Brewarrina is an outback town of 1,500 people, over two-thirds of whom are Aboriginal, 600 miles northwest of Sydney. “Sixty-five percent of all Aboriginal people are functionally illiterate,” said Beetson, presenting a barrier to them getting driver’s licenses, jobs and services.
The program “Yes I Can,” or “Yo Sí Puedo” in Spanish, draws on the experience of the mass literacy campaign during the Cuban Revolution in 1961, during which more than 700,000 people learned to read and write. A volunteer Cuban literacy teacher, who lives and works with the local community, leads each session. Already some 90 adult Aborigines have achieved literacy in three other remote towns where the program began, contrasting to little progress from government courses.
Beetson explained why his hometown was next on the list. In 1849 up to 400 Aborigines were killed in a massacre nearby at Hospital Creek. This was part of the long frontier war for control of the continent, first by British colonists and then Australian capitalism.
Beetson spoke about the local Reserve, where Aboriginal people were deported from their ancestral lands to live in “tin shacks with dirt floors, hot in summer and cold in winter, no better than dog kennels.” The Reserve manager could walk in at any time.
In 1987, Brewarrina erupted in angry protests, branded a “riot” by the media, after Lloyd Boney, a young farm laborer, died in police custody.
The launch was held by ancient stone fish-traps on the Barwon River, where thousands from different tribes traditionally gathered to feast. Used for 40,000 years before British colonization, the Ngunnhu Traps may be the world’s oldest surviving man-made structures.
The Aboriginal people “have survived because of our ability to change and adapt,” Pat Anderson, a director of Literacy for Life, said. “Being able to read and write is the next adaptation we have to take to be able to survive.”
Cuban Ambassador to Australia José Manuel Galego said that since the revolution, Cuba’s internationalism has meant more than 100,000 teachers have served in “different countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. More than 200,000 doctors have been sent to 150 countries in the world,” including Pacific islands neighboring Australia.
Mark Coulton, National Party Member of Parliament for the large outback electorate, and Angelo Pippos, mayor of Brewarrina, also spoke.
“At school, I never really learnt, like a lot of people,” Kelvin Smith, 43, a sheep shearer who is Aboriginal, said. “I got sent to the back of the room. I didn’t know how to use a phone or put words into sentences.” After 13 weeks in the nearby Bourke course, he graduated from Yes I Can with new self-confidence.
Traditional Aboriginal dancers opened the launch. Ngemba elder Ernie Gordon sang a song he wrote for the program with the lyrics, “Literacy for life can make us strong. I can do it, you can do it, yes we can!”
The event ended at the community hall, where the classes will be held, with a barbecue of “bush tucker,” including freshly hunted kangaroo and emu.
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