All in a Mother’s Memory Languages Getting Lost, Knowledge Eroding and the Story of a 50 Dollar Note


The sun was about to set in the local craft market, where we had gone to experience art, culture and food. Kelli Ryan complimented my talk that I had given earlier this day at the inaugural session of the World Indigenous Network Conference WINC2013 in Darwin, Australia, and said that she was trying to do many things I had mentioned. It perhaps resonated with her because she was herself trying to seed enterprises among local aboriginal communities. We decided to meet in the evening along with Jodie Edwards and Annie Vanderwyk, her colleagues in this enterprise.

What followed was a stimulating conversation about local languages on the verge of extinction and the need for saving those if the cultures behind them were to be saved too. The lack of public support for seeding enterprises among aboriginal communities was pointed out as a serious constraint. Traditional knowledge is lost at an ever-faster pace and there has not been much effort to document it as a means for setting up local enterprises.

When Kelli’s mother died at 43, she left 60k AU dollars for Kelli. What would be a good way to use this inheritance, Kelli asked herself. was born. She got some additional funding of 20k and then formed a group of volunteers and aboriginal women who would join her efforts to conserve language and culture, traditional knowledge and above all set up enterprises based on bio char or other local resource based opportunities.

Jodie Edwards, a teacher, joined the effort of investigating how new words could be developed to describe contemporary things in traditional languages. But then, how do we record these languages with a very few elders still around, knowing these languages? Often only in a group setting, one can really validate meanings of different words. One or the other person may know the finer nuances or subtle differences in the context in which a specific word is used.

While describing the scope of innovations by local communities, I asked as to why there was so little attention by government as well as local leaders. Then I recalled what Klynton Wanganeen, a member of the indigenous advisory council for the Minister of Environment, had told me in the bus to the market. Along with another member of the council he explained that on the Australian fifty dollar bill, for the first time a picture of an indigenous scientist, teacher, innovator and a great man, David Uniapon, had been given. Annie Vanderwyk, the third lady in our conversation, working in community development in the region, was his niece. What a series of coincidences!

Jodie, Kelli and Annie

I had never heard about an indigenous or local grassroots innovator being honoured in such a way anywhere in the world. He had developed many devices including a sheep sheering machine. David Uniapon had travelled all over Australia among local communities and documented folk stories (like Shri Meghani in Gujarat). One of the anthropologists had claimed ownership of his collection of stories but later another scientist republished his collection and offered it to his family. Maybe the Governor of  the Reserve Bank of India is reading this note and may  issue a similar currency note in India.

Don’t be surprised if one of these days, you find the picture of one of the many innovators at grassroots on an Indian 50 Rs note. Symbols matter. This would make a difference, no doubt, in modifying the societal attitudes towards creative people at grassroots. And also India’s tribal tales and cultural knowledge are getting lost very fast. Why would young people imbibe this knowledge unless it adds some value to their future career or options? Could we celebrate the pursuit of creative solutions to local problems by bringing out a series of currency notes with different inventors on them? What a better way of bringing Laxmi and Saraswati together!


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place