Indigenous Literacy Foundation launches songbook

Twenty years ago two mothers living in a desert community on the edge of the St George Ranges in Western Australia began creating school resources in the Walmajarri language: books, posters and counting cards.

English was the community's second language. Mary Purnjurr Vanbee and Jessie Wamarla Moora wanted their children and grandchildren to know the language of their ancestors.

In their early journeys to the Yakanarra Community School, Karen Williams, executive director of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, together with Tina Raye, the program manager, heard the elders were keen to publish a collection of songs they had adapted.

Old Macdonald had become a song about the brolgas, frogs, kites and cattle and finches that drank at Mangunampi, a local spring; Wheels on the Bus a tune celebrating the picking and cooking of bush tomatoes.

"It's the best way of kids learning their language because everyone wants to sing and singing is so important in the community," Ms Williams said.

But it took three years before the elders felt comfortable enough to sit down with the foundation and another year for the song book to become a hardback, one of four publishing projects launched across Australia on Indigenous Literacy Day on Wednesday.

Two Way Strong, written by Concordia Lutheran College boarding school students from remote communities across Queensland, is a fictional account of a young girl and the challenges she encounters as a boarder living away from her community.

Shallow in the Deep End, written during a week-long workshop with students of the Tiwi Islands, is about a pet buffalo who thinks it a dog. Scholastic Australia has published the story and 2500 books have already been sold.

For Yakanarra Song Book, songwriter Chris Aitken collaborated with Mary and the school children to write four songs in English to add to 10 in the Walmajarri language.

In one week the children's picture book writer and illustrator Alison Lester worked with students to bring the songs to life on paper.

Her favourite shows a beating sun and the pink haze of the flat hilltop ranges as Indigenous women gather bush onions to cook and eat.

Sixteen students of the Yakanarra community, Aunt Mary and Jessie and teachers travelled from Western Australia - a journey that began with a six-hour bus trip to the nearest airstrip - to the Opera House to give a performance from the song book. It was believed to be the first time Walmajarri had been heard in those halls.

In remote Indigenous communities English is often not the child's first language, author and lLF ambassador Anita Heiss said.

"There's been research that has proven if you can read and write in your own first language it's much easier to learn to read and write in your second language."

The song book will be distributed to 230 communities as part of the foundation's book supply program. "The value of that is other communities get to see books produced and the potential for them to engage in their own activity," Ms Williams said.

This story Indigenous Literacy Foundation launches songbook first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.