A couple of weeks ago, I went on a field trip with UNICEF to a small school in the hills outside Gleno town in Timor-Leste’s coffee-rich Ermera municipality. I was writing a story about new school buildings UNICEF has funded, which I’ve now done a couple of times in different villages across the country.
This school was far and away the best I’ve seen in all those trips. I was blown away. It wasn’t supposed to be… good.
Ermera mountain forests on the way up from Dili
Timor-Leste’s education system was utterly kneecapped during two waves of colonisation and has struggled to recover in the 15 years since independence was restored.
The first, Portugal’s, saw barely any investment into the then-neglected colony, which Portugal considered a convenient source of sandalwood wealth and a strategic thorn in the side of its colonial competitor, Holland – and not very much more. Little development occurred outside of Dili, and the few schools that were supported were taught in Portuguese, which remains an official language through little more than the fact it was a less political choice of administrative tongue after the Indonesian occupation ended in 1999. (Tetun, Timor-Leste’s most widely spoken local language and the country’s other official language was said to lack the sophistication required of an administrative or legal vernacular, and curricula for many grades still choose Portuguese as the language of instruction).
When the Indonesians came, little improved. While the Indonesian government did invest heavily in Timor-Leste, in its enthusiasm to absorb the country, the Dutch-influenced system of rote learning and corporal punishment was applied, and students discouraged from speaking out, thinking critically, or participating.
Now, new child-centred education policies and a trickle of funding to refurbish the old Indonesian buildings signals hope to the still-underfunded education system.
Every school I’ve seen in Timor sports this same colour combo on its walls. How’s the view out the end of the yard!
But as we wound through the forest-fringed hills towards Gleno, I wasn’t feeling confident. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen teachers against blackboards, attempting to teach in a curriculum written in a language they don’t understand and which their students don’t speak. I’ve seen schools without water and heard from girls whose periods have sent them home to change in private. I live opposite a school that floods with children four times a day: more students are enrolled than the school has rooms for, so each student attend a half-day of classes and teachers repeat the morning’s classes in the afternoon. I know teaching isn’t a particularly sought-after profession here and teachers can go months without being paid.
But outside Gleno, the school was beautiful. We crossed a large basketball court shaded by a sprawling banyan tree and met the smiling school coordinator, who told us proudly of the most-female teaching staff and the handful of young student teachers they accept each year from the University of Timor Lorosa’e in Dili. We saw the school’s stocked library, kitchen, water tanks, and I washed my hands with soap and running water in the private girls’ bathroom (three stalls, and the female teachers have their own block). We passed flowers, mustard greens and lettuce growing in the garden, and I peeked into classrooms to see potted plants on desks, which were pulled together in the small groups of my childhood, not the anachronistic rows I’m used to here.
“We have a policy,” the coordinator said. “The teachers speak for 25 per cent of the time, and the students speak for 75 per cent of the time.”
As we watched, children held up illustrations and described them to the class; sang out happily in a madcap game of heads, shoulders, knees and toes, and flipped open reading books to pages paused at the day before. Later that day, staff from a local NGO came to teach the children about health, handwashing and children’s rights. An island and a world away from the chalk-dust wooden tables and monotone rows of my first school visit here in 2016.
Ubiquitous Timor dog in the school courtyard.
I interviewed the coordinator for the piece, and at the end of our chat I asked, through my interpreter, if he had anything else he’d like to add.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re very grateful to UNICEF for your support. We would like three new classrooms, so that this school can go up to junior high.”
He explained that the nearest junior high school was on the other side of the river, which made local parents reluctant to enrol their students for fear of losing them during the crossing. Most children from this village simply stopped school after sixth grade.
Listening to him, the ease of the solution churned me up. I’ve had requests like this at every interview I’ve done, and I replied in my same way: I smiled and nodded earnestly, and asked the interpreter to say, truthfully, that I wasn’t a UNICEF staffer and had no sway, but that I’d pass the message on. Only this time, I added that I would try, I would really, really try.
I felt in that moment of emotion that development work, so obtuse and knotty and gnarled and complex, could also be at times far simpler than people with policy papers and matrices in air-conditioned Dili offices would have us all believe. (Which, I guess, makes a lot of sense: if it’s easy, why are we here? What justifies our thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses and hardship allowances for our compound palaces if the work is straightforward and simple?). The school was clearly functioning well, the students were learning happily, and they just needed a few more rooms to educate thousands and save children from drowing in a river.
Later, a carload of people from the Ministry of Education arrived, and I saw them chatting easily with the coordinator on the school’s verandah. Then, it hit me. Of course the coordinator was going to ask UNICEF for school buildings – we were there, we had money, we’d done it before – but I’d assumed we were the only ones who could provide the rooms, and I was wrong. Very wrong.
Prehistoric purple growing in the school garden.
UNICEF works closely with the Ministry of Education and I know the schools to refurbish are chosen entirely at the ministry’s discretion. Even if I’d successfully gotten the request through, UNICEF wouldn’t choose which school the new money went to (and this one, having just received three buildings and the new water tanks, probably wouldn’t be high on the ministry’s list). I don’t begrudge at all the coordinator’s decision to have a go at asking me, but I know as well as he does that the conversation with the ministry staffers was the real way to go.
But I don’t doubt that UNICEF needs to be there. I know they do good work, I know that sometimes the hefty chequebooks and diplomatic clout of international agencies are exactly what’s needed to help governments pull their fingers out and make the big decisions state budgets alone can’t always meet alone. And with Timor-Leste’s economy so closely and perilously linked with its oil fortunes, international aid is more a given than an option.
But far out, they’ll be much more fine without all of us than I realised before I went to Gleno.
This is an extremely gratuitous selfie, sorry, but the lighting was very good and the kids thought I was weird anyway! Bless you Timor sun.
Without UNICEF, this school would still be here. The banyan tree would still shelter kids and the teachers would still work hard and follow the ministry’s curriculum. The garden would still grow and the students would still come. Perhaps there would be fewer tables, dingier windows, and less-reliable running water in the bathrooms. But UNICEF isn’t the difference, really. Neither am I.
Knowing how little I’ll do here isn’t depressing; it’s freeing. So often I worry about doing things right and making sure I’m contributing, when really, I should be focusing my attention on ensuing I limit the harm I cause (we foreigners inevitably and unknowingly cause awkwardness, inconvenience and conflict; stuffing up is a given). No matter how compelling the story I write I won’t really make a difference for the children in Gleno – but that’s not why I’m here.
Exactly 1300 words into the story of this trip, it’s clearly left a mark on me and perhaps also on you. Today, I am grateful all over again for a country that has let me in and introduced itself to me. However noble my (sounding) job title or however paltry the figure that ends up on my tax return, this life I have here in Timor isn’t for the benefit of the Timorese people. They were fine before me and they’ll remain fine after I go.
The question, then: how to live meaningfully and with purpose, drawing what I can from this country, this life, in a way that limits harm and builds towards something bigger for us.
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