Dreaming of Earthbags in Arnhem Land

20 Mar 2017

Did you know that communities can build dwellings using earthbags? Filled with local soils, they can create structures which are both strong and inexpensive. Fabio, his wife Maria and their kids have been living and serving in Arnhem Land for 10 years. They have recently joined Pioneers as part of our growing team in the top end. Fabio had a dream…

My dream about earthbag and sustainable buildings in Arnhem land had all the elements of a great idea. A bewildering, perplexing and troubled relationship between Yolngu (Indigenous people of Arnhem Land) and balandas (Yolngu term for “white men”) characterised by the dominating and intrusive “smell” of western colonialism in nearly all aspects of local life made for a generation of disoriented, disillusioned and disempowered people.

Yet, in this remote and ancient territory, the sense of indigenous identity is stronger than anywhere in Australia, and clans have for a few decades strived to live in their traditional homelands and pursue their own way forward.

How exciting it would be to witness these people break with the curse of welfare and the cycle of despondency and despair, and begin to believe they can do a lot more than waiting for money and resources to trickle down, and stare powerless at communities shaped and transformed by the interests of alien corporations.

What if they dared to dream of building their own villages themselves, out of local resources, their own houses for their own families, the shape they want, all helping each other as a big family? That’s the sort of local cooperation that’s happening in many small indigenous communities around the world. It’s the kind of stuff that gives a sense of ownership, responsibility and empowerment. So why not in Arnhem Land?

I tried to plant that vision, to tickle the imagination, to fan the smouldering ember.  I’ve always known that the single biggest obstacle to the realisation of this dream would be to find someone to champion it. And in fact, after six months of false starts and little or no participation, I started to lose steam and hope.

One early morning I was sharing my disillusionment with two friends and we prayed.

Later that day a former colleague called me from an outstation nearby. He felt he should tell me about a conversation he had recently had with a traditional land owner whose longing was to get back to his homeland and build houses for him and his family.

A few days later that man, Henry, called me and shared his heart and vision: “I am tired of this town life and all its western traps. I want to get to my homeland, take my family there and give them a better life. I have been thinking a lot about building a small house to start with. I want to avoid the high costs of modern materials and the balanda (white person) complications, I want to use what nature has to offer, and I thought of your earthbag ideas.”

Surprised, I asked: “You do understand that earthbag building requires a lot of people working together?”. “Yes,” he said, “I have five sons. I need someone who can help with getting the right ratios of sand and clay, I was hoping you could help with that”. “I’d love to, Henry,” I replied. “And I promise I will pray for your vision and your family”

A sigh of joy was audible through the phone: “I have also prayed for a long time for God to send some help with this, and I am really happy to be able to talk to you”.

“Seems like you know a bit about earthbag already, Henry….”

“Yes, I’m learning all about it on Youtube.”

I am going to meet with Henry as soon as possible to continue to listen to his dreams, encourage and support him in his vision and share God’s love with him and his family.

Why not stop for a minute and pray for Henry and his family, and for Fabio as he serves them.  Pray too that this will be just the beginning for Fabio’s vision, and that God would breathe life into it.


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