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Winun Ngari revive Australia’s last leprosarium

Rachael Knowles -

A story of resilience and hope, the only remaining leprosarium in Australia is falling to ruin.

However, one organisation is fighting to memorialise and bring life back to the heritage-listed institution.

The Derby Leprosarium, otherwise known as Bungarun, opened in 1936 and cared for Aboriginal people suffering from Leprosy across Western Australia and into the Northern Territory.

Closing in 1986 after a cure was found, Bungarun had seen over a thousand Aboriginal people come through its doors.

It was the last institution in Australia to close and is the only leprosarium left standing today.

But it's a shadowed part of Australian history, a piece of our puzzle that not many without a connection to this place know of.

Winun Ngari Aboriginal Corporation are pushing to change that.

Winun Ngari CEO, Susan Murphy said there have been small victories.

"Winun Ngari have been fighting for the lease for around a decade ... [it] was signed off in February this year for a five-year lease which was approved by the Native Title Body," Ms Murphy said.

The land was unused for many years and came under the control of the Aboriginal Lands Trust â€" who, although being the largest land holder in WA, only received a small caretaker income from the State Government.

Winun Ngari is immersed in the Derby community, and so have significant knowledge of what Bungarun was like.

"Patients were taught to read and write, how to be nursing assistants â€" learning how to do needles, looking at bloods underneath the scopes," Ms Murphy said.

"They had a band, because with leprosy it affects your nerves and your fingers, so they made sure patients could use their fingers."

"They had their own bakery, their own butchers, they grew and produced everything themselves out there. They had their own mechanic shop, a laundry, everything. It was their own little town, little community."

Ms Murphy said that the restoration of the site is so important for the healing and memory of those who lived at Bungarun.

"We want to bring it back to life. We have over 380 people buried out there ... [we want] to remember them and for those ex-patients and their families to heal," Ms Murphy said.

"When families go there now, it is sad, the site is in such disrepair. There was a report done which said that most of the buildings were so damaged they need to be demolished. But we have three heritage listed buildings out there â€" we want to restore those."

Bungarun Cemetery. Photo supplied by Susan Murphy.

Educating differently

Winun Ngari is not only planning a memorial and cultural element to the restoration, but the setup of an Agricultural College.

"We want to bring life back to this place. With this college comes alternative learning, we are talking about learning at each child's individual capacity and capability. We currently have students that are graduating Year 12 and they still can't read or write. We have many that once they reach Year 8 or 9, they drop out of school â€" our non-attendance rate is really high," Ms Murphy said.

"The whole idea is not just sitting in a classroom, we give them the opportunity to work outside also, providing them skills and knowledge and ability to learn how to work with ethics. It teaches them to become adults and think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions."

There are plans to establish commercial businesses on the lease which will enable avenues for employment and further education.

"We're planning to work with KAPCO and Northern Pastoral Management, which is another pastoral company that has an abattoir. We want to tie it in with that also as there will be the learning of both sides," Ms Murphy said.

"The students that come through don't have to work on pastoral stations, but it provides that insight into what workforce is really like and they [can] make the opportunity to further their education through university or a traineeship or apprenticeship in a different area."

The plans are to adapt the buildings that remain from Bungarun to house facilities of the school.

"We have the old hospital out there; we want to renovate it into a boarding facility as you already have those big rooms there. There's also a commercial kitchen there, but it does need fixing," Ms Murphy said.

A group of Bungarun patients. Photo supplied by Audrianna Kitching.

"We need to put in solar as our power lines have been taken down â€" we need those panels to power the historical site, the school and power the commercial businesses."

Winun Ngari's Board of Directors hosts four ex-patients from Bungarun, who were participants in driving the need for revival.

"For them it was about getting that lease, fixing it up and putting in a heritage trail with information for different areas, so people can come and learn. They can come to sit and reflect on their lives," Ms Murphy said.

Revitalising the stillness

The Bungarun site is something very special to both locals and tourists.

A calming stillness lives on the country and feels almost immediate to those surrounding.

"I moved to Derby three months ago and from an outsider's perspective, people in Derby take it as they know it and they say it's a calm place and they love being out there. But it is like this whimsical calm, it is very bizarre," Ms Rahman said.

"The history in itself is important not only for the family and ex-patients, but I think for everyone. It is a magical sort of place."

Ms Murphy said once the site has been renovated, tourists will be able to "understand why they feel that stillness."

"They can learn the history in an ethical way from a family member or ex-patient â€" paying a gold coin donation as entry. People need to know about this place and why it is so significant to Aboriginal people," Ms Murphy said.

Although plans are going ahead, a lack of funding is severely stunting the progression of the project.

"We have people that want to be involved but they don't have the money. We have spent so much of our own funds to do what we have done. We have only done two buildings, we can't keep digging into our own funds," Ms Murphy said.

"We applied for a Commonwealth Heritage Grant for $4.2 million and didn't even get a look in. We have applied through the State and Commonwealth funding through five different funding rounds and we haven't been successful in any."

Winun Ngari applied for a grant through the Indigenous Land and Sea Council to engage a builder with heritage listed expertise, however they were told that without a longer tenure, the grant would not see positive investment.

"We can't supply that tenure. They wanted bang for their buck, they wanted to know what the investment would be," Ms Murphy said.

Future healing, future learning

Winun Ngari has plans post-development to pass on control of the property.

"We have taken the first step of getting the lease and starting it but eventually I would like it to sit with its own advisory board and I think it needs to be chaired by an independent person," Ms Murphy said.

"We want the board to host ex-patients, family members of those buried on the land, some Traditional Owners and some financial people."

Ms Rahman added Winun Ngari wants the processes to be transparent and for the people to be accountable.

"It isn't one way here, this is for the bigger picture and the greater good," Ms Rahman said.

Winun Ngari is beginning the development of that bigger picture â€" a movement to restore history that has been untold in classrooms across the nation.

The revival of history for healing, for learning and for growth.

"I feel like people don't understand that this is the last leprosarium in Australia, and I don't think they know how it became a leprosarium or its history. Bringing it back to life isn't just for the ex-patients or the families, it's for everybody in Australia," Ms Murphy said.

"I don't believe it should be left to rot, it is history, it's our history. But we can't do it on our own, we need help."

Winun Ngari is calling out for assistance with the redevelopment of the Bungarun site. For those interested in assisting this project please contact Winun Ngari through their webpage:

By Rachael Knowles


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