P.O. Box 3913 • Urbandale, IA • 50323 explore@cultureall.org 515-273-8569

Exploring the Land Down Under

Curious as to what a CULTUREALL workshop is really like? Marty Racheter, of Write with Racheter, Professional Writing and Editing narrated a Cultural Ambassador, Brenda McGuire’s workshop, “Exploring the Land Down Under.”

“Look at her hat!” one of the second graders whispered to his friend as he came into this seminar room.

“G-day, Mates!” she called out to them once they were settled. “Do you know what that means? It means “hello, friends,” she explained. And then Brenda McGuire asked what the class knew about Australia.

Cultural Ambassador Brenda McGuire showing a student where Australia is on a globe.

“It’s a country!” said one; “It’s a continent!” said another.

“Yes, it is. Have any of you lived there?” she asked, walking to the globe to have one of the children find Australia. “I have. I’m not from Australia. I’m from right here in Urbandale, but I lived in Australia for three years.” And she began to tell them about this “down under” continent.

Australia is about the size of the U.S., but only has a population of about 20 million, because the middle of Australia isn’t livable. Called the Outback, it is very hot, very difficult to live there. All the people live around the coasts. It’s called “the land down under” because it is so far down below the equator. The continent does have snow in some places, though.

“The landscape is uniquely beautiful,” McGuire said, showing the class pictures she had brought. “Does anyone know the name of the world famous area just off the coast?” She described the Great Barrier Reef as actually several reefs, which provide some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world. Plus there are beautiful rain forests at the top of Australia.

“You know what else it has?” she asked. “Australia has seven of the ten deadliest snakes in the world!” This certainly got the attention of the children!

She spoke of Sydney, site of the 2000 Olympics, where she has lived twice, and their famous opera house, built to look like a sailboat. She showed pictures of uloru, in the middle of he Outback, a huge rock rising in of the middle of nowhere.

“Do you know the capital of Australia?” she asked. “Most people think it is Sydney, but it is Cambera.

Then she had fun with words, telling the class that while Australians speak English as we do, they have many words which we do not, and so it is not always easy to understand what they are saying.  For instance, Australians will use the word barbie. “What do you think they mean?” she asked, and of course “Barbie Doll!” was the response. “That’s what Barbie is to us,” she said, “but in Australia Barbie is slang for barbecue.” Her list of slang words included bush for countryside; choke for chicken; jumper for  sweater; lollies for candy; and the intriguing ferry floss for cotton candy.

“Kids go to school in Australia of course during the day, but they wear uniforms,” she said. “Would you like to have to wear uniforms?” she asked. “Sometimes kids have to take a ferry to get to school, and people use the ferry to get to work.  During recesses, the children get to go swimming and sailing and surfing because there are so many beaches!” The class thought that sounded like a pretty good deal.

“Australia has very similar foods to what we eat, and does have places like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she said, “but many people have Vegemite on their toast for breakfast. It is very healthy.” She showed this concentrated yeast product that the children didn’t think looked very appetizing, and it didn’t smell very good either.

McGuire said Australians dress similarly to us, and have much the same music. She said that while our country has Native Americans, Australians have the Aboriginals, who have been there for 50,000 years. Many live in the Outback, and have learned to deal with that harsh land.

She explained that the Aboriginals tell stories through what they call “dreamtime,” a story of how they were created that is passed on from one generation to the next. There are four ways to tell their stories:  through the telling of stories out loud of course, but also through music, art, and dancing such as pow wows. The different tribes, or clans, tell stories about each of their groups.

McGuire demonstrated the didgeriddo, a wind instrument of the indigenous that you blow into, a natural wooden trumpet, which she said was the oldest wind instrument. “The people made their own instruments,” she explained. “They would go to the forest, get a log, hollow it out, and blow into it to make kind of a nature sound, and then would sing a story of their history, their culture.” She played a recording; the instrument made an usual sound, a haunting, echoing woodsy sound, not one familiar to us.

Aboriginal art uses lots of colors, dots, animals and symbols, all of which mean something. McGuire showed white dots for spirit, black for creation from the night sky, tan symbolizing the ground, red-brown for strength. The art also was in patterns, and people would paint their faces meaningfully. Animals in art are also symbolic. The kangaroo symbolizes happiness; the emu is good fortune; the koala is pride; the snake is to keep bad spirits away; the platypus stands for friendship; fish means provider; and the turtle stands for “wise elder.” Ancient cave paintings sometimes used symbols. This is how art work tells a story.

McGuire showed the class a decorated bowl and a boomerang, saying that even these kinds of items would be decorated. “The boomerang is used in sport now, but it used to be used for hunting, and as a weapon.”

Throughout the presentation McGuire engaged the children with questions and answered the questions they posed. The ending class activity was to “be an Aboriginal artist and make a picture,” either by coloring their own artwork or coloring the handout she gave.

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