Marcal Amaral Lopes has been a Salesian Brother for 18 years. The young Fr Carlos Belo was his novice master in 1982; at the end of that year he was appointed Bishop of Dili. Br Marcal is Headmaster of Don Bosco Technical High School, Fatumaca, near Baucau, 150 km from Dili. In August-September, he visited Australia to thank people who had helped the Salesians' work over the previous year, to visit schools to meet teachers and students and participate in the Australian Council for Overseas Aid annual conference in Canberra at the beginning of September.
The Salesians have been in East Timor since 1946. While Bishop Carlos Belo is the best-known East Timorese Salesian, there are another 100 Salesian priests and brothers in the Province [including 45 young men in training]. In addition there are 31 Salesian Sisters working in East Timor.
East Timor has always been a materially poor country, being basically a rural, subsistence economy. Much of the farming land is hilly and the soil is not particularly fertile. Rice is the staple crop, with water buffalo traditionally used to plough the land for the crop planting.
The Salesians have helped local farmers in several ways.
Where I am at Fatumaca we have Fr Locatelli - an Italian priest who has been in East Timor for nearly forty years. Among other things, he works with local farmers. We have tractors, about ten of them, used by local farmers. This suits them as we have a workshop for repairs when the tractor breaks down.
Fr Rui, parish priest of Baucau, encouraged more than 100 unemployed young people [mostly in their twenties] to involve themselves in a farming project: to plant a crop of rice on 17 hectares of land owned by parishioners.
When they started they had no implements or machinery, just their bare hands. With assistance from the Salesian Missions Office in Australia, and also AusAID, they were able to purchase hand-tractors, threshing and milling machines.
At Don Bosco Comoro, the Rector has made a couple of small fields, each about the size of a soccer pitch, available to local people to grow vegetables. With help from an agency he built a concrete water tank.
The Salesians have six parishes catering for about 200,000 people and, apart from this, are mostly engaged in education. We try to help young people acquire the skills to be self-reliant and self-motivated and to contribute to the development of the country. In the tradition of St John Bosco, we simply try to help the students to be good Christians and good citizens.
The Salesians run twelve schools - two technical, one agricultural, four secondary and five primary. In addition they are responsible for another 17 primary and secondary schools in the Baucau Diocese. In sum, there are about 20,000 students in these schools.
The two technical schools, in Dili and Fatumaca, have an important function. They provide introductory training for carpenters, electricians and motor mechanics - this is especially crucial right now as the militia and Indonesian TNI destroyed both East Timor's Polytechnic Institute and the other Technical School [in Dili].
I am in charge of a technical school in Fatumaca, which is in a rural setting about 20 km south of Baucau and 150 km from Dili. We have 250 students who all board at the school.
Our fees have always been very modest; for the past year we have not charged anything because with the troubles in the country, parents just don't have the money.
It is no simple matter to feed 250 16-20 year olds three meals a day, purchase fuel to run the generators daily, obtain the materials required for our carpentry, electrical, machine tools and electronics workshops, maintain and repair equipment in the workshops and cover other expenses associated with the day-to-day running of the school.
There is no doubt that our schools have a very important role to play in helping provide East Timor with people skilled in the building, metal, electrical and motor trades. As far as I can tell, most of the students who go through our school at Fatumaca seem to be in jobs - some as carpenters, and electricians, though there is still not much happening in the local building industry. Some have set up electrical repair shops, and I've seen several working at the airport and with the UN.
The schools are vital. The young are keen to learn and when the schools are not open they have too much time on their hands to roam around and get into mischief.