Daniel Gilfillan: Daniel Gilfillan’s CommUNITY News no. 1

Taking time for a chat
What do we mean by development?

This is a question that has been haunting me since I arrived in Timor. I wrote in my diary on my first day in Timor – that is way back in the dark ages, four months ago – that there is a refugee camp next to the airport, and an abundant expat population who seem to go about their business with little regard for the poverty. I did modify this, reflecting that I could hardly get inside the malae’s heads this early in my trip.

I’ve had a wonderful time in Timor over the last four months. I live in the hills of Ermera about two hours drive from Dili. That distance is in time, because actual distances have little meaning in this country. Ermera is maybe 50 km from Dili by road. In my wonderful time here I’ve had plenty of ups and downs. I miss Beth and my family, but am provided with wonderful support from the community where I live.

He likes to bring some light-heartedness to people’s lives, because most of the time they are doing it hard…

The school building at Ponilala
I work with Fr. Adrian, he has a fantastic sense of humour. During my first couple of weeks in country he had me introduce myself at the Sunday mass in Gleno and Ermera, both times in front of about 2,000 people. On both occasions he brought up Beth and noted that I wasn’t available for any girls here – causing much hilarity in the congregation. He told me afterwards that he likes to bring some light-heartedness to people’s lives, because most of the time they are doing it so hard. He and I also discuss the hidden mysteries of the universe – he often asks me my thoughts on the creation of the world and so forth, but it is when he asks me about the trees and plants on the hillsides around and about that I am really stumped.

The work I’m doing at the moment in Ermera mostly revolves around this school that we are working on in Ponilala. It involves talking with the workmen and making sure that they are happy and that the donors in Australia are happy, and making occasional suggestions about how to improve the building based on my aesthetics (which are quite probably inappropriate here), and my limited building knowledge.

I also spend a bit of time with Frater Riu (he is studying to be a priest, and will be ordained in about two years I think). I think Frater’s favourite expression is Oh, malae, malae, malae…, (malae is the word for foreigner, and is a term of respect generally) when I do something that is culturally idiosyncratic. There isn’t really any judgment in his voice as he says this, and I appreciate that. I sometimes work with a foundation in Dili (Ahisaun), that helps physically disabled children – providing them with housing and food, and assisting with funding for their education. The foundation has purchased a block of land here in Dili and would like to build on it, as currently accommodation is in Mario’s (the director) brother’s house, and therefore has an insecure tenure.

There is a tendency for people to decide on how they want to help and pursue this course without due consultation.

There are a lot of people I’ve met who would like to help, however there is a tendency for people to decide on how they want to help and pursue this course without due consultation. I recently met with someone in a position to assist Ahisaun greatly, who didn’t have the time to listen to Ahisaun’s strategic plan. Ok, everyone in Dili is busy, but if you want to help then surely you should listen to the people you want to help. But what is development? I’ve just arrived back in Timor after a week away, and in my imagination the country has slid downhill in that time. There is pessimism amongst the people I know about the political situation in their country, and many people question East Timor’s short-term future.

It seems to me that development is big business, and while the malae here in Timor are working for the Timorese people, I don’t think that philanthropic attitudes extend to the level of government. And I question our right (as westerners) to impose our value systems and political systems on this newly independent nation.

While there are problems with how I see development being applied here in Timor, the community that I live with enjoy having me here, and we get a lot out of each others company. I hope that by working with them and building relationships with them over then next two years I can bring about some small positive change in the lives of people in the district of Ermera.

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The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress
and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. - Octavio Paz