Sport provides people with an opportunity to get fit and healthy both physically and mentally in a fun, safe and inclusive environment. There are so many teams, clubs and sporting organisations dotted around cities that people of all skill-sets, ages, genders and are suited to at least one sport that they would enjoy and fit in.
However, in the remote Indigenous community of Balgo WA, sport – in particular football – is more than just a health and social opportunity. With high depression and self-harm rates in the community, football provides the young men with goals and meaning and helps keep them together and away from trouble. To them, football is a way of life.
Situated in the south-eastern corner of the Kimberley region, Western Australia, Balgo has a population of approximately 400. Surrounding the community is miles of desert. The nearest town is a 4-hour drive along the rough Tanami track away. Balgo has one general store which holds the necessities and not much else. It has a clinic, a school, a parish and an art centre. Power is supplied by a generator, water via a water tank. In every sense of the word, Balgo is remote.
Residents of Balgo live in over-crowded housing which is gradually being renovated to what might be seen as a liveable standard. With such little infrastructure, jobs for the local people are at a premium. Summer temperatures average over 40-degree and the road is often closed during wet-season, deeming all those in Balgo stuck.
Every afternoon as the sun begins to dip towards the horizon and temperature drops to a liveable level, the young men of the community are invariably found at the football oval, ready and waiting for someone with a ball to join them so they can begin a game. The oval is a dirt patch filled with rocks and stones. It has been cleared of the spinifex weed infesting most of the arid landscape, so is the best position for a match.
Once a ball has arrived, the men line up in the centre of the oval and alternate stepping left or right, ensuring equal numbers on each team. Once sufficient numbers are reached, it’s game on.
The phrase ‘on for young and old’ is applicable in Balgo, as it is not unusual to see pre-teens line up in a forward pocket hoping to get a kick on their 40-something year-old opponent. The games are usually to prepare the men for upcoming sporting carnivals in communities anywhere within a 20-hour driving distance from Balgo. The community itself hosts the annual Balgo Sports Carnival where other communities within said radius will play against each other and the two Balgo teams for the honour of winning the Balgo Cup.
The Balgo Sports Carnival is a festival of fun where prejudice is long-forgotten as those who can’t afford boots compete against those who can and Indigenous and non-Indigenous players compete together and against each other. Talent isn’t essential, only endeavour.
Most people in the community, including teachers, doctors, police and shop-keepers all watch as the women play their own basketball tournament and the men fight it out for the football flag. The standard of play in each competition is high and each of the matches hard-fought.
Northern Territory team the Lajamanu Crows drove 10-hours to arrive at Balgo in time for the 2011 sports carnival and departed winners, having beaten the Balgo Eagles in the Grand Final. Many of the matches during the tournament were marred by violence including the derby between the Eagles and the Balgo Tigers. That particular match was abandoned after punches, car-jacks, axes and many other dangerous and heavy objects were used in an all-in brawl, after a physical stoush between the two teams. Ironically, the team that lost the match (the Tigers) then vocally cheered on the Eagles in the Grand Final.
Whilst the violence got out of hand at times during the tournament and was dangerous for players and spectators alike, it was brought about by the passion the men have for their teams. It shows how much football means to them.
Some say that the role of the dominant male in Indigenous society – the hunter and the protector of the women and children – has diminished since the arrival of white man and the western culture, thus diminishing self-pride and self-worth amongst the Indigenous men and leading to a massive increase in mental illness.
A chilling stat reveals that the death rate associated with mental disorders among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males is over three times the rate for other Australian males. However, the rate is the same for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females as those in the general Australian population. Through football, we see a strong rekindling of the pride of the young men whilst they provide us with dazzling skills and breathtaking play. More importantly, they provide themselves with an opportunity to once again be the dominant male and to feel fulfilment and success.
Football, to the men of Balgo, is a way of life.
Anthony is a friend of Mike or The Don. He spent the better part of a year working in Balgo, helping indigenous kids stay out of trouble – truly amazing work for which he is to be commended. We would like to sincerely thank Anthony for letting us share his experience.