would be interested in sharing these cups of nun chai.
But when I came out of the kitchen there were seven women waiting at the table with their cups in hand; Frances, Angelina, Philomina, Kitten, Agnes, Louise and Peggy. I poured the nun chai, and things began.
I spoke slowly about Kashmir’s story. I spoke about my friends. I spoke about the place. The political history. The conflict over land and country. I spoke about the tear gas canister that killed Tufail Ahmed Matoo on the 11th of June in 2010. I spoke about the protests that followed. The 117 people who lost their life. The international media’s indifference. I spoke about this project as a refusal to let that loss of life simply pass by.
Peggy, Chris’ mother, sat closest to me. Her gentle eyes seemed to listen deeply to what I said. The tea cooled a little. Frances said it was time to think of this loss of life; the salty tea from Kashmir was tasted, it swirled in seven mouths and fell, with a story, into seven stomachs.
Chris drank his like it was medicine – with a forceful commitment to finish the cup despite the fact he didn’t like it. Angelina took his cup, filled it and began to drink her own. The ladies agreed that the nun chai looked a little like a cup of chocolaty Milo. We spoke about the medicinal benefits of nun chai, and when Peggy discovered it was good for a sore throat, she drank more. I spoke of the different breads that are served with nun chai, and Agnes said she also knew how to make good ‘home breads’.
After the first phase of colonisation, known locally as the ‘killing times’, most of the Indigenous population in the Kimberley were displaced from their traditional land and forced to take up work on the cattle stations that were owned by the white settlers’. During the ‘station times’ many of the older women, like Peggy, Agnes and Kitten, grew up doing domestic work on these stations and it is here, each day, that they made ‘home bread’. At this time Indigenous people were not paid for their work, but while times were tough many of the old people look back at this period with a clear fondness. In the late 1960’s the Australian government enforced equal pay for Indigenous people. While this was meant to enrich their quality of life, in many ways it had the opposite affect. What followed became known as the ‘second displacement’, as station owners told their Indigenous workers they had to leave because they could not afford to pay their wages. At that point this region entered the ‘alcohol times’, a period, which, still continuing today, has torn apart the social fabric of this place.
Frances asked about the cups of nun chai I had in Gija country. I began to speak of the similarities between the East Kimberley, or for that matter all of Australia, and Kashmir. A landscape speckled with sites of massacre and horrible histories of colonisation that continue to shape the present. Though vastly different both these places are embedded with experiences of war, occupation and trauma that remain largely unspoken, yet somehow life persists often in their own quietly defiant, and beautiful, ways.
Agnes stopped for a moment and said, These people in Kashmir are like Aboriginals. From her own perspective and in her own voice Agnes’ words seemed to resonate with the politicised phrase We are all Palestinian. Frances later pointed out that last century we should have been saying We are all Jewish. There is an intuitive sense of solidarity that comes about through collective suffering and struggle. Agnes’ words spoke of the amity that is required in the face of injustice when she said, We are all Aboriginal and we are all Kashmiri.