Reporting from Arnhem Land

“Fuck Maningrida.”

That’s what the graffiti scrawled on the community store says. They’re harsh words, angry words, and they give me a jolt as I sit on the nice clean mini bus while someone fetches my lunch.

I’m with a dozen other journalists from around the Territory waiting to tour the community and report on a trachoma eradication program there.

It’s a good news story that’s a bad news story. Trachoma is a communicable disease that can cause blindness; it’s a bacterial infection in the eye linked to poor hygiene and poverty. It’s predominantly found in the third world, but is badly affecting Aboriginal people in first world Australia. And the levels of trachoma in Maningrida are particularly high: the community of 3000 people is one of the biggest in the Northern Territory and overcrowding is rife.

So with all that in mind, we board a charter flight one Wednesday morning at 7am. Like a packhorse strapped with recording equipment, I clamber into the fixed wing plane and we take off with small jumps through the turbulence. The landscape out my scratched window is spectacular as we pass over the snaking waterways and remote coastline all the way to Arnhem Land.

Reporting in remote communities is problematic for many reasons, as you might expect.  For a start, it costs around $600 for a return flight from Darwin to Maningrida, or Elcho Island, or Wadeye, so few media organisations are willing to cough up those kinds of funds, and if they do, it’s not very often. Mostly, remote reporting is done when the Territory or Federal Government (or an NGO) charters a plane and invites journos along. The terms of the story and the itinerary are understood and most reporters don’t deviate too much from that script. Besides, there isn’t time, there are language barriers, there are deadlines and media talent is always hard to find, beyond the faces provided by the organisation in charge.

So here I am, on a hot and sticky morning in Maningrida.

I’m tempted to take a photo of the community store graffiti, but while I’m wondering if that will be frowned upon (and rustling around for my camera), the mini bus moves on. I’m sitting next to one of the newly elected ministers in the Territory Government and we make small talk and watch the handful of mangy dogs that chase after our mini bus.

First stop is a house with a trampoline, half a dozen kids, and a mother who doubles as one of Maningrida’s outreach health workers. The TV cameras and microphones come out quickly as doctors dole out medicine alongside pieces of fruit for the kids.

Maningrida truck

One journalist gets his grab from an older man who stops by for his dose.

He says he’s had bad eye problems in the past, and the journo records that onto his IPhone, immediately edits it and presses send. After he does that, it comes out that in fact the eye problem this guy is talking about happened with an argument and a glass of beer.

As we go from house to house, interviewing locals, doctors and health workers, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that we’ve turned the joint into a zoo. The media crushes around families as they are dispensed medicine, and gets footage of kids being measured, weighed and examined. We’re another pack of camp dogs, only with flashing cameras, broad brimmed hats and packed lunches. The health workers grin and bear it; for that matter, so do the locals albeit with a degree of suspicion and fatigue.

The pollies gather for a press conference on the lawns of one of the better community houses, overlooking the Arafura Sea. The house belongs to one of the traditional owners, I gather, and I watch the pollies shake hands and slap backs. Most of the journos stand in a line and fire questions. I hold out my microphone and record but after a while I get bored and wander away to talk to some of the women holding kids. Some of them are earning money working on the program, and they’re happy. There’s a health worker dressed as a jolly green goanna, the program mascot, and the kids are happy with that.

It all feels quite surreal.

After the press conference, a couple of the TV crews still want some more footage, so we walk down the road. The houses here aren’t as tidy as the earlier part of the Maningrida tour; there are more dogs, more car bodies, more rubbish spilling out of cracked bins.

Community home in Maningrida.

We get to one home and the health team says that this family are happy to be videoed, just don’t step on that piece of corrugated iron by the verandah.

The TV girls start recording their pieces to camera, while some of the women and kids sit on the concrete floor outside their home. An older woman wears a T-shirt that says I’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?

The walls are smeared with dirt and hand prints. The tiles around the door are dirty and there’s black plastic over one of the windows.  A handful of kids play with plastic toys, textas and eat chips from the local takeaway, some from the ground.

Then a cameraman from Channel 9 stands on the contraband piece of corrugated iron. He almost retches from the smell. The corrugated iron is covering a litter of dead puppies, just centimetres from the kids and the plastic toys and the chips on the ground.

It’s an awkward moment: the smell, the kids, the health workers, the householders and the cameras. The litter of dead puppies. The corrugated iron grave.

Afterwards, everyone gets on the bus and no one knows quite what to say. We drive back to the airport, get back on the plane, go back to Darwin. In my report on air, I tell the facts and figures of trachoma and the eradication program in Maningrida, but I know I haven’t done my job properly. That wasn’t the story and neither is the one I have just written for you now.