My first unofficial date with my husband Cameron was at a Missions Morning Tea in Melbourne. I remember looking at displays of work overseas and Cameron asking, “So, you want to be a missionary?” An emphatic “no” was my quick reply. I only wanted to support missionaries. I wanted a comfortable life of flushing toilets, running water and power. But that was denying one of my childhood dreams. I had always admired my eldest sister, a Bible translator who flew off in a little MAF [Mission Aviation Fellowship] plane into what was considered a dangerous area in the Philippines. My eight-year-old self will always remember how proud my daddy was as she did so, saying, “She’s fearless, that one.”
It’s no surprise that I feel like a real missionary every time I board a MAF plane. MAF is in every favourite missionary biography I read. MAF and making bread are the marks of a true missionary in my eyes.
Instead of being called Mrs Herweynen, I am known by many relationship terms.
My mission title is being a Principal in an Indigenous homeland school called Gäwa Christian School, part of Northern Territory Christian Schools. The job entails many mundane tasks. I spend countless hours on the computer – writing reports, participating in meetings, researching best practices, doing payroll and advocating for Christian education. I love glorifying God even in the mundane tasks.
Then there’s the ubiquitous uniqueness of the calling due to our context. Instead of being called Mrs Herweynen, I am known by many relationship terms. Old Man, the elder of our homeland, calls me ŋama (mother) and he is my waku (mother’s child). A lot of our students I call gurruŋ (potential sons-in-law) and they call me murrŋaram (potential mother-in-law). There are only ten houses in our homeland and I love knowing everybody. The main town has more than 2,000 people and even if I don’t recognise someone or have forgotten their name, I immediately know what to call them when they call me a specific kinship term.
As we are very remote, the school takes care of its own power and water. Mostly we have power, running water and flushing toilets but there are seasons when it is hard going on all fronts. Whilst my husband mostly takes care of the site, I still dabble in operating the generator and trying to understand the solar power system. Non-staff housing in the homeland is under a different power system and we often have to look after that too.
The school also runs a little shop to help staff, students and families to stay in the homeland without having to do the three-hour return trip to the main town for supplies. So often, this Principal is also a shopkeeper. There are no cinemas, cafes or restaurants, often nothing to spend your money on, which is just as well because you need every bit to fly in and out of the island. At a conference in Adelaide recently, we met delegates who flew from Norway and found out it had cost as much for us to get there from Arnhem Land.
Crab hunting is my favourite, climbing over mangrove roots like it’s a jungle gym.
Ours is the northernmost homeland on a little island called Elcho or Galiwin’ku, only 55 kilometres long and 6 kilometres at its widest point. Hunting for traditional food is alive and well. We’ve had sea turtle, yams, mangrove worms, mud mussels, crayfish and turtle eggs. Fishing at the creek has yielded a few barramundis for Cameron over the years, his very first being given to his märi (maternal grandmother), the founding elder of our school. Crab hunting is my favourite, climbing over mangrove roots like it’s a jungle gym. I’m not good at finding crabs but I always go with those who are and we never go home empty-handed.
Our little piece of paradise has been filled with both peace and pain. It is hard to paint this balanced picture for friends and family who have not experienced life here. In some ways, the grief and tragedies of this place are only for those who daily share its joys and hopes. We have, however, tried to build more understanding and awareness through a YouTube channel called Homeland Dreaming. Where words fail, the sounds and videos give a better glimpse of God’s wonder and might in this place. His joy is in every child’s smile. His delight is in every dance step of repentance and praise. His majesty in every painted sky and the expanse of the ocean. His genius in the sounds of the languages we continue to learn. His Spirit in the depth of community. The hope of the resurrection in every death. His promises in every life.
Rachel Herweynen is Teaching Principal at Gäwa Christian School, Elcho Island, NT.
She is the author of the children’s picture book Adopted in Love about her adoption into a local Yolngu family.