Australia and East Timor: a Timorese Salesian Brother's impressions

Australia and East Timor: a Timorese Salesian Brother's impressions

Br Marcal Lopes

Last February I arrived in Australia from Timor Leste to embark on studies for a Masters Degree in Educational Leadership at Australian Catholic University. It seems like yesterday. I will have returned home by the time this report is published.

I'm very grateful to those who have helped me during this past year. It has been a really great experience. I feel I have gained much.

Our country, which is now just two years old, is the youngest in the world. It is also the poorest in Asia. I remember the times, from my childhood, when we were a Portuguese colony. I was only a boy when the Indonesian military took over the country.

People were afraid with many families fleeing to the mountains. Our family, my mother and father, two sisters and four brothers, lived in the hills for nine or ten months. I was just 12 at that time. There were five or six other families with us.


It was really tough. We had some rice but didn't eat it as we thought we might need it in the future. Our daily diet consisted of leaves collected by the women and boiled into a sort of soup together with some corn. Water was not readily available. I remember walking with others three or four kilometres to a cave to collect water for our camp.

We did not realise that a member of our group was a spy for the Indonesians. He disappeared one day and three days later the Indonesian Army raided our camp and burned all our possessions. After that my father decided we should return to our village near Lospalos. Life was pretty grim for us there. Eventually things settled down.

Almost 30 years on, our new country of Timor Leste came into existence on 20 May 2002 with a host of needs and many problems to contend with.

Perhaps the biggest single problem is malnutrition, with people simply not getting enough food. Tuberculosis is widespread, affecting more than 60 per cent in some areas and nearly everybody has malaria. In addition there are outbreaks of dengue fever in some districts.

A drought for the past two years has reduced food production considerably in many regions and there is now a coconut blight in Baucau hitting both a source of food and income for the locals - and people who are hungry and physically weak cannot work hard.

East Timor's population is less than one million, however more than 60 per cent of the people are under the age of 20. This means that education is really the key to development with the provision of schooling a high priority.

Through all our Salesian schools we are consciously trying to teach the young basic literacy and numeracy, inculcate good values, including the importance of hard work, as well as helping individuals acquire job-related skills.

While it is a massive task, this vocational education and training is necessary if we are to get the country up and running.

Our school, Don Bosco Fatumaca, provides students with initial training in carpentry and other building trades, welding, motor mechanics, electrical wiring and electronics.

Upon completion of their courses, nearly all students find jobs or go on for further studies. For example, a high proportion of those working on the oil and gas rigs in the Timor Sea are from our school.

The continuation of this work depends largely on the quality of our teachers. Hence, the on-going training and up-grading of teachers will be one of my major concerns when I return. I am hoping that we will be able to organise in-service seminars for the staff on themes such as:

* St John Bosco's educational style.

* Teaching methods.

* Evaluation and assessment procedures.

* Curriculum Review.

I am hoping that we will be able to send some teachers each year to Malang, East Java, Indonesia, to attend short courses for technical education teachers.

By most observable criteria, it is obvious that the future for East Timor will be far from easy:

* More than 40 per cent of our population remains illiterate.

* Job opportunities are limited.

* As a country our major source of income, and potential employment, is from the oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

Support needed

It is clear to me that we will need friendship, understanding and, hopefully, support from our neighbours.

I am indebted to many individuals and organisations in Australia and major thanks are especially due to Salesian Missions Australia, who have facilitated my stay in Australia, and Br Michael Lynch who is truly the linchpin of the Missions Office.

I am often asked my impressions of Australia.

Australia is a very fine country. Five things that stand out for me are:

* People here relate to each other as equals; people are accepted more for what they are, rather than the position they hold.

* There is a great willingness to help and the ordinary Australians are very generous.

* The people are mostly friendly, open, sincere and relaxed.

* Australians seem to readily express gratitude to each other even for the smallest favour.

* I have come across many people who work very, very hard.

It is my firm belief that much real development takes place when ordinary people work together at grassroots level. It is then that we find, as your former Prime Minister Robert Menzies said: "The things that unite us are far greater than the things that divide."

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