01.05.2013 Spirituality

Special Teaching Uncle

Jeremy Ball traces the journey to wisdom of Aboriginal Elder Uncle Bob Randall

I am delighted to turn the attention of this column to Australian people who have been a light to the world, striving to make their neighbourhoods a little piece of heaven on earth and embodying the character traits of the great ones.

We start with my dear friend Uncle Bob Randall, a person from whom I have learnt so much. The teachings of Kanyini, Aboriginal wisdom for living, which Bob expounds so beautifully and which have earned him the honoured title of "Tjilpi" meaning "special teaching uncle", have been a water for my soul.

But I have learnt even more from Bob through observing him and drinking in his presence. The way Bob carries himself is a return to a simple age of human dignity and respect for all beings, something our modern society has attempted to throw away in its search for riches.

Yet this nobility of the soul is the greatest commodity anyone could possess; it is the source of happiness and it stems from love and the direct experience that all is God. I have been fortunate enough to meet several Aboriginal elders who still embody the noble humility and connection of old, whose souls somehow survived the scourge. I look on them as beacons from which we may rekindle our light and, one by one, return human society to its place of guardian and protector of life.

Uncle Bob's life is remarkable; it reads like a biblical parable and to do it justice would require several months around a campfire listening to the great man himself. We used to live like this; imagine instead of reading a book on wisdom you sat around the fire with someone even wiser than the author of that book and you heard their story told through their own warm breath, the wisdom enveloping you and entering your body, and that the storyteller was your grandfather or grandmother. You listened carefully, knowing one day the storyteller would be you and all that wisdom and spirit would be carried through you into new life. There was no need for entertainment; life was living through you. Together, we can bring this back. Bob teaches us how.

Bob was born near Uluru about 1929, a time when cattle farmers from Britain were already wreaking havoc in the area, pushing the Anangu (Aboriginal people from around Uluru) off their land with the support of the police and barbaric laws where Aboriginal people had fewer rights than cattle. Many men were shot and killed while defending their land and protecting their women. There were no world powers to protect them; the world power was doing it.

To save themselves and their children from starvation, some of the women began working as shepherds for the very people who had driven them off the land. Bob's mother, with her sisters, was one such woman. They would sleep out on the land with their children among the sheep, guarding them. Many of the women had children with the new land "owners", some more consensual than others.

Bob was born from one such union and grew up among several sisters who all considered him their son and each of them to Bob was his mother. During Bob's early years, his feet hardly touched the ground as his mothers passed him from embrace to embrace and breast to breast. He was showered with so much love and affection, from his many mothers, many fathers and all members of his family. That was until a law passed thousands of miles away made it wrong to have someone with European blood brought up in such an "inferior" way. It's incredible what the mind with no heart labels as inferior.

When Bob was about seven, a policeman arrived with a piece of paper, a warrant to take him to be raised elsewhere. Bob was taken from his mothers' embrace and placed on a camel, in between the legs of policeman riding it. When the camel stood up, Bob fell off, so he walked beside other members of his family, arrested for cattle killing and chained, through the hot December desert to Alice Springs, a forced march lasting three weeks.

In Alice, Bob saw his mothers and family members for what would be the last time. He was then taken to a holding institute for about a year before being taken to Croker Island Reservation in Arnhem Land of the coast of Darwin, a place Bob would come to know as home. He lived in a mission school on the reservation with many other "half-caste" Aboriginal children, all taken unwillingly from their families. Many would never see their parents again as the government did not inform their families where their children had been taken and even if they found out,it would be near impossible to travel there unassisted.

The mission was run by well meaning British staff who sought to "educate" and "civilise" these people from the bush and to impose their ideas and spirituality upon their young minds. Bob grew to have a spiritual connection with Jesus and even became a preacher but he never lost touch with his indigenous roots.

Bob would listen to the words of the preachers and read the Bible himself, becoming aware that his early life bore a far closer resemblance to the teaching of Jesus than the hypocrisy of the Europeans who had raped and killed his family members and taken everything from them, including their children. All the teachers and senior staff were European but they employed local Aboriginal people to do the physical work of keeping the place running.

As Croker was separated from the mainland by sea, its inhabitants, the Iwadja people, faced less destruction than their brothers and sisters on the mainland, their stories and culture surviving relatively intact. It was these people who became Bob's real teachers, his family. In his spare time, Bob would sit with the elders, listen to their stories and learn their language. Their law as the elders would shape his heart and mind towards wisdom and compassion, teaching him culture and natural law.

When Bob was about 20, he was banished from Croker Island for questioning the decisions of the white management. With his wife and young baby, he set up home across the water in Darwin. With all the love Bob had received from his own people and his natural leadership qualities, he became a community leader. His home in Darwin became a place of refuge for homeless Aboriginal people with Bob using his understanding of the Western world to help them find homes, doctors, schools and work.

In the 1970s, while working for an airline, Bob was flying high above Arnhem Land on a freight plane when the spirit of his mother came and sat beside him, embracing him, giving him the words to a song. This incident was to change Bob's life dramatically, calling him to come home and return to his roots at Uluru. Even more, it was a call to the spirit of all Aboriginal people to come home with the song, "My Brown Skin Baby", becoming the anthem of the Aboriginal Civil Rights movement..

From that day as often as he could Bob would travel back to the communities around Uluru trying to trace his mother and his family. He met so many women who had lost their son, so many who claimed Bob as theirs, but he didn't meet his mother. In the years that followed, Bob lived in several places, setting up community projects and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Student Centres at universities including Adelaide, Canberra, Wollongong, Sydney and Newcastle. In the 1990s, he returned to live at Mutitjulu, a small community right beside Uluru that had been devastated by white interference and disempowerment. He worked hard to get the community functioning and restore pride among his people but this again was taken from them with embarrassed faces in the NT government not comfortable witnessing Aboriginal people making a success of it without them.

Mutitjulu's loss was the world's gain with Bob forced to turn his attention outwards. Ironically, he has become a teacher to as many white people as Aboriginal, gifting us the understanding of how to return to live in harmony through the wisdom of Kanyini.

Photo Courtesy Tom Atle Bordevik

Jeremy Ball

At 26, following a “shamanic intervention”, Jeremy closed his business and left London to visit sacred sites and elders, later creating Transformational Tours and SacredFire.

When not roaming mother earth, you will find Jeremy at home in Byron Bay's hinterland, playing with his children and planning the next adventure. jeremy@transformationaltours.com.au