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The Story of the Banana Women

The Story of the Banana Women

 

This is the story of some very brave women who are leaders in their community of Lake Tyers. They are fire fighters, protecting their community and sacred land. Their friendship and their love for their country means they will keep putting on their bright yellow fire protection suits and going out to work as ‘The Banana Women’. But these superheroes do much more than fighting bushfires as you will see! 

Lake Tyers is a special place in the eastern corner of Victoria’s coastline. The land is owned by an Aboriginal community, the Gunaikurnai people. Gunaikurnai land is sacred land because you can find many “scatters” there. Scatters are special features in the land that tell the story of Aboriginal people’s settlement there for many thousands of years. On huge gum trees you will see where the bark was stripped back to make canoes or shields. Sometimes the bark is used to make a sturdy tray, called a coolamon, used for carrying a baby or food. The scatters include special places where people gathered to eat seafood, leaving behind piles of shells called middens, and a very special waterhole where only women go. Plus, there’s a ‘bush pantry’ full of native foods and medicines. Aboriginal people’s connection to the land there at Lake Tyers is very strong and needs protecting from wild bushfires.  

But, one day 20 years ago, the Gunaikurnai people had a big problem. Someone was deliberately lighting bushfires in Lake Tyers! During one fire, someone’s home was completely burnt. There was nothing left but ashes by the time the nearest fire fighters came. They’d driven from 45 minutes away, so they were too late to stop the worst of the fire. The fires left everyone in the town feeling helpless and frustrated. Lake Tyers needed a hero to step up and do something to make sure this never happened again. 

Luckily, three heroes were right there in the community! Charmaine, Rhonda and Marjorie got to work – they decided that Lake Tyers needed its own firefighting crew located in town, able to respond to fires in just a few minutes. To begin, they asked the fire service experts to train them up so they could drive big fire trucks, use chainsaws to cut up burnt trees and put out bushfires with huge water hoses. It was scary work and they hated it at first, but they kept going because they knew it was important. Soon, they were wearing their yellow uniforms with pride.  

But something was missing. They needed more people! The three firefighters walked the streets of their town knocking on doors and signing up volunteers. Soon eight women made up the first ever Lake Tyers Fire Brigade. They felt powerful, knowing that they could look after themselves and their people. The community was so proud of them! It was a big success and each summer they spent every day patrolling the dozens of bush-tracks that weave through the sacred bushland to keep their scatters safe. To this day, they will be out and about talking to campers about fire safety and often putting out campfires still smoking long after ignorant travellers have packed up and gone home. It’s tough work but for these brave fire fighters it’s about much more than protecting their community – it is also about protecting the Gunaikurnai story.  

Because she’s a superhero, Charmaine does more than fight fires. In addition to running the Lake Tyers brigade, Charmaine is also a fire educator, teaching people about preventing fires and educating other Victorian fire brigades about how to recognise scatters when they are on patrol. This means that fire brigades know how to protect the scatters too, no matter where they are in Australia. Charmaine is very brave. Once, Charmaine had to step in front of a big fire truck to stop it going so fast down a bush track. She knew there were scatters on the land there and she had to stop the truck from driving over the top. When she is teaching about fire, she is sharing the ‘blackfellas’ way’ called ‘fire stick farming’. Fire stick farming is very effective for preventing big wildfires and has been used by Aboriginal people for many thousands of years. 

When Charmaine and the other women began their brigade, the men in Lake Tyers called them the Banana Women because of their bright yellow outfits. The brigade decided that was because the men were a bit jealous of them, but they kept the name anyway. They are a bunch of very skilled mothers and grandmothers who can respond to a fire as quick as the wind to protect the 200 people and their houses at Lake Tyers. The Banana Women say this has given them friendship and enjoyment, positive self-esteem and confidence too. Being a Banana Woman is much than fighting bush fires, it’s about working together, not just within Lake Tyers but in the wider community as well. 

To celebrate their superhero status, Charmaine’s daughter Lorraine worked with an artist to do a special painting for the Banana Women called “Working Together”. Not a painting on a wall, but on the hood of their fire truck! The bright blue, red and purple patterns represent to all who see it just how unique they are; they are Australia’s only all-female, all-Aboriginal fire brigade.