It was a weekday night when Giancarlo Mazzella arrived at home to find a young Gija girl sitting on his doorstep. He wasn’t to know that she had already been waiting for two hours for him. Mazzella would be asked to accompany the young girl to her auntie’s home. It would be there, that Mazzella would find a Jaru woman in a serious condition – she had been stabbed. Neither the woman that had been wounded nor her niece had called the ambulance, they hadn’t gone to the hospital. They had waited for the Indigenous Community Health Nurse to arrive so that he could advise them on what to do. Mazzella after all, was family.
Mazzella has been given the Gija skin name of ‘Joongara’, or magpie. While the description may seem rather abstract to some, it is a name that identifies him within an Indigenous social and family group.
“I have told Indigenous people outside my immediate circles what my skin name is and they have been able to identify where I fit in their language group.”
Being able to fit within a social or community space has been very relevant to Mazzella’s work in the Aboriginal health sector over the past twenty-five years. It has been Mazzella’s experience that when one work’s in Indigenous communities, by the very nature of the landscape, cultural, spiritual, physical or social, it is integral to building relationships with Aboriginal people.
“You become a part of the community and therefore a part of people’s lives”.
“It’s something that health professionals need to understand and embrace if they haven’t been in communities like this and want to work effectively with Indigenous people” advises Mazzella.
Life for Mazzella began in London, born to a Burmese mother and an Italian father, Mazzella was no stranger to cultural and linguistic diversity. His father had travelled to England from Italy to learn English, and this is where he pursued a Burmese midwife on a nurse training scholarship from Rangoon.
“My pappa couldn’t speak english, and my mum couldn’t speak Italian – they became experts on cross cultural communication” reflects Mazzella. “And not only that, they were passionate about human rights and equity across cultures…they were very active”.
When the first Vietnamese boat people arrived in Australia, Mazzella’ parents took to sponsoring a number of families. Central to their philosophy as a family was recognising that: “if you give someone a hand up, nurture them, they will become successful, regardless of what culture you come from, we were boat people ourselves, ten pound poms”.
Generosity of the kind offered by Mazzella’s parents was certainly absent when as a teenager their son commenced study at Trinity College Perth. It was Australia in the 1970s and Mazzella found himself on the receiving end of cross cultural mis-treatment, or racism. “I was either a greasy wog or slant eye, really the insults were varied. I looked different…the colour of my skin was different” recollects Mazzella.
It was in that space, that Mazzella would forge friendships with Indigenous people, including the Pigram brothers who were with him at the time at Trinity College, when many of his other peers rejected him.
“We ate the same food, they weren’t derogatory like the others, my Italian and Indigenous friends were the only ones interested in engaging with me, folk like the Kimberley mob and Noongars. It was in the intimacy of those friendships that Mazzella would get an insight into their lives, culture and their stories. That insight would inspire Mazzella’s interest in contributing to the Indigenous community health sector.
In 1992 Mazzella was approached by Joan Winch OAM, the founder of the Marr Mooditj Aboriginal Health Foundation. At Winch’s invitation, Mazzella commenced work with Marr Mooditj, setting up the first ‘block release course’ for Aboriginal Health Workers, that would have an impact right across the WA Country Health System.
“It was about skilling up Indigenous people in real clinical skills so that they could undertake technically competent work, rather than be ‘jacki jacki’s’ or glorified drivers for the nurses.
After traveling extensively with his work, Mazzella would eventually be drawn to the East Kimberley by Argyle Diamonds and the Gija Senior Law people working at Jirrawun Arts.
Today in the East Kimberley, Mazzella works as Close the Gap, East Kimberley Chronic disease coordinator with Boab Health Service, a role he commenced in 2013.
“Every day in this job is different, every day in the community is different, and every community is different.”
Mazzella finds his schedule demands his flexibility and responsiveness to a variety of factors that concern the community: cultural activities, men’s and women’s law business and funerals.
“We have a case load, we advocate for our clients in a variety of spaces inside and outside the health setting, we develop educational programs, we culturally navigate for mainstream doctors, nurses and professors…but in order to deliver on this, we need to work with community”.
Mazzella has identified some key ingredients to achieving success, working on ‘Two Way’ communication principles, and identifying and working on peoples stengths and ensuring that these are laid as the foundations for solutions.
“What ever we do, it needs to be culturally sustainable, it needs to be community developed, community driven”.
For an outsider looking in, namely a young health professional commencing work for the first time in the remote East Kimberley: the approach Mazzella describes can be as simple as sitting under a tree with community members and listening.
“What we try to do is ‘wirnan’” – Mazzella explains that this is Gija for ‘sharing of knowledge’.
Mazzella and his colleagues have the cultural knowledge and it is his wish to share that knowledge with the people he works to support.
“We need to break our communication into language that they understand and respect. All of us need to remember that there are two very different worlds here, a ‘white fella’ world and a ‘black fella’ world – on top of that, English is the fifth language for some of these Indigenous people I work with”.
Prior to working in Indigenous community health, Mazzella’s experiences in major regional centres and District Hospitals saw him revisit concepts that he had come across in his social science studies as an undergraduate student at Curtin University, namely the ‘pervasive dominant culture’s method of providing a health service…a form of cultural imperialism”.
“Who provides the service? In what language do you communicate, how do you say things and don’t say things, what is your body language, what information do you give men as opposed to women?” These are questions as well as challenges that he feels that he partly addresses with his method of engaging with his patients. Mazzella and his colleagues work with, engage with a large number of patients who present with often fairly serious chronic problems.
Almost every Indigenous family Mazzella has worked with has had experience with mental health issues, suicide, renal failure, diabetes, respiratory diseases and heart disease to name a few.
“You see so much in 25 years, the good and the bad of working in the health system, that after a while nothing really surprises you. All you can do is focus on the positive, identify strengths of people and use that to navigate a way forward.”