With a tissue and a snuffle, Troy Tungai is teaching a very important lesson
“Fold it, block one nostril and blow,” he tells a small class of mostly Indigenous students from Barrack Heights Primary School, south of Sydney.
It is a basic healthcare lesson that could make a big difference.
Life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is between 10 and 17 years lower than that of the wider community.
Troy is leading a program called Ngargin Doctors, which means young doctors in the local Indigenous language.
Run by the Malpa Project, the progam aims to teach participants how to look after themselves and each other through games, hands-on learning and discussion.
For some students, like 10-year-old Jai, blowing his nose is something he had never previously learned.
“When I came to the school I didn’t even know about it, and since I was in Ngargin Doctors, I knew,” he says. “And we started doing it more often.”
About 90 per cent of the students at Barrack Heights Primary School come from a low socio-economic background and 25 per cent are Indigenous.
Principal Sarah Rudling says the school has particular challenges.
“A lot of our kids don’t have access to basic nutrition, food, health care services,” she says.
“And if you add a hearing loss on top of that, through blocked nasal passages or ears, it just makes learning all the more difficult.”
She hopes the basic lessons in hygiene and health offered by Ngargin Doctors will help the students tackle problems that could be impairing their ability to participate in class.
Indigenous health expert Melissa Haswell says poor health in children can lead to long-term problems.
“[If] kids aren't often feeling very well, [they] may have gastro or skin infections, respiratory infections...that impacts on their attendance at school,” she says.
An Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, Ms Haswell says many complex factors contribute to higher rates of infection and sickness among Indigenous children.
Among them, overcrowding in the home, a lack of access to fresh food and social problems.
“You [may] have someone who was impacted by the Stolen Generation who didn’t have the opportunity to be parented. And so you can have that passing on, that lack of opportunity,” she says.
The young doctors program runs in a handful of Indigenous communities across the country with input from local elders.
Anthony Moore is a knowledge keeper of bush medicine, learning from his grandmother from the age of five.
He is thrilled to visit the ‘young doctors’ to pass on some of his expertise, demonstrating how soap can be made from certain bush leaves and how others can help with stings and skin irritations.
“I haven't been this excited in a long time to see that this younger generation has been involved," he says.
The children are similarly excited.
Ngargin doctors participant Colleen is pleased to learn more about her Indigenous heritage.
“I think Aboriginal people are pretty cool people on earth,” she says.
Once they graduate from the program in a few weeks’ time, the students will themselves become knowledge keepers and will be encouraged to pass on their learning to friends and family.