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In the first Aboriginal school for girls

In Australia, the Worawa College is a very special school: it is reserved for young Aboriginal girls, who live there in a boarding house. Meeting with the director, Lois Peeler.

The 70 students aged 12 to 16 come from all over Australia. They live there and return to their families at the end of each session – a very long journey for some, originating from villages lost in the desert.

It is a large area where the giant eucalyptus trees cast a semblance of shadow on a few single-storey buildings, scattered here and there. On picnic tables, a few dark-skinned teenage girls enjoy the February sun, at the end of the austral summer. We are in the heart of the Yarra Valley vineyards, just outside Healesville, a large, quiet village best known for its tourist train and zoo, 60 miles from Melbourne.

The 70 students aged 12 to 16 at Worawa College come from all over Australia. They live there and return to their families at the end of each session – a very long journey for some, originating from villages lost in the desert. We won’t talk to them: the director, Lois Peeler, is the protective type. Their well-being is also one of the school’s missions. “Here, they feel safe, supports Mrs Peeler. This is very important, because many of them come from communities where there can be dysfunctions, for example domestic violence. There, if girls don’t have access to education, they will have babies far too soon. »

A soft music comes to put an end to the recess. Nothing trivial in the choice of these aboriginal songs, explains the director: the sound of a bell has too many connotations for her people. This is what marked the different important moments of the day in the missions, often directed by religious, where the “stolen generations” were educated. A story similar to that of the Canadian residential schools, which took place over six decades, until the 1970s, and which Mrs Peeler, now a dashing septuagenarian, lived. Children were torn from their families and were given a “white” education. Seventy percent of Aboriginal families across the country have been affected. Their offspring did not have access to schooling: the girls worked as servants, and the boys on the farm.

In the principal’s office is a 2008 letter of apology to the Aboriginal people, signed by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. A “fabulous” moment, she recalls. A few times, the ringing of the telephone interrupts the interview. Mrs Peeler is keen to answer, as it may be the family of a student calling from the only phone booth in her community. No question of missing that phone call that you can’t return…

A family accomplishment

Impossible to visit Worawa College without talking about history. That of the aborigines, of course, but also that of the family of Lois Peeler, deeply activist. In 1938, his parents took part in the exodus from Cummeragunja, when 170 members of the Yorta Yorta tribe voluntarily left their reservation in protest at their living conditions. His uncle, Reverend Douglas Nicholls, was among the lot: he would later become one of Australia’s most famous reconciliation activists.

Photograph by Lois Peeler.

“Our people have lived off the land, so they have a much more hands-on approach. We used the stars to orient ourselves: we can use that to give an indigenous perspective to science lessons. We have our own weather station, so we talk about the cycle of the seasons in an Aboriginal context, and we add information technology, science and mathematics. »

Lois PeelerPrincipal of Worawa College

At her Aboriginal church in Melbourne, young Lois practices her singing. It was then the dark period of “White Australia”, which extended from 1861 to 1973: only immigrants of European origin were accepted on the island. However, some black musicians come to give performances: the young aborigines will welcome them and sing with them. Lois Peeler thus discovers the soul. She will then be part of an aboriginal group, The Sapphires, who will travel to Vietnam. “When the war started, we learned that there was a lot of entertainment for white soldiers, but very little for blacks. We acted as artists of color for them. » The group’s story was brought to the screen in 2012, in an eponymous film.

Lois’ older sister, Hyllus Maris, who died in 1986, was more cerebral: a philosopher and poet, it was she who chiselled the Aboriginal school project that began in 1983. Lois, who continues her dream, describes her as a visionary who herself felt alienated during her own schooling. “Where Hyllus went to school there were only three Aborigines, so a lot of racism. It was taught that it was Captain Cook who had discovered this country. There was nothing positive about First Nations culture, ever. At the same time, indigenous children had health problems, as they lived in great poverty. She concluded that there needed to be a school adapted to their needs. » And fought for the recognition of it by the government, which finances the education of young girls.

After 34 years of existence in the Melbourne region, the directors of Worawa College are now considering opening other establishments in other Australian states. The demand is there, says Lois Peeler, because the situation for Aboriginal Australians is still extremely difficult. “We wanted to be sure we had a good model, and I think we’ve done that”she says.

Aboriginal culture at the heart of education

A tree used for cultural practices.
In college, the focus is onempowerment through a teaching that respects Australian standards, but which gives pride of place to the culture of the students. Cultural practices are therefore encouraged, shared and celebrated.

Worawa College took the turn of single-sex in 2010. A choice easy to justify, for Lois Peeler. “We housed boys and girls in a small area at a key stage in their development; I think you understand what I’m talking about. And we found that the Australian school system offered a lot of opportunities for boys, because they are good at football [australien], which could open the doors to the best schools in the country. But there was almost nothing for the girls at the time, so we decided to take care of them. And I’m happy about it. »

The emphasis is therefore on theempowerment through a teaching that respects Australian standards, but which gives pride of place to the culture of female students, once considered the “devil”. On the small campus, cultural practices, such as dance, are encouraged and shared, even celebrated. The paintings and sculptures of the students are exhibited in the art gallery.

But it is even the course content that is steeped in Aboriginal culture, well beyond the history lessons. “Our people lived off the land, so they have a much more hands-on approach,” says the former singer. We used the stars to orient ourselves: we can use that to give an indigenous perspective to science lessons. We have our own weather station, so we talk about the cycle of the seasons in an Aboriginal context, and we add information technology, science and mathematics. » The objective is twofold, according to her: to train young people proud of their culture, who can return to help their community or access higher education and be able to flourish in Australian society.

But also to emancipate themselves as women. Just as indigenous communities have a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood, the Path to Womanhood course (Pathways to womanhood) helps female students make this healthy transition.

“What we want for these girls is that they can work in both worlds”summarizes Lois Peeler, however well aware of the possible appropriations of her work by people wanting to give a facade of diversity to their company – what is called tokenism in English. “Sometimes there is a tendency to include an Aboriginal person on a committee to ease their conscience,” she says. I think every community should have the right to participate in decision-making. »

And the best way to achieve this recognition is to behave in an exemplary manner, which is why the principal of Worawa College preaches a rigor which, she believes, is also intrinsic to Aboriginal culture. “Our stories are not written. We tell them through art, dance, song. We must therefore show concentration and rigor to perpetuate our traditions. That’s what I demand of girls. Our expectations are high. »

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