Rhonda’s crucial connection with Yolngu people

Meet MAF Arnhem Land’s friendly local voice helping Indigenous people to travel for essential needs

As a proud Yolngu woman with deep family connections to Arnhem Land, Rhonda Yunupingu has special reasons to care about the service MAF provides.

Rhonda works with MAF’s operations team at the programme’s Gove Airport base, dealing with bookings and helping customers overcome the isolation of living in far-flung communities.

As a friendly Yolngu voice at the end of the phone, Rhonda is able to empathise with Indigenous people when they go through some of the toughest times.

“I feel very happy and very proud, being able to help people get to where they want to go for whatever reason they want to get to their destination,” she said.

“One very special reason I love about what my MAF family does, is when there’s a funeral and the body needs to be taken to one of the homelands. It’s special that person is going back to their rightful place and to have that connection with the land, that special burial that takes place.”

The MAF team in Arnhem Land have a passion to support the Indigenous population with opportunities to travel for education, health, work and cultural matters. Although the staff from Australia and overseas make a big effort to learn the Yolngu language to be able to communicate effectively, Rhonda’s knowledge is a valuable asset.

“The Yolngu mostly want to come in to do their shopping, or fly from one homeland to another to attend ceremony maybe,” Rhonda added.

“The balanda (non-Indigenous), like health workers, teachers, fly in and out to the homelands and the surrounding communities.

“In my job, in the ops area, communication is very important. You have to get the right information from the people who are calling on where they want to go. Sometimes it’s hard for my colleagues when they can’t get that information, so they call out to me for help.

“To break through that communication barrier, I’m here to help.”

Rhonda lives in Yirrkala, a community just a short drive from the airport, and did most of her schooling in Darwin and then finished her education at the Yirrkala school.

She sees great value in MAF flights taking teachers into communities, but also flying students to and from their homelands so they can attend school without being uprooted from family ties for long periods.

“We are busy doing school flights, flying teachers in and out,” she said.

“I have family out in the homelands. They get flown out to a homeland called Garrthalala, that’s where they mainly do their schooling. It’s somewhere that’s close, and it’s here at home in Arnhem Land so they don’t have to go away to do their schooling.

“They are close to home, close to family, so they’re happy.

“From little to growing up, they’re getting that good education from Yolngu and balanda.”

Rhonda says she love making a difference and she values her connections within the MAF Arnhem Land team.

“They are friendly, welcoming, they have been a very good help and support to me in the years I have been here,” she said.

In the first quarter of 2023, MAF in Arnhem Land carried out 124 flights supporting local schools and education, transporting almost 700 passengers.

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