By Lukas Rajnoch and Kristina Gunawan
A year and a half has passed but it seems just like yesterday we arrived in East Timor, being picked up in Dili airport, showed our house and welcomed at Ahisaun. Looking back on our time here we feel a sense of gratitude and amazement and yet a slight sadness as we will soon be leaving behind a special part of our lives. Looking forward we await a new adventure but we find ourselves reflecting on our early days in Timor, the many questions we had and the frustrations that sometimes seemed unresolvable.
Would it be possible to truly befriend a Timorese person? Could our working relationships ever develop into open, trusting and productive relationships? When overwhelmed by the enormity of the task we would sometimes wonder, how do we go forward? So many things seemingly need to be done, but what to do first? Where do we actively push for change and where do we let things slide to resolve themselves in their own time?
The passage of time has yielded answers and in our work place – Ahisaun Disability Foundation some wonderful things have come to flourish over the past 18 months.
The Foundation has made a number of courageous strides which we’ve been fortunate to be a part of and witness:
- A new team work approach amongst staff – where regular meetings, sharing of information, work planning and a clearer division of roles are now up and running.
- A new finance system which provides the organisation with a clear picture of its incomes and expenditures and which tracks the income stream from its small business activities.
- A book keeping system for its kiosk store small business, which has highlighted the benefits of transparency and inspired other small business activities to adopt a similar system.
- A new strategic plan developed with input from all staff and members with a disability, which maps the organisation’s desired pathway to stronger more sustainable and financially secure future.
- A new website and quarterly newsletter to communicate the wonderful work of the foundation and the abilities of people with a disability.
Yet it is not any of these specific outcomes, as encouraging as they may be, that bring us greatest joy. Rather it is something much more intangible. We can perhaps try to best describe it as the awakening of a new sentiment, spirit and confidence within the organisation. One can sense it in the air – in the way people communicate and relate to each other from management to staff and members. There is a greater sense of openness, freedom of expression, participation as well as personal responsibility. This transformation speaks of deeper shifts at an inter-personal, relationship level – they have a very human personal aspect and go to the core, we believe, of what it means to be a Palms volunteer.
We learned in time that teaching and transferring skills to our colleagues didn’t necessarily mean that the application of these skills would then follow. In many cases initiative, confidence and a personal sense of responsibility seemed to be lacking. At other times supervision, support, and clarity of work purpose was missing so that it was hardly surprising that work wasn’t taken so seriously.
We started with very simple things like showing new work practices – weekly work plans and consistent one on one personal meetings with staff. Soon enough though we were hitting a wall. After some time had passed, we saw that frank chats with individual staff were essential to be able to understand the real underlying problems. Through these conversations we discovered that the staff needed their management to support them by showing interest in their work, providing deadlines and opportunities for staff to present their work. This accountability had to come from their bosses and not us as volunteers whose position is one of mentoring but not to be the boss. Once this link between management and staff was established things improved with practical initiatives like monthly presentations by staff of their work achievements.
We are proud of our colleagues and Ahisaun members and we are very proud of our Director – Senor Mario. He has been open to new developments and yet discerning in judging which changes he considers to be positive for Ahisaun. Senor Mario and the staff have opened up new ways of communicating, supervising and encouraging the participation of members in the life of the organisation. For example, one very important and beautiful development at Ahisaun has been the start up of small member run groups who work together to themselves run a number of training / income generation activities – like computer training, shoe making, music recording, composting and kitchen gardening etc.
Tapping into the talents and capacities of the organisation’s young people is not only showing what people with a disability can do, it is also giving each member an opportunity to feel a sense of pride, community and personal contribution. It’s a model that is already starting to attract interest and support from donors who are interested in supporting organisations which have a clear mechanism to be able to putting ideas and dreams into practice. Combined with a clear sense of direction (expressed in the strategic plan) and a transparent financial accounting system that is now in place, there is certainly something to feel optimistic about when reflecting upon the future of Ahisaun.
On reflection, we made many mistakes. It didn’t work when we tried to move quickly, introducing too many new things at once or when we introduced changes too early without building our relationships as our foundation. At times we spread our energy in so many directions that we became exhausted and ended up feeling up-tight when things didn’t go our way. A lot of reflection and revising of our approach and expectations has accompanied us throughout. We are very lucky that we have just enough time and God’s grace to witness some inspirational developments at Ahisaun and the growth of many of our friends and colleagues who have shown courage and persistence in stepping up to show signs of leadership.
We can point to a few factors that were instrumental in turning things around for us:
- Time and patience – to build trusting relationships and connect with members of the local community in their Tetun language.
- Being attentive to deeper underlying issues (organisational, cultural and personal) which initially are so rarely obvious.
- Taking a chance to try something new and having the courage of your convictions when the outcomes were uncertain.
- Being humble and free enough to listen and let go – accepting when the local community did not want to or was not ready to adopt something that we saw as good for it.
- Prayer and the grace of God – to discern the path ahead and grant courage and humility for the journey.
Of course many challenges remain and the future is always uncertain – perhaps nowhere is this more true than in East Timor – however with the continued support of Ahisaun’s network of friends and new Palms volunteerswe feel encouraged when we think of the foundation’s future prospects. We pray that Ahisaun will continue to walk in hope, clarity and confidence to realise its future, not one that is wished upon it by others, but a future which it truly owns and longs for.
Thankfully we can also say that ‘Yes’ is the answer to many of our early questions. Yes, it is possible to truly befriend a Timorese person! Yes, work relationships can develop into open, trusting and productive ones! And Yes you do eventually figure out what’s actually important.
Special thanks to Maun Mario, Mana Ervina, and their family, our colleagues – Angelino, Alexio, Samuel, Agus and our many dear friends at Ahisaun. To Christine, Roger, Brendan and all the staff and members of Palms, for all your constant support and encouragement we thank you. And to each one of you who wrote to us, sent care packages and prayed for us, we say thank you very much! We want you to know that your generosity and love has accompanied us on this journey, has made our lives richer and has made a contribution to people’s lives here in East Timor. We know the journey doesn’t end here but will simply take another form as we step forward to another life’s adventure.