Monica Morrison volunteered for 2 years from 2009-10 at the Catholic Teachers’ College in Baucau, Timor-Leste. The Teachers’ College works to develop quality professional teachers in the context of the Catholic faith and the culture of Timor-Leste. Monica recently returned to Timor-Leste to witness the graduation ceremony of her former students.
Having not been back to East Timor since leaving at the end of 2010 after a two year stay as a Palms volunteer at the Catholic Teachers College in Baucau, I wondered how much had changed and whether I would again be confronted by the poverty. Would I be accepted as a visitor this time? Back then I had been working with the staff towards gaining their Masters of Education degrees and now graduation was near and I had decided that I would like to be there to see them receive their awards.
From the moment I stepped from the plane I felt as though I could have been returning home after a stay in a foreign country. As I walked across the tarmac feeling the familiar heat hitting me in the face, I saw the wide smile of one of my former students who now works for Air Timor. I was given a royal welcome by this amazing young woman called Anche Cabral who represents East Timor in international women’s cycling events, and who wrapped me in a warm hug before escorting me through customs and immigration. This was going to be a wonderful visit!
My former colleagues the Loreto sisters, met me and drove me along the not very much improved road to Baucau. Baucau seemed different somehow and much quieter. Maybe this was due to the fact that the UN have now moved out. The downpour which met our arrival made everything look rather sad and this was not helped by the fact that a landslide had destroyed several of the roadside market stalls. The women with solemn faces were still sitting patiently on the side of the road, the youths were still standing aimlessly around the “footpaths” and the small children who live next door to my former home seemed not to have grown at all in two years.
I was cheered next day by the return of the sun and of the many welcoming smiles of recognition I received. There was also a general feeling of excitement in the air as the staff prepared for graduation the next day. Mops, brooms and banners were being carried down to the hall, speeches were being practiced and the Dean of Education, Marie Emmitt and Professor Jude Butcher from Australian Catholic University arrived. Invitations for family “festas” were being issued including one for me from Assis, and many joyful reunions were occurring in the marketplace as the former third year students, now all practicing teachers, arrived from their respective villages for their graduation day.
The highlight of graduation day for me was when my three former students received their Masters of Education degrees. I could not stop the tears of pride and joy, and cannot imagine how their own parents felt. I recalled the earlier words to me of Cris, whose own mother died when he was a child: “My mother has come back for my graduation” he said with a hug. What better reward could a volunteer hope to receive than those precious words! I also felt proud to represent all of the other Palms volunteers who have made contributions over the years to this college, contributions which were acknowledged by the Director Brother Fons van Rooij in his speech of welcome.
Perhaps more importantly on this occasion, I sat there reflecting that this day was evidence of tangible sustainability. For the first time this year, the students received their Bachelor of Teaching degrees from the fully accredited Institute itself with only the Masters Degrees for the staff being awarded by Australian Catholic University. It has taken many years to reach this point—a Teachers’ College fully staffed by trained Timorese, and graduates fully employed in Timorese schools.
When I visited Rebecca, a more recent Palms volunteer to the Baucau district, and listened to some of her concerns, I wanted to be able to assure her that what she would do over the next two years was very significant indeed. I know that sometimes change moves so slowly when one is in the midst of volunteering. It almost seems imperceptible, but it can and does occur. My graduation visit was important for me not only in terms of being able to join in the celebration with my Timorese friends but to realise that the whole volunteer experience over those two years was all so worthwhile.
Would you like to travel with Timor-Leste with Monica Morrison to meet Palms’ current volunteers in the field, and learn about their development work? Palms Encounter trip from 23 Sept-5 Oct provides a glimpse into the culture of Timor-Leste, and much more.