SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - When school liaison officer Andrew Stojanovski arrived at Yuendumu to find the remote Aboriginal community ravaged by petrol sniffing he had no idea this would turn into a story of hope for indigenous Australia.
Petrol sniffing had become an epidemic in the small Northern Territory community 300 kms northwest of Alice Springs with half of the teenage population sniffing petrol to chase a mind-numbing high then violently pursuing their next hit.
“The sniffer houses were the outback equivalent to the punk and hippy squats of cities,” Stojanovski writes in his newly released book about Yuendumu called “Dog Ear Cafe.”
“Music blared from the ghetto-blaster, people used drugs (petrol) and partied, mattresses were thrown on the floor. If you were a ‘cool’ teenager in Yuendumu, it was the place to be. This was where the action was.”
But with students asleep on the classroom floor reeking of petrol or not turning up, Stojanovksi became determined to help
so joined forces with Aboriginal elders Peggy Napijimpa Brown and Johnny Hooker Creek to set up the Mount Theo program in 1994 that took youths out of communities into a bush retreat to clean up.
After eight years, Yuendumu was free of petrol sniffing and the community’s fortunes turned around. Stojanovski, Brown and Creek were awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.
Stojanovski said he hoped other Aboriginal communities could learn from the Mount Theo outstation program and be inspired by “Dog Ear Cafe” to step in to save their youth.
Stojanovski said the consequences of petrol sniffing were tragic with an endless list of horrific stories. Sniffers pulled knives on Stojanovski and threatened to kill him during his time in Yuendumu but he persisted.
He cites the story of one teenager at a nearby community who was hallucinating on petrol when he dreamt that his friend had turned into the devil so picked up a piece of fire wood and attacked him, smashing his head until he was dead.
“If we didn’t stop our kids from sniffing petrol, we were going to have kids in wheelchairs, kids who were disabled, who were brain damaged,” he said.
“We’ve had several kids catch on fire and nearly burn to death when they have been sniffing and smoking cigarettes. It’s just horrific.”
Mount Theo was set up in the Aboriginal traditional way of life with no houses or electricity and evenings spent around the camp fire telling dreamtime stories to help empower the young and give them a sense of their identity.
Stojanovski said at first the petrol sniffers in Yuendumu were reluctant to go to the camp but they were forced by the community’s elders. They would spend a month there then come back to Yuendumu and if they sniffed again they would be sent back.
Some of the sniffers went out to Mount Theo 20 times but eventually they reformed and even set up further youth programs to help with their education and career training.
“This community has defeated this problem that everyone else said was unsolvable ... and they went onto the next stage of empowering their young people to have meaningful, fulfilling, vibrant lives,” said Stojanovski.
Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the population but have a 17-year lower life expectancy than other Australians and suffer higher rates of unemployment, imprisonment, domestic abuse and substance abuse.
Stojanvski said he hoped his book would give readers an insight into the Aboriginal culture and the challenges such outback communities faced.
“It’s an awesome life out there. The only way to really know Australia is to understand the spiritual powers of the land and the people who can guide you there are the Aboriginal people,” he said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith