Aunty Matilda Bani
Aunty Matilda Bani may be from a small island but she has lead a big life.
From Inala youth to Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk (her local MP) Matilda is a friend to all.
She shares with us the highlights of her life – from her childhood on Mabuyag Island to her adopted community of Inala.
This is her story.
My name is Matilda Bani and I was born on Thursday Island and raised on Mabuyag Island, in the western group of the Torres Strait Islands.
I spent my childhood there; my people are from the major tribe of Wagadagam and our totem is the crocodile.
My people affiliate with the powerful Westerly winds of the Torres Strait.
My early education commenced on Mabuyag, our school on the island only went up to Year 7, so we had to leave home to go Thursday Island for secondary education up to Year 10.
I did my last two senior years of school as a boarder at the Range Convent College in Rockhampton.
A lot of us Island kids went to boarding schools all over Queensland - Warwick, Ipswich, Charters Towers and Herberton.
It was a big move for us Islander kids. I would have to fly home to Mabuyag Island in the school holidays.
The language I speak is Kala Lagaw Ya.
The dialect is Mabuyag, the same name as my Island. I grew up speaking my language and then learnt English at school.
When I went to school in TI (Thursday Island), I learnt the Torres Strait creole.
It was a culture shock when I attended boarding school and had to speak English all the time.
People are curious about the Torres Strait Islands.
They always ask me: Where are you from? What do you wear on the islands? What do you eat? What sort of house do you live in?
I can tell you now, I grew up eating seafood, native fruit and vegetables and native birds.
My brothers would hunt them, and we would all fish and go out on the reef picking up edible seashells and octopus.
I remember plucking the birds and cooking them in the big, old wood-fired oven.
I had my 19th birthday in Brisbane and I have not left since.
My family wanted me to return home, but I wanted to explore the world down here.
I am an independent person and I was keen to find out things for myself beyond the Torres Strait.
When I look back on it, I probably gave my family a few headaches at this time!
I still call Mabuyag Island home and I get back there regularly.
I have lived in Inala for 32 years and am very proud to be a part of the Inala community as it has been my home away from home.
My previous partner Greg Burke and I raised our six children here in Inala, he sadly passed away in the year 2000.
I was then a single mum for ten years.
During this time, I decided to go to University in Perth, and I graduated with Bachelor of Applied Science degree majoring in Indigenous Community Development and Management.
Then in 2010, I met my current partner Brian Whap, a Ngutana-Lui tutor.
I manage our Brisbane-based Family Traditional Torres Strait Island dance group.
For 29 years, I have worked for the government as an Indigenous Service Officer in Inala.
I work with the leadership and staff to make sure there is cultural understanding in the workplace, this helps our staff and our Indigenous customers.
I spent nine terms as a Regional Councillor with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). That was a different experience and during my last term,
I was also a member of the National Women’s Advisory Committee for the Minister for Indigenous Affairs - this was regional and national work.
These have been big jobs and I met amazing people along the way, but I get the biggest satisfaction out of the working at a local level.
I am proud to have started the Inala Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Inter-agency forum.
I felt like there were many different agencies in our community, but we did not connect with each other.
I suggested we have a monthly chat to get a better understanding of what we each do for the community.
That way we could all provide a better service to our people and build effective relationships with each other.
That was in 1995 and it is still running now.
I am also a Coordinator of the annual Southside Mabo Promotion Day celebration.
It gets bigger each year; we now have around 800 people attend.
Mabo Day is a very significant day on our calendar and Torres Strait Islanders celebrate this day with pride in their Culture, Achievements of Uncle Eddie Mabo and the Plaintiffs and our Identity.
It is a day when people experience our culture.
When you attend this event, you see, feel, hear, smell and taste the Torres Strait.
The women stand at the entrance and welcome you to the event, just as they would welcome people to their home in the Torres Strait.
The day finishes with a traditional sing-along to the guitar, just as we would do at home, and Torres Strait Islander cuisine for lunch.
One day I got a call from my cousin saying Cynthia Lui, the first Torres Strait Islander to be a member of parliament, needed a mat for her maiden speech.
The mat, in Torres Strait Islander culture, is very important – it symbolises our life journey from the womb to the tomb.
We met Cynthia and I gave her my mat – she held it in her hands as she made her maiden speech to parliament.
My mat in the hands of the first Torres Strait Islander MP as she addressed the Queensland parliament for the first time!
That was a very special moment for my people and me.
You meet all sorts of people doing community work.
Floods in 2018 did a lot of damage to the Torres Strait Islands with high tides causing some of the islands to go underwater.
Many Torres Strait Islander people lost homes and were in need of the basics, including clothes.
I worked with three other women to do a clothes drive in Brisbane to send up to the Torres Strait.
We ended up with over 100 bags of clothes which church volunteers helped us to sort out.
The biggest problem was working out how to get them up to the Torres Strait. I asked my local member, Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk for support and she helped us transport the clothes through Queensland Rail and Cynthia Lui (MP for Cook) helped with a barge from Cairns to Thursday Island.
It was a huge, seven-month project and it was great to pull it off.
I received a Queensland Day award for that project.
I believe that when it comes to community work, if you do something from your heart, you reach out and touch other people’s hearts.
I find this work a blessing and I hope people will be able to join us for NAIDOC week next year at Ngutana-Lui in Inala.
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