Vale Njabulanj Helen Williams

Njabulanj Helen Williams and her daughter Daiguma Alice Eather.

Njabulanj Helen Williams, a Kunibídji woman of the Wurnal clan, lived most of her life in Maningrida, about 500 kilometres east of Darwin in Arnhem Land.

She was born in 1956 on Mardbalk (Goulburn Island). Her father, a pastor, relocated from Goulburn Island to Maningrida when the Japanese threatened to invade during World War II. As a child, she travelled back and forth in a dugout canoe “Ibidjbat” on the Liverpool River between Maningrida and the surrounding coastal homelands.

Maningrida, one of the largest growth towns in Arnhem Land, was established as a trading post in the 1940s and then as an Aboriginal mission in the 1950s. Njabulanj attended the first school built in Maningrida and so gained an education in the ways of the white colonisers.

Njabulanj dedicated her life to improving conditions in the small, predominantly Indigenous town of now almost 3000 people. During the wet seasons the population of Maningrida increases by 50% as cars can neither get in nor out to remote areas. This puts incredible pressure on the town’s housing: in some cases a three-bedroom house will sleep 15 people.

Njabulanj was a co-founder of Maningrida’s first refuge for women, children and victims of domestic violence in the 1970s, the Bábbarra Women's Centre where she worked for over 20 years. The Bábbarra Women’s Centre, has evolved into a very popular fabric and design centre, organising workshops and popup stalls locally and nationally. It is involved in fashion runways, art fairs and the sale of beautiful handmade garments with stories printed onto these colourful fabrics, all made by local women, and women from the surrounding homelands.

Njabulanj was extremely passionate about education and insisted her seven children went to school. A teacher at the Maningrida primary school remembered her marching into the school room 25 years ago, with two little girls under her arms, saying “They are your responsibility now, teach them”.

Her efforts also resulted in a high school finally being built in Maningrida, so that Aboriginal children did not have to travel thousands of miles away to a strange city for an education. Njabulanj was also a cultural liaison person with the Maningrida Community Education Centre, just one of the many committees and peak bodies she sat on.

She was a strong believer in self-determination and land and sea rights. She was a traditional owner of Kabalko and Ngarraku Islands in the Arafura Sea, which she said she would never sell, even if offered millions of dollars. Her head was always covered with a colourful scarf and she was known for her bandanas. The story goes that her hair fell out after a huge rock was removed from one of her islands, at the insistence of the church.

Njabulanj was involved in many projects and services relating to her clans, community and people. There are at least 13 different clans in Maningrida with different customs and languages. Njabulanj spoke eight languages including English and Maningrida’s local language, Ndjebbana. She also learned to speak Indonesian during her travels to Indonesia in the early 1990s. Her main language was her mother tongue Kunbarlang, which is older and less spoken around Arnhem Land, Croker and Goulbourn islands these days, and only a few, mainly from her generation or older still speak it.  

She was a major force in the assistance and development of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) during the early days. BAC is a community operated and run organisation that runs most of the local affairs in Maningrida, as well as the Maningrida Art Centre, the Women’s Centre and the tucker run, a vehicle delivering supplies to people living on country, in the surrounding homelands, many hours from Maningrida. BAC was established so that the profits would go back to the people and remain in the community.

Njaburlanj’s advice was highly sought after and respected. She was always being pulled in all directions by community and external services because of her integrity, principles and stern opinions. She sat on the board of many organisations including the Northern Land Council for Arnhem region and the local government of West Arnhem Shire.

Maningrida Progress Association is another local organisation she was involved with all her life, from being employed as a stores and check-out clerk during her youth to sitting as chairperson of the board.

She was a mentor and trainer with the successful Jobs, Education and Training Centre (JET), a successful program operated by the community for the community. It had been government funded but it was eventually cut and the service was taken away from community control.

She was an outspoken leader for her community and was never one to hold back on what she thought needed to be said or done. She could always be trusted to ask the hard questions no one else dared voice.

Njabulanj was also an advocate for aged care and for the elderly in Maningrida, helping to set up Meals on Wheels and a laundry service. She fought for the care and safety of children, who had been damaged by petrol sniffing and drugs.

Njabulanj and her daughter were key leaders in the local group Protect Arnhem Land. They forged a campaign for sea rights, to prevent a petroleum company drilling in the Arafura Sea. After five years of fighting, the company withdrew their application to drill for unconventional gas. Njabulanj and her daughter Daiguma will always be remembered for the magnificent achievement of saving 1500 kilometres of Arnhem Land shoreline from destruction.

Despite the hard times, Njabulanj’s sense of humour was infectious. She was a passionate hunter of fish, shell fish, mud crabs and oysters and had skills with handline and throw nets in the Liverpool River. When she visited Brisbane she went looking for places to hunt or fish.

She is remembered in the film Stingray Sisters as a vibrant, strong, intelligent and infectious personality. But like many others in Indigenous communities, Njabulanj contracted a kidney disease. Dialysis machines in remote communities could save hundreds of lives like Njabulanj’s.

Njabulanj was heartbroken by the death of her daughter, Daiguma last year. They were two women who were forces of nature. Family and friends know they are with each other now, singing by a fire together in their favourite place of all, Kabalko Island.

Njabulanj is sadly missed by her beloved daughters Colleena, Ruby, Noni and Grace and sons Reggie and Russell as well as her many grandchildren, the entire Maningrida community and her many friends across Arnhem Land, the Territory, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and across the world.

Her smile will live on forever.

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