Ellie Virgona: Ellie Virgona’s CommUNITY News no. 2

Ellie teaches English Teaching
Bondia kolega sira,

It has been only 3 months since I returned to TL wondering where God’s intention would bring me. Always it seems, on some kind of adventure that I’m not sure I’m quite suitably packed for, but nevertheless continue to walk one step at a time, on a path I pray is more straight than spiral.

Every afternoon I walk to the D.A. along the path where the old, the young and the annoying travel. Sometimes children are playing in the forest when they are meant to be collecting wood to bring home to burn for cooking in the kitchen. As a result, it takes them hours to get back home carrying a bundle of firewood on their heads.

On one occasion, they thought it’d be a good idea to jump out from behind the trees in the forest and scare the living daylights out of ‘the malae’ (yours truly). I just burst out laughing because it was really cheeky & clearly they are not terrified of me. Other times, women with red teeth from chewing betelnut, carry their young in a sling across their bodies and a huge bundle of wood on their heads. Somehow, they still manage to smile and say, Bondia or Botardi. Other times while walking, I’ll hear, ‘malae, malae, botardi malae’ from a little chipmunk voice of a 3 year old who giggles when I turn to her because she’s been noticed. (it means ‘foreigner, foreigner, good afternoon foreigner).

The English classes I teach are going well. So many people want to practice their English skills on me, that my Tetun is still at the level of a 2 year old. So, I too must be patient in acquiring an unfamiliar language. Sometimes my landlady speaks to me at the rate of a million words in under one minute, and while she’s beginning her 10th sentence, I’ve understood about 2 words in total. Then she stops and says, “Kompriende?” and I just look blankly at her and say, “lae”.

The classes are exhausting but have moments of humour. I have so many interesting people in there. Some local PNTL police officers, the deputy district administrator, social workers, drivers, cleaners, public servants, etc. Quite an eclectic group. I have a tiny whiteboard and a couple of whiteboard markers and sometimes prepare charts out of paper I rip out from an exercise book or cut up the packaging of Vita-weat boxes to use as flashcards. All of this and the whispered prayer of “Oh God bless me with some creative inspiration” is what I’ve got to work with.

So many people want to practice their English skills on me, that my Tetun is still at the level of a 2 year old.

Donna, Christine and Ellie
There are moments here, sometimes many moments, when working here in TL is like trying to work in the harsh sun of the desert heat and you are parched for want of water, looking for shade where there is none, dragging yourself along the hot desert sand. Other times, you feel so good about the progress and development of people, your heart could almost explode with delight.

Over the past few weeks the participants in my class have dropped to almost 1/3 due to their preparation of the local elections in the ‘sukus’ for the ‘xefis’ (kind of local government divisions in the villages of the subdistricts). But here is a disguised blessing that I could’ve easily missed if I misinterpreted the absence. As a result, my small & modest class has shifted from being ‘too-much-of-the-teacher-talking’ to the ‘participants-steering-their-own-learning’. Over the weeks, I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by the respect I felt they were offering me. Two things I want to say. I would wager, that in spite of how educated the participants are, few would’ve experienced the type of education that we are used to back home, where we are encouraged to express our opinions and the experiences that have fashioned them. In fact the first lesson, they walked in to the room, sat down without saying a word, and copied everything I wrote on the whiteboard whether they understood it or not, then they left.

Yesterday, was the last day of the course for 2 weeks before we start back again for the next block. They were willing to risk making errors in their speech and offer suggestions to me and make comments about what they’d like to learn in the next block of the English course. Where did that confidence come from? I don’t really know. Will it last? Don’t know the answer to that either. Whatever factors helped flower such a response, the point is, that it happened. On this day, I witnessed some active agency on their part for their own learning. It’s the same buzz you get when you spend months, sometimes years teaching a little kid to learn to read, and finally they put it all together themselves and are actually reading.

On this day, I witnessed some active agency on their part for their own learning.

Ellie with Jose, a former trainee
Next month, on the 17th September, I will have been in TL for a year. I can’t believe it. I think I could write volumes about the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, the tears I’ve wept and the smiles that have lifted me up. The frustrations I’ve felt, the cockroaches I’ve battled with a broom and the mice that keep me awake at night. What used to overwhelm me 11 months ago has become part of what is now accepted as part of my time here. That doesn’t mean to say there aren’t frustrations or challenges I continually meet. I think it’s just that you settle in to some of the rhythms here as you confront new hurdles to negotiate along the path.

Keep well, keep believing, keep expecting God to surprise you and no matter how small you think your gifting to the world is, it’ll mean something more than you can imagine to someone.

In peace and love,

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There is both a moral and social responsibility attaching to these experiences of foreign cultures,
and if nothing awakens in our own soul, making claims and demands upon us,
calling us to change the way we live, then we have been merely parasites and invaders. - David Tacey