News: Letter from Maliana, Timor-Leste

Ida with her students
Ida Greenway, from Dee Why, is currently volunteering for Land O’ Lakes, a US-based agricultural development agency with projects in Timor-Leste.

My placement is essentially the English Teacher at one of the three Agricultural Colleges in Timor Leste, just on the Indonesian border. I work together with a USAID project which is setting up a 4th year diploma course to follow the 3 years of Agricultural High School. This specialises in Agribusiness with the students running co-operatives in agri-mechanics, agriculture and livestock including learning English, computer and business plans plus an internship with a functioning co-operative. The students are one-third female and from all over TL. Valuable assets when they return to their communities.

My first job was to set in place and monitor a teaching English system already successful in the capital Dili where Timorese are teaching Timorese. This has been accepted so well that I am privileged to have experienced a complete English Mass with English songs being enthusiastically sung encompassing the Timorese natural harmony after only 4 months training. The Administration Office proudly boasts a laminated sign ordered by the Director stating “We speak English in this College” and the teachers are wearing “Please speak English with me” badges on their shirts.

I teach English to the teachers and along the way act in an advisory role to upgrade the administration of the college.  Timorese culture requires the people to say “yes” and to “please” regardless of the reality and “responsibility” has in the past ended up with punishment – easy to understand, hard to change. I was delighted when I discovered that the Director had placed a “Responsibilities” chart up in the Administration Office.

For 5 months I daily navigated a 4wd along a “torture” road from the town where I lived in a guesthouse which was not really working for anyone. So, it became my first aim to resurrect a small building to make it possible for me to also live at the college. It took quite some talking to have the builders agree on an “indoor” kitchen. The spin-off has been that I can cook for myself which is something I have been missing and I am accepted wholeheartedly as “one of them”. I am currently installing a permaculture vegetable garden which is attracting many visits from students, teachers and the local community. Exchanging small plants is now a daily activity.

In 2000 the Australian Army set up their Peace Keeping Force within l km of the “torched” Agriculture College. When they departed in 2003 the entire infrastructure was handed over to the College of 500 students and 30 teachers and their families.  As Agriculture teachers, maintenance was beyond their knowledge and time has taken its toll of the facility.

The lack of infrastructure maintenance has caused the sanitation and water supply to the college to fail. Currently the students walk 1km to the river twice daily – boys to the right, girls to the left. After months of searching I was successful in locating a local NGO under the guidance of an Australian “Engineer without Borders”. The survey for the holistic water system is complete as is the proposal – now just the issue of how to pay for it so we can commence work.

My endeavours to explore this tiny land ended up with a broken ankle coming down the highest mountain. It wasn’t my intention to experience the “not best practice” health system. Returning home to my family, I spent my rehabilitation time sourcing materials for the college. I have now returned and taken delivery of a complete scientific school laboratory plus an extensive English Agricultural library which I packed while on crutches in Sydney. All transport costs generously donated by Timor Leste support groups in Australia. The laboratory comes at an opportune time for a group just starting a “milking buffalo” project at the college.

My placement in Timor Leste has been challenging and at the same time rewarding. Every day brings unexpected joys mingled with the heat and the frustration of living in a culture where time appears irrelevant.

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True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice. - Martin Luther King Jr