Palms Australia volunteer Lyndall Judd is working with Fundação Sagrado Coração de Jesus Maliana (FSCJ) in Maliana, Timor-Leste to provide English classes and mentoring for staff and teachers in local high schools. Three months into her placement, she’s shared a reflection on life in a rural Timorese community.
An open letter to those who acknowledge we have a collective problem to address: chaotic and systemic inequality – at this hour, at this moment – which will not alter without using our collective hearts and minds to remedy, when and where we can.
It’s late afternoon. A warm, dry wind provokes people as they’re walking home along the side of the road. Passing motorbikes and cars stir up the dust, we cup our hands over our faces in a vain attempt not to inhale the fine layers of dust. The change from the wet season to dry always brings bouts of sickness I’m told. Steep mountain ranges provide a backdrop to the town and the rice fields, gracefully harvested by hand. The sunset sends out an invitation to the night. The night replies with an expanding collection of stars and a stillness familiar to rural areas.
Maliana has been my home for almost three months. Without fluency in Tetun or the local dialects, I often communicate with outlandish gestures, whistling, or silly eyebrow raising. I am frequently impressed by how much is conveyed in a laugh or a smile; it can smooth away the creases of loneliness that come from being the foreigner in an urban but rural setting with deeply established community and family ties.
The markets in the centre of town have a range of fresh vegetables, legumes, locally produced rice and fruits. It’s a place where some are doing remarkably well in spite of the wounds of the past, in spite of the precarious nature of funds available for education, health and agriculture, and in spite of the complex Neo-colonial influences at play in the political and development sectors. Many young people are without employment. We all know that it is a challenge to plan for the future when the present reality does not provide sufficient support or inspiration.
It’s well into 2018 and the entire world is upside down; some are without water, some without proper sanitation, some without food, others without jobs or the support of family, and an estimated 750 million (and growing) adults globally are illiterate (two thirds are women). Illiteracy is a critical factor – without basic literacy certain rights are obstructed, and a person is more vulnerable to exploitation. Without knowing how to write or read, relatively simple acts like voting and being able to read the policies of governments, institutions, and to political voice (voting and holding governments and so on accountable), the ability to seek and understand medical advice for oneself and one’s children, capacity to seek work and understand your legal entitlements are extremely challenging. How do you make sense of such inequality? How can we work together towards a more balanced and sustainable future? How do we participate in changing the culture of inequality without inadvertently perpetuating existing problems? The answers to these questions are not simple, but I believe they are important to consider. As a teacher, I find myself having to revisit and question myself (and the world) on a daily basis. We are all pieces of an ever moving puzzle that creates, destroys, and perpetuates culture.
Volunteering with Palms Australia in rural Timor-Leste was not a difficult decision to make. I felt indebted to this country’s contribution to my transformation as a teacher. Back in 2015 I travelled to Dili to learn and work alongside Timorese English teachers. I took the opportunity to attend some research conferences that inspired me to learn more about the FRETILIN Literacy Campaign that commenced in 1974/75, as well try and better understand the current state of education and opportunities for women in Timor-Leste. Since that time I actively sought out opportunities to deepen understanding by working on projects relating to Timorese history, and working together with Timorese in the diaspora on the Timor Sea Justice Campaign. The FRETILIN Literacy Campaign of 1974/75 was such a rich example of empowering pedagogy, reading about it and seeing the impact it had on shaping national identity with a distinct decolonising agenda gave me hope and transformed my teaching practice.
Working with FSCJ in Maliana allows me to experience first-hand the policies and implementation of multi-lingual education in a country that is in the early stages of development. I wanted to participate, and learn from the community as well as utilise the opportunity to develop relationships with teachers in another country. The situation facing the large population of young people in Timor-Leste is complex and full of possibility. I hope to learn more from the pedagogical approaches of peers and develop adaptability to unique situations where resources are limited. I think my contribution here can be mutually beneficial; increasing opportunities for cross-cultural awareness, exchanging knowledge, developing capacities for critical pedagogy with teachers, learning about the practical and strategic needs and aspirations of the local community and learning from the wisdom of others.
The first few months have more than likely set the tone for my time here; a combination of absolute confusion, extreme gratitude, and a deep respect for the mountains and the pathways through rice fields leading to wells of water and down to earth farming families. One of the things I enjoy most is being able to meet with teachers, community groups, academics, NGO’s, and individuals who are all working hard to improve opportunities for others. Meeting with a diverse cohort of people with such a variety of knowledge and vision has made it more possible to obtain a realistic and optimistic vision for what is and isn’t possible within such a short timeframe as a two year placement.
As an aside from the more serious matter of reducing poverty and empowering learners, the breakthroughs that have forged meaningful relationships have often involved me looking like a crazy foreigner with absolutely no idea. The times where I’ve locked myself out of the house; several men, a ladder and lots of window shaking later. The morning I took the initiative to burn the mounting pile of rubbish and the fire got a bit loose, so I began pouring buckets of water over it, only to find myself with a tap that started flooding. Jumping into rivers and canals, being rescued from walking home dripping and muddy. My wild and convoluted plans to set a trap for the crazy rooster that kept me up all night for weeks. These are the moments that have made it possible for people to accept me into their lives and in this way, meaningful work can begin. So as Che Guevara would have it:
“Let’s be realistic. Let’s do the impossible”.
With warm regards,
You can find out more about Lyndall’s placement and support her work here.