GEGAC’s Executive Director Children, Youth and Families, Noma Johnson.
It is a word from the Ndebele/Zulu and Xhosa languages of Southern Africa.
Ubuntu means something like “humanity towards others,” respecting and protecting other human beings, regardless of who they are and where they come from.
It is about integrity, responsibility, kindness, and compassion.
For Noma Johnson, Ubuntu is more than just a word.
It’s the kernel of a personal philosophy that drives and guides her at all times.
“All human beings have a responsibility, a requirement to each other, to lift, protect, assist, empower the next human and treat each human with respect and dignity,” Noma says. “If you do this, you have Ubuntu.”
Noma is a Ndebele woman, from Zimbabwe in southern Africa.
“Traditionally, when we greet or formally introduce ourselves, connection to our land, our clan and tribe is important to express,” Noma says. “When I meet you, I will say ‘I am Noma, of the Ncube clan, of the Ndebele people who are from Fort Rixon, Makhandeni, but some of the clan were resettled in a reserve in Mazetese.’”
“This helps us create a connection with whoever you are talking to. It keeps you connected to who you are.”
“My clan is the Ncube clan. My totem is the monkey, we are pathfinders, the ones that walk without leaving footprints. We don’t walk around mountains, we walk over them. What I am doing is offering a biography of my people, so you know who I am.”
“My cultural identity is massively important,” Noma says. “It shapes me as a person.”
Cultural identity is massively important for us here at GEGAC, too, which is why we are very pleased to welcome Noma onto our team as GEGAC’s Executive Director Children, Youth and Families.
A Childhood in Zimbabwe
Born and raised in the small farming community of Rosebank, on the outskirts of the city of Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe, Noma’s sense of herself was forged in a time when notions of race, culture, nation and identity were creating great fissures through the country, violence and destruction.
Noma’s parents were community leaders of a sort; her father was a policeman and her mother a social worker.
As the first black landowners in that part of the country and respected professionals, their farm became a gathering place, a place to talk, to organise, to support the local farm workers.
Community services were part of Noma’s blood from birth.
It was Noma’s mother (“she was very high on social justice”), that would steer her in the direction her career would ultimately take – social work, families, and the protection of children.
Noma’s family left Zimbabwe when she was 16, and Noma completed her schooling in the UK.
“After school I studied telecommunications engineering and I tried to move over to politics and international relations. I wanted to see the world.”
“And then Mum said ‘I know you don’t want to listen to me about this but listen to me about this. You should do social work.’ And she was right.”
Retaining Culture, Retaining Identity
That desire to see the world eventually brought Noma to Australia, via New Zealand, and since 2010 she has worked in human services and child protection in outer Gippsland.
Noma says since then the Zimbabwean community where she lives has grown – from 3 or 4 families when she first arrived, to at least 50 families now across Gippsland.
“In that community we all share the same concerns and hopes,” she says. “We all worry about maintaining our cultural identity. Will my child learn language? Will we be able to retain culture? We have sorry business, we contribute to funeral expenses. We become responsible for the other families in our community, passing the culture and traditions to the next generation.”
“Where I come from, retaining your culture is about retaining strength. You cannot be strong without a clear understanding of your own culture and identity.”
“When you have a strong sense of identity, and it makes you resilient. ‘I know who I am, so it doesn’t matter what you say I am.’”
Respect for All Cultures
Noma says the experience of travel, and living in another country, has reinforced for her the concepts of cultural respect and awareness she learned as a child of the Ndebele, back in Zimbabwe.
“When I walk on this land, Gunaikurnai land, I am a guest and a representative of my people and ancestors,” she says. “I have to be respectful of the culture of the Gunaikurnai, all first nations and all Australians, because I know my ancestors are watching. I am accountable for my actions, accountable to my tribe and my people.”
Though separated by a vast ocean, the belief of strong culture, connection to land, water, and community of the Gunaikurnai is very similar to that of the Ndebele.
Noma says she is excited to be joining GEGAC at a time when connecting to culture, making sure Aboriginal culture is at the forefront of everything we do, is once again a priority across the organisation.
“We cannot deliver services in the same way as mainstream health or community services,” she says. “When working for an Aboriginal Community-Controlled Organisation, our roles exist for the Aboriginal community. We have to have a cultural shape to everything we do.”
As well as the desire in community to protect and connect to Aboriginal culture, Noma says she can also see the challenges faced by community as a result of generations of trauma.
This is reflected in how busy our crisis services are – drug and alcohol services, the youth accommodation and women’s shelter, family services.
“In a perfect world, the only services that should continue to be busy are things like the health and dental checks, programs for Elders, the kindy,” she says. “We need to focus on empowering and proving a healing environment for the community.”
And, like everything, Noma says this comes back to culture.
“Cultural identity is paramount to a person’s life choice, and to their health,” she says. “People who are connected to their culture, to their community, are less likely to become isolated, and more likely to have the social supports they need.”
GEGAC will continue to be a place that supports our community and responds to our mob’s needs.
We provide a wide array of services.
You can learn more about those services at our website, by calling our admin reception at 5150 0700, or by coming down here during business hours Monday to Friday – we’re at 37-53 Dalmahoy St Bairnsdale.