The women of the Bush Medijina board - a beauty company making products by hands and with love

In the ultimate Grandmother’s Advice story, the Warningakalina women living on Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory, are making empowering health and wellness, and societal, changes to their community by doing what their Grandparents showed them to do.

esprit’s Andrea Ferrari with Bush Medijina’s Muriel Jaragba, Britt Hollingworth, Dianne Lalara and Frances Harley visiting New Directions, Sydney

When I met with Muriel Jaragba and Dianne Lalara on their visit from their home in the far tip of the Northern Territory, to Sydney’s New Directions, the natural skincare manufacturer and wholesaler, they told me how they learned from their elders which plants cure which ailments. “When I have a headache or a skin problem, I go out to the bush and get the plant and heal myself. I never use Western medicine”, says Muriel. She doesn’t need to. These remedies work, as they have since…well who knows when, but it’s millennia. That is the truest ‘tried and tested…and trusted’ endorsement.

Using the heritage of ancient recipes, the collective, run by Anindilyakwa Services Aboriginal Corporation, aka The Board, has in recent years created a business to employ women only who create, market and sell skincare and wellness balms, creams, soaps and haircare – Bush Medijina. The Board makes all the big decisions which might be about teenage pregnancies, domestic violence or alcohol abuse, but it might also be about new product development.

Bush Medijina HQ is ‘the shed’, where this small business was born, fuelled by a big dream to grow.

Creating the products is a pleasure and something the woman are deeply, quietly proud of. In telling me about how they work and talk as they make the products, both women look down at their hands and smile. They are humble and steadfast about the power of what they have created. The underlying benefit of the Bush Medijina business is a life-changer: it is a women-only cooperative because they choose to keep this as a safe place in a community that can be harsh on them.

Britt Hollingworth and Frances Hartley, two Australian women whose lives brought them to Groote Island 10-15 years ago, are two of the 20% of non-indigenous women working at Bush Medijina on the business side. Frances explains part of their role: “We work out how it’s going to happen and how we might grow the business…whatever the Board has decided”. They do the deals with potential retail stockists and wholesalers, and also joined the delegation to Sydney, with Dianne and Muriel. They describe the morning routine at Bush Medijina HQ…the shed…“We start the day with dancing and exercises, a morning meeting to sort out the day’s work and cook a healthy lunch together. During the day the women are hand harvesting, hand making and hand packaging the products”, says Britt.

In the ‘lab’, as part of the shed is referred to, the ingredients are collected. Here the younger girls in the community are shown how to prepare them for use in the products and importantly explained the specific benefits of each plant…the WHY.

Hand picked ingredients – hand made products

The first, and hero, product is the Skin Sanity Miracle Cream…it earned its name through its ability to cure so many ailments and soothe skin issues and reactions. Its key bush ingredient is Merrika (broad leaved wattle). Dianne explains that while this is a skin soothing ingredient, it has significant other historical uses: “Merrika is used by our elders as a ‘botanical clock’… we know that when this tree flowers, that the terns are laying their eggs. Traditionally, men used the wood to make the sharp tips of their fishing spears, and women used the wood for digging sticks. As well as using Merrika in our balms and soaps, we use the seasonal flowers in our body butter”.

Another interesting ingredient is Mamaburra (wild peach tree) bark. Dianne explains the process of harvesting the goodness: “We peel off the bark and just scrape out the insides. We also use the fruit. Both soothe the skin”. All ingredients are sourced sustainably: the Mamaburra trees grow abundantly on Groote Eylandt. The rich red colour of the bark gives many of the products their ruddy hue, reflecting the palette of the land. “The dried bark is also used as an exfoliant in our scrubs” she says.

The Bush Medijina Story

The Bush Medijina vision is to be a sustainable, independent enterprise that supports our women, our culture, our community and our future, says Gayangwa Lalara OAM. “We want to grow our business from a small seed to a giant tree, so it can stay strong, just like our culture.”

Bush Medijina was born from the desire of Warningakalina elders to address the need to build culture and capability across the archipelago to positively impact the livelihoods of women, children and families.

Groote Eylandt communities suffer from the effects of poor health and life expectancy, low school attendance, low employment and safety standards, and high rates of crime and domestic violence. In response to this, Anindilyakwa Services Aboriginal Corporation (ASAC) introduced the Bush Medijina program to strengthen values, knowledge, culture, and community wellbeing.

Governed by an all-female board, eighty percent of the team is indigenous, and one hundred percent women. “We create regular governance, leadership and women’s advocacy opportunities for our team and the wider community throughout the year.

Bush Medijina harvesting on the land

“Our Bush Medijina ladies (all of whom have Anindilyakwa as a first language) are mentored on following corporate policies and procedures, and using technology to perform their day-to-day roles, all the while remaining true to traditional practices and cultural beliefs. We are giving Warningakalina women a voice, and the capacity to be leaders and self-governing decision-makers for our business, our families, our communities, and our future”.

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