A unique group of ‘kungas’ and Aboriginal mums come together in the shadow of Uluru to help their children learn and grow.
The day starts early at our Mutitjulu Itiku Munu Tjitjiku Ngura Childcare centre, in the small Aboriginal community located at the eastern end of the massive – and sacred – sandstone formation known as Uluru, home of ancient wisdom and diverse plant and animal life.
The sun strikes this end of the rock first, warming the centre’s large playground area, sandpit and a circuit where the children can push mini-wheelbarrows, plastic motorbikes and prams. The kids start arriving at 8am and hurry through the nourishing brekky the centre provides to get out here and burn off some energy doing just that. It’s noisy, full of the laughter and shouting of children having fun.
There are between 25 and 30 families on the centre’s books and on any one morning there can be as many as 17 children here – mainly Aboriginal but also those from the non-Indigenous families living in the community. Families sign up and the care costs $5 a day: the government contributes to that every fortnight.
The mums are always welcome – on some days up to 10 mums provide much appreciated assistance to Deborah Flanigan and her staff of two “kungas”, or white women, some of whom live in the community and whose children come to the centre, and four Aboriginal women. Volunteers are often here lending a hand, too.
The mums can be closely involved and their presence contributes to an exchange of cultural and social learning.
“We are learning Pitjantjatjara (the main language of the Anangu people, the traditional owners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta and surrounding land),” Deborah says.
The mums want their children to hear and learn English, because that will help them get jobs, and the children pick it up quickly, Deborah says.
“At the same time we all want to maintain culture so we are trying to marry those two things together. There’s plenty of laughter and exchange of knowledge in what goes on here.”
Deborah has been at the centre for just on 14 months, following 11 years as area manager in Toowoomba looking after seven to 15 childcare centres. She has worked in childcare since she was 17.
She is highly conscious of her responsibilities, which are greater, and more diverse than in a mainstream agency.
“We use what is known as the ‘Emergent Curriculum’,” she says. “It is a flexible approach to education, where we allow the children to take the lead in what they are interested. Through our observations of their play, we support and extend their learning, to find out what they need and go with where they are going."
It is based on exploring what is relevant, interesting and personally meaningful to children. They learn to name colours through the colour of their drink cups, for instance, and through songs and games. “We find those moments within the play.”
The other learning is a two-way process – the Malparara way, where “I learn from you, you learn from me”. This includes the centre staff, the children, the parents and the wider community.
“I’ve learnt a lot here, and I’m still learning. That’s a big part of my job,” Deborah says.
“The mothers want their kids to come and have good care but I’m clear that this is their community and they are allowing us to be here. They own this space. I’m here because I work for ARRCS but if the families are not happy, I’m gone. So it’s a balancing act between having boundaries but empowering them to own this space as well.
“The childcare side of things is very familiar, but getting to know and be respectful towards the culture and the community here is all new, and that’s extending my personal growth well and truly.”
It’s a part of her role at Mutitjulu that she loves and the other “kungas” share her feelings.
“When we get together and talk it’s just awesome to see how much we are learning. That is a positive that we can take out into the world.”
She sees it as her job to provide a safe, welcoming and respectful environment for mothers to bring their children, and not to be regarded as a charity.
Building trust is important: “We are a consistent part of the mums’ lives. They need to know that the centre is here every day. And to see that the welfare of their children is our priority – advocating for their rights and sticking up for them and empowering them. The centre has a role in helping to build trust, and with that comes respect. And a tool to encourage understanding through listening.”