From Mt Isa to the Daintree, Palm Island to Sydney, Wilo Muwadda has seen some difficult times, but he has always been defined by his determination and his achievements. He’s now pursuing a new goal and taking on new challenges.
On paper Laimena ‘Wilo’ (pronounced ‘Willow’) Muwadda’s life story reads like a catalogue of impossible alter egos. Kindergarten teacher. Homeless man. Professional dancer. HIV advocate. Amputee. Gay rights activist. That anyone should have lived such a kaleidoscopic existence is remarkable, let alone that Muwadda has experienced all this in just 56 years.
Life has thrown obstacles in his path, but Muwadda has not only surmounted them, he’s found a new way forward. And now he’s on the cusp of adding one more incredible epithet: Indigenous Studies academic.
“To get here took a lot,” he says, offering a six-word solution to the cryptic puzzle of his life.
We’re sitting in a busy café at the edge of campus, 2400 kilometres from his birthplace of Mt Isa in Queensland and a lifetime away from the troubles he once knew.
The day is warm, and Muwadda is dressed in faded jeans, striped t-shirt and a navy denim jacket, lending him a certain rock-star quality. His imposing six-foot-four frame is tempered by just a hint of a limp, a subtle reminder of the flesh-eating bacteria in the Daintree rainforest that claimed his leg when he was in his late 30s. He is softly spoken with a gravelly, measured cadence. His deep blue eyes cast about, reflecting both restlessness and curiosity.
Muwadda tells his story with hard-won conviction. A descendant of the Kalkatungu, Eastern Arrernte and Alyawarre peoples, he’s been shaped by his struggles and proud of what they’ve taught him.
His earliest lessons began while growing up on a cattle station near Mt Isa. His mother was forced out of school in year 3 to become a domestic servant, but she kindled a curiosity in her sensitive young son, condensing the week’s classes by correspondence into two days so he could explore life outside the classroom.
Muwadda remembers fossicking for fossils as a child among spinifex and questioning why wood turned to stone.
He was abused at a very young age by a local man, in a community where such abuse was sadly a common experience for many children, and struggled not to turn to stone himself.
“My thinking, I reckon, comes from abuse,” he says directly. “I’ve turned around the victim-blaming mentality I’ve had, so it’s now a tool of reflective thinking for empowering myself, my family and my communities.”
A chance encounter while working at the post office on Palm Island, where he was staying with his extended family, offered a fresh start and set Wilo on a path to Sydney. The National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association was in town, and Muwadda joined them. He was 19, a talented dancer new to the gay scene and ready to make his mark. The following formative years were a dazzle of performing and marching, even though he was a squatter and sometimes living on the streets.
“I had to fight on the street because there were different gangs from different cultural ways and values, people of colour as well. However, Indigenous people have this law – once you fight and someone’s down, you help them get up,” he says.
Maybe the ancestors gave it to me because I got the mind to do it: to channel it and to take it all in and make something out of it.
“Then it’s done and dusted, you are now brothers and sisters, and they got your back as part of your Indigenous family.” Muwadda has always held his cultural traditions close – at one point they even saved his life. Years of living rough and pushing himself to the limit took their toll, culminating in a breakdown at the age of 36, when he returned to the care of his mother in north Queensland. It was here, just one year later, that the infection took his leg. His mother helped him through this crisis.
“She started doing traditional things that I’d never done, to bring me back to health,” Muwadda explains. “She started doing rituals. She was actually taking her life and giving it to me, in a ritualistic way. I just love her so much for that.”
Since reconnecting with his culture, Muwadda has completed a Certificate IV in contemporary music and a diploma in community services. He worked as a project officer then manager of the Indigenous Program with the Queensland AIDS Council, going on to graduate in the top 15 percent of his cohort with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Indigenous Community Management and Development from Curtin University.
Muwadda wants to rewrite the record of Indigenous disadvantage from the inside out, acting as “translator” between Western and Indigenous knowledge. The first step will be through his master’s thesis, in which he is challenging insider/outsider assumptions of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Indigenous research guidelines. He also plans to undertake a doctorate at the University of Sydney.
Our conversation touches on raw nerves: teenage suicide, family illness, a best mate’s death, incarceration. Muwadda wants to shine a light on these uncomfortable realities and give voice to those drowned out in mainstream conversations. “Background and lived experience puts a different lens on it and I want that to be indexed nationally,” he says. “I want those books to be written, I want those articles published.”
Until then, Muwadda will continue drawing support from his niece, Kaiya Aboagye, who is herself completing a doctorate at the University of Sydney; and Dr Vanessa Lee, a Wik and Mariam woman and social epidemiologist who is supervising his studies.
As he pursues his master’s thesis at the University, Muwadda finds himself remembering his elders, especially his maternal great-grandparents: his great grandfather the law man and tracker and his great grandmother, a quietly confident woman who spoke nine languages and didn’t let the racism of the day affect her.
“You’ve had such a fascinating life,” I can’t help but say. Muwadda just laughs. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to have it, though,” he says. “Maybe the ancestors gave it to me because I got the mind to do it: to channel it and to take it all in and make something out of it.”
Written by Emily Cook (BA(Media&Comm) '12)
Photography by Louise Cooper