Auntie Bea Ballangarry
Thu, September 6, 2012 at 15:45
Stephanie Hunt

Sister Anne Hensen tells me that Aboriginal Elder, Auntie Bea Ballangarry, “stands out”, as she nominates her to be the most interesting person she knows.  When I first approach Bea for an interview she is cautious – Aboriginal people too often have been taken advantage of for their stories.  But after a preliminary meeting she agrees, and I am relieved because already I can tell that Bea is someone truly special.

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Finding Self Worth

Auntie Bea Ballangarry’s Toormina cottage feels cozy despite the chill outside: big cushiony armchairs, a small, ordered desk and computer, walls lined with old photos of Mum and Nana, and more recent shots of her son and his young family, the floor strewn with newspaper articles Bea has pulled out to show me. 

The clippings are superfluous.  I already know that, at 69, Bea is an awarded writer and poet and that her community work and ongoing fight for social justice has been recognised with an Order of Australia in 2006, Grace Roberts Community Development Award in 2007 and Coffs Citizen of the Year in 2008. 

It’s not Bea’s activism and awards, but her warmth and grace that captivate me.  The genuineness of her hug, her self-deprecating laugh as she admits that despite years of public speaking she is nervous about being interviewed. She settles gingerly into one of her plump armchairs, nursing arthritic bones, her feet dangling inches above the floor.  I feel both her vulnerability and her sense of purpose.

These are such human qualities. So it is disturbing to be reminded that when Bea was born in Bowraville she wasn’t officially considered human.  For the first 24 years of her life, up until May 1967 when Indigenous people were granted citizenship, all Aboriginal Australians, including little Bea Ballangarry, were classified under the Flora and Fauna Act.

The mentality of the day was ‘why would you bother to educate an animal’,” Bea says, explaining why Aboriginals were  officially denied access to State education and health care.

But Bea was blessed with an extraordinary mother, Ellena, who refused to see her children, Bea and her younger siblings, denied access to a white man’s world.

When Bea was stricken with appendicitis at age 3, her parents bundled her up and carried her to the hospital, only to be reminded at the door that it was for ‘whites only’.  Ellena refused to leave.  “If I was going to die, I was going to die on the verandah of that hospital,” says Bea.  Hospital staff eventually relented and removed her appendix.

When Bea was ready to go to school, her mother agitated for her to be allowed to attend the State School, instead of the small Aboriginal classroom at the Convent School.  “She didn’t want me to learn to draw with crayons.  She wanted me to learn English and Math.”  Going against both the Education Department and her husband’s family, who saw her as a troublemaker, Ellena earned Bea a place at the Bowraville School.

Then, realising that her daughter might suffer for her “trouble making”, she orchestrated moving the family to Brown’s Crossing where the Auntie who had raised her, Bea’s Nana, lived and where her children could learn in peace.

When Bea had finished her intermediate certificate, Ellena rode the goods train into Kempsey with her every day looking for a job.  They suffered rejection after rejection.  When she was told one more time “no jobs here” at the reception of the West Kempsey Hospital, Ellena replied that she wasn’t looking for a job, she just wanted a chat with the Matron.  Once in the Matron’s office she spoke at length about the political point-scoring the hospital could achieve if it hired a black girl.  Within half an hour Bea found herself being fitted for a cadet nurse’s uniform.

Ellena was an extraordinary woman indeed, and Bea acknowledges that she owes her strength and her sense of social justice to her mother.  “Mum convinced me that I had a lot to contribute to the world.

But even her mother couldn’t protect Bea from the inequities of growing up black. 

The family lived in a tent from when they first moved to Brown’s Crossing, only getting a house when a kind neighbor found them a home after their tents had been flooded. 

“It wasn’t easy at school,” Bea recalls.  “The non-Aboriginal folk would be ridiculing us something shocking.  We didn’t have shoes…we were living in hand me downs.  We were seen as not such good folk.

And being seen as never quite good enough took its toll on young Bea.  She reached for signs of her own worthiness.  Bea recalls that when her parents could finally afford a uniform for her in her high school years it made her feel “equal”, and this made her strong.  When she first got a job as a nurse it was the smell of the starched uniforms, not finally landing a job, that excited her.  “I thought, if people stand next to me and they smell me clean, then they’ll see me as worthy.”

This search for confirmation of her own worth nearly destroyed Bea.  “I thought if I’m seen next to a white man, I’m going to be seen as a clean and worthy person,” she recalls.  After her daughter Cheryl was born out of wedlock with one white man, Bea married another.  Bea doesn’t like to talk about her marriage.  She’s concerned how her children will react.  But it’s obvious that it was violent.  Her husband’s job with Telecom took them to the other side of the country:  Wyndham, Broome, Karatha, Gin-Gin and Wannaroo.  And it was in Wannaroo that another Telecom-wife woke Bea up to the reality of her situation, after 19 years in a brutal marriage.  “I had no idea about the (recognized) cycle (of violence) I was in.  Nothing, not a clue.”  She packed clothes for herself and her son David, and her precious sewing machine and fled, ending up in the Nardine Women’s Refuge.

When the refuge helped Bea into a small flat in Perth with three mattresses and a fridge, she says it was the first day of her life.  “I got to the end of my marriage and my little basket of identity was empty and I was this woman I didn’t know.”  But Bea was gifted with her mother’s strength and her sense of what’s right.

She had spoken little at the refuge, but she listened and she was amazed to learn that so many women were in abusive relationships.  She participated in a Radio National series on women from different backgrounds who had suffered domestic violence, and again was surprised to learn the statistics.  “I thought if I can get out there and I can say the things I know, I will be doing good,” says Bea.  And her mother’s teaching and expectation was the invisible hand at Bea’s back as she found her voice.

Bea acknowledges that it was hard at the beginning.  She enrolled in a TAFE course, New Opportunities for Women, and discovered the ability to talk about her experiences.  She entered Murdoch University in Perth and completed her Bachelor of Arts, double majoring in Aboriginal and Islander Studies and Womens Studies. 

Happy endings are not as easily found as the novelists would have us believe.  Bea married again: a Dutchman with money and a shipping business.  She discovered that abuse came in many forms, and eventually ended the marriage.   Her daughter Cheryl was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, and Bea took on her care. When her mother died in 1991, Bea was bereft.  “I thought, ‘How could you do this to me now, we’ve just been through so much.

But having found her voice, Bea grew stronger, the disappointments in her life now fuel for her fires.  She advocates for women of all cultures, her experiences giving her empathy and understanding.  She advocates for her daughter, to gain her a better life.  She advocates for Aboriginal peoples, ensuring that future generations know their worth without needing white men or uniforms to prove themselves.

Bea came back to her home country on the mid-north coast in 1994 and we have been lucky to have her.  She helped to spearhead the Pathways program, helping young people make the fundamental emotional shift from being a child to becoming a young adult.  She was instrumental in established Women of the World (WOW), which brings together women of all cultures to build respect, honour, connectedness, courage and empowerment.  She regularly shares her stories as Resident Elder at Bellingen’s North Farm.  She has written copious books and poems to share her learning and love of the land.  We see her regularly conducting Welcome to Country, and she’ll be cheering on the Deadly Sista Girlz, a local Aboriginal fitness group, at the City to Surf this month.  And of course she continues to be an activist wherever she sees social injustice.

The small woman beside me looks tired.  Bea has been brought to tears by some of the memories evoked by her story and I feel sick with the thought that I have inflicted yet another wound.  But she smiles that wonderful smile and as she struggles to extricate herself from the armchair her arms open for a hug. 

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Auntie Bea knows a lot of interesting people; she needs to give her nomination some thought.  But eventually she tells me that Margaret Brugisser is her choice.  Marg has had a special spot in Bea’s heart ever since she called Bea out of the blue to ask if she could help her with the Indigenous Tracks Program.  Somehow Marg wound up catering for 350 people, and Bea has valued her ethics, respectfulness and willingness to contribute ever since.

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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