Anne Chapman: Back in Atabae

Anne with John and Maria, her teacher trainees, and Atabae village dignitaries
Well I’ve been back in Atabae now for 2 weeks and after spending 6 weeks holiday in Templestowe, things have changed. The visible changes are the power lines.  The electricity poles were in place when I left and now we have the cables. We are all hoping that very soon Atabae will have 24 hour electricity. At the moment we have power from 6.00pm to 12.00 pm.

Atabae has a generator to supply the whole village so we are relatively lucky. Sometimes the man supervising the generator runs out of fuel, we have a black out or a brown out and people start protesting by hitting the steel poles with sticks. It makes a huge ringing sound like enormous wind chimes. These steel poles are what remain of the power supply system which Atabae had when the Indonesians occupied the country. The cables disappeared when the Indonesians left, 13 years ago.

Other significant changes are that it is all green. The rainy season is at its peak and everything is growing like crazy. We are surrounded by lush tropical mountainous rainforest, sago trees, papaw, palms and jungle to the east and south of us; rice fields to the north and the beach on the west. I love to walk along the beach on the weekends and watch the beginnings of the sun dipping into the edge of the Indian Ocean, then stroll 50m to my veranda to watch it colour the sky. I am so lucky.

I am training three outstanding young Timorese to be teachers. One of them came with me to deliver some children’s magazines which a library in Maliana (the third largest town in East Timor) was giving away, to a school in Sulilaran. There are 4 classes (Year 1 to 4) and I was astounded to see the youngest children were in a class of 64 students. Some students have desks and chairs, some have chairs and the youngest ones have neither. There are only three rooms so the children attend school in shifts.

Sulilaran is about 4 kms away (therefore no power). It is a smaller seaside village where one of the main income sources is extracting salt from the sea. In the dry season women collect firewood which they carry on their heads then sit over hot fires tending the pool of boiling seawater, adding to it, filtering it and collecting the salt which they then sell in hand woven baskets at the market on Saturdays for 50c. To me this seems like one of the most difficult ways of earning money.

The great news: we now have 161 students learning English.

One of our 2011 students graduated from Atabae Junior High School with the highest English score in the district (best out of approximately 2000 Year 9 students). All students study English at high school but sometimes the teacher does not speak English, they follow a text book.

Another 2011 student is recognised as being very fluent in English and as a result, has been approached by his teacher to teach!

The computer class has started and is going well.  Thanks to the generosity of the Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School community, we now have another 2 computers, giving more students an opportunity to learn skills which translate into a job. The unemployment rate in Atabae is 98%. Most are subsistence farmers- growing rice or catching fish.

Students are so very keen to educate themselves. They know the only way out of the poverty trap is to get educated. To get choices. They just love to study. And….. they are so easy to teach!

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What a terrible thing, to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled,
with good connections politically, economically, socially, lacking nothing, having everything. - Oscar Romero