Volunteering in Timor-Leste
Suzanne O’Connor has dedicated a year to volunteer with the Loreto Sisters in Timor-Leste. Below Suzanne writes about her remarkable experience so far.
At the end of 2018, I retired after having taught English and Religious Studies in a range of schools for fifty years. At the beginning of this year, I began teaching in Timor-Leste – more specifically in Baucau, the second biggest centre in the country. I am teaching English to two classes of young women some of whom may continue to the Loreto novitiate in the Philippines in 2020.
There are many challenges in Timor-Leste. For example, it is only nineteen years since the bitter war against the occupying Indonesian Army finished. By the end of the occupation, about 300,000 civilians had been killed. In a population of little over a million, almost every family was directly affected. It is the opinion of many of us that the people are still enduring the post-war trauma in many ways. As our students are at least twenty years of age and some are twenty-five, they have memories of the starvation and violence that occurred. These memories can affect cognitive capacity.
The education system is strongly influenced by the twenty-five years of Indonesian occupation. English teaching has consisted of a lot of copying down of written work with some comprehension exercises but almost no experience of speaking or of listening to English.
As the accompanying photograph shows, the classroom is an open veranda. What the photograph does not show is the of the ocean populated by saltwater crocodiles, some apparently swam over from Darwin, and a garden with pomegranate, custard apple, and tamarind trees, as well as a curry leaf bush. The sound effects are provided by the resident pig, a range of goats, a goofy guard dog called Tigger and lots of poultry.
The students’ knowledge of the outside world is minimal: they have little access to books, the nearest cinema is a four-hour drive away, there is no library in Baucau and the internet can be erratic. The country is about 95 percent Catholic, with the church being an important part of society and politics. It can sometimes resolve conflicts within the government persuading it to allow some funds to be released for teachers, police officers and public servants According to the Timorese Ministry of Finance, about 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and about 35 percent have no access to electricity.
In 2013, I volunteered with Mary Ward International Australia for three months with one of those months being spent in the Rainbow Schools in Sealdah, Kolkata India. Obviously, that was a considerable challenge but my current placement is much more confronting.
So, would I recommend it to other potential volunteers?
Despite this history and the current situation, life here can be addictive. The Timorese have retained the capacity to enjoy the moment with relish. When I fold myself into three to enter a mikrolette, there is a general chuckle as I prove my ability to amuse by being a clumsy giant and hitting my head on the roof of the bus as I try to unfold myself. The day I sat on an unfortunate passenger is still remembered with great glee.
I have been here only a few months and I am learning so much – not all of it well, especially Tetum. I am learning how few possessions are really needed, how a less cluttered life is a better life, how so much we take for granted in Australia is simply not present and one adjusts. There are heroic people here – volunteers from Australia and New Zealand, Brazil and Zimbabwe who refuse to surrender to a stultifying bureaucracy which could have been created by Kafka. These people and many Timorese work patiently over years to bring about genuine, permanent change. These people are a daily inspiration, demonstrating a compassion and practicality that sets an excellent standard for those newbies who follow in their footsteps.