Indigenous Literacy Foundation

Get your motor running as the ILF heads out on the highway—bearing books.“The closest community we work with is 130km away— that’s home base,” says Josie Lardy, Regional Program Coordinator for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) in Katherine, NT. “It’s a 90-minute drive to the next one, an hour to the one after that. If you’re going around to Borroloola, it’s another six hours each way".

Travelling between remote communities in the Territory isn’t easy. “Now imagine that road trip with zero air-conditioning, on dirt roads where you can’t even open your windows because otherwise you’ll be sitting in a dust box,” says Ben Bowen, a Wiradjuri man and the ILF’s Chief Executive Officer. “That’s what Josie used to do.” That was before the D-MAX. “I’d literally sweat all the way there and back,” laughs Lardy, a Mangarrayi woman. “The phone doesn’t charge because it’s too hot, there’s no music. Like, ‘Argh, I’m stuck with my thoughts!'”

Since its inception in 2004, the ILF has worked with 400 remote communities, gifted 650,000 books, supplied early literacy resources, and published 143 books in 26 languages.

There’s a clear need. Census figures say three-quarters of those who speak a First Nations language at home live in very remote areas where English is often a third or even a fourth language. Kids on Josie’s beat may speak multiple languages, but very little English.“Our kids may be fluent in, say, Gumbaynggirr or Wiradjuri,” says Bowen, “and speak it at home, but at school they can’t.

If a child arrives from France or Germany, says Bowen, ESL teachers are accustomed— and resourced—to help. “But schools don’t necessarily have the skills, money, or even the understanding to support a child who might already be fluent in [Indigenous] languages in terms of saying, well, let’s use those fluency skills and help them transition into English.”

Lack of reading materials in language is a critical issue. “When I was growing up in Jilkminggan, the only place our cousins would see books was at school, or if they came to visit, because mum and dad had a small library,” says Lardy. “But they weren’t really interested because, of course, our mob didn’t speak much English, let alone read English.

The ILF’s first translation, of Eric Carle’s 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, was typically challenging. Australia’s 250 Indigenous languages and 800 dialects use complex matriarchal and patriarchal phonetics, which adapt to both the speaker and subject. As many English words, such as lollipop, have no equivalent, it’s a slow process. But the results are powerful.

Years ago when the charity translated Caterpillar into Ngaanyatjarra, in Warburton, says ILF founder Suzy Wilson, “there were tears of joy all round. It made us realise how much we take for granted seeing your own language in a book. It was a pivotal moment”. Having begun by pasting laminated translations beside English text, the ILF now both republishes mass market titles, and community-written originals, all in First Languages.

Stoking enthusiasm is key, says Bowen. “It’s about finding passion jobs for the kids so they can be self-driven learners. When Community in the Katherine region invites Josie into their space, the one-on-one facilitation really helps the mob engage in the learning process.”

So, more books in hands. More passion for reading. More stories published by the ILF, 40 per cent of which are created by First Nations authors and illustrators. And more kilometres on the D-MAX clock for Josie Lardy.

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