August 2011

East Timor immersion a life-altering experience

Fourteen teachers from Good Samaritan Colleges throughout Australia participated in an immersion experience to East Timor during their July holidays. For Jocelyn Christensen of Stella Maris College Manly in Sydney, it was a life-altering experience.

BY Jocelyn Christensen

What sort of person would I be now and how would my country cope if we had been occupied for 450 years by one foreign country after another; if I had lost several members of my immediate family through torture or hunger; if I had lost my culture, education and security? Such has been the experience of the people of East Timor.

With the country’s independence finally won in 2002, who would I be now, and how would I present myself to the world? Would I walk this earth with a quiet, determined dignity? On reflection, I think not.

If I was asked to describe the East Timorese, the words that come to mind are hopeful, community-minded, resilient, hungry for education, pragmatic, forgiving and invisible.

There were many moments during our trip when I was in awe of the East Timorese. Their hope, resilience and pragmatism became obvious while staying at Casa Coras, a hotel in Baucau on the northern coast selected because of its beautiful website photos. However, at first glance we seemed to be caught up in one of those travel stories we jokingly tell where the reality is far from the website photos: mouldy rooms, dangerous stairs, exposed electric wires and pipes.

Later we realised that, for the East Timorese, the hotel was a small business built one block at a time without help from banks and minus the cultural business memory that we enjoy in Australia.

Waking to a cacophony of 12 crowing, fighting cocks was an early morning reminder of business diversification, or in simple terms, not putting all your financial eggs into one basket. Placing the hotelier’s family of five in one room keeps overheads down. Running a business is never easy, especially, if the city’s utilities are unreliable – power outages causing the sewerage to back up into the en suite that the hotelier built because he is eager to provide facilities available in hotels around the world.

Our group posed the question: “Wouldn’t he have been better to avoid the en suites?” Maybe, but for me this en suite represented the hope and adventurous spirit of the East Timorese, their habit of ‘biting off more than they can chew’ and ‘chewing like crazy’, and of taking risks, not always succeeding, but learning at each step.

At which point does someone in East Timor decide to take the safe and easy route of avoiding challenges? On reflection this is a luxury afforded to those living in Australia, but not available to most of the East Timorese where even the simplest tasks need courage and creative thinking.

What the people of East Timor may lack in material possessions they enjoy in community riches. We were privileged to witness many examples of community care during our Good Samaritan immersion, such as Fernando, our driver, quietly passing a bread roll he had saved from his own breakfast to a school student who may or may not have eaten a meal that morning. Or Rio, our tour guide and student mentor, creating situations to enable students to practice their English.

When Good Samaritan Sister, Rita Hayes visited her scholarship students in Baucau, we witnessed her particular care as she surreptitiously slipped a few dollars into the young girls’ pockets, enabling them to ride in a bus instead of hitching a ride to their village of Railaco. The girls’ bright smiles revealed to us why Sister Rita is such an essential part of the Railaco community. Because many girls lost their grandmothers during the occupation, they look upon her as their grandmother. She is a link with educational opportunities and uses Polding’s mantra as her own – “education is the key”. I hope Sister Rita will not mind this analogy, but she reminded me of a diminutive Fox Terrier hanging on to the leg pant of anyone who could contribute to the educational future of her students.

The affirmation of “education is the key” is being lived by the East Timorese youth with an intensity that is absent from students educated in Australia. We had the opportunity to visit three educational facilities: Our Lady of Fatima School, Collegio Canossa and Baucau Teachers’ College. We observed students so hungry for education that in the long-term absence of their teacher, students sat in silence writing down notes in their books, their 11-year old classmate taking the class and writing notes on the blackboard, not even pausing to look at visiting teachers walking down the corridor.

I wondered how well I would operate teaching students without the aid of text books and a senior curriculum, and in Portuguese, a language that I had not mastered. These are just a few of the challenges facing East Timorese educators.

The highlight of my immersion experience was witnessing how much the students wish to learn despite facing every educational challenge imaginable. It is important for the global education community to support East Timorese students and their teachers and those mentoring these teachers before they become too tired, lose hope and give up.

One of the most challenging aspects of life for the East Timorese is their invisibility. They are a people and culture not recognised by colonial powers for 450 years. I felt intensely melancholic as we travelled around the country witnessing aspects of this reality.

During the years before independence, Jose Ramos Horta, the urbane floating ambassador talked to any country that would recognise his country, while Xanana Gusmao disappeared into the hills to lead the Fretlin independence movement.

We visited a prison memorial which lists its victims and asks for those absent from the list to write their names on paper and pin their details on the opposite wall. There were seven handwritten post-it notes. How many other victims were missing?

In a cosy bookshop in Dili we found books written in Portuguese and English – text books, fiction and children’s picture books – but not one book containing any reference to the East Timorese people. There were no histories or fiction books reflecting their lives; not one picture book revealing East Timorese faces.

Imagine living in a country where people never see their nationality reflected; where they are truly invisible.

How does one digest so many moving moments? And what does one do with them besides adding them to another amusing travel log? Feeling overwhelmed, we asked our fearless leaders, Meg Kahler SGS and Monica Dutton: what do the East Timorese want from our visit?

“The East Timorese do not want to be forgotten, they want us to tell their story,” they replied.

So here I am beginning to tell their story.

On behalf of our group I would like to thank our school communities and principals for giving us this unique opportunity. Thank you to the fabulous people we met in Timor Leste who were so honest about their hopes, dreams and frustrations. Finally, the biggest thank you of all is to the Good Samaritan community for guiding us through such a special, life-altering experience.

Jocelyn Christensen

Jocelyn Christensen has been a teacher-librarian at Stella Maris College, Manly in Sydney since 2003. While living in Denmark in 2002, Jocelyn taught herself Danish using books and audio tapes from the local library. It was through this experience and the relationships she formed with migrants and refugees also using library resources that she discovered how important libraries are for the most vulnerable in the community.

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