Almost 4 in 10 primary school students in Timor-Leste drop out before completing primary school and those in rural areas often find it difficult to reach a school (source: UNDP in Timor Leste). While there have been major improvements in the last decade, volunteers like Heather Henderson are still essential to assist the poorest of the poor communities build their capacity and deliver quality education for all Timorese. Twelve months into her placement, here is an open letter from her reflecting on her experience and results so far:
Can you hear that? Yes, that. Barely audible isn’t it? That’s the sound of the pages falling away from the calendar. Almost all 12 of them have now drifted away. Yeah! It is now on 12 months that I have been here, and how things have changed. I’m pleased to say, for the better in some instances.
It is hard to believe I walked in here almost 12 months ago with not too much of an idea of what to expect but open to anything and prepared for most things. I have learned so much from my time here and will still learn more over the next 12 months. A cultural exchange is a wonderful thing as it has the potential to open the mind to new ideas and possibilities. It has shown me how limited my thinking was because my life was shaped through living and thinking through a mono-cultural existence. I thought I had a broad open mind but I have had the shutters to my eyes and mind thrown open even wider and know now that nothing is for certain and everything should be questioned.
So what does my life look like now? Life here moves and changes more than it did in Australia because there is a constant struggle or striving for achievement here. A country rebuilding itself and striving to rise to the level of the world around it. That is an enormous struggle to observe. Burdened with frustrations yet at the same time witnessing spirit lifting breakthrough moments.
I now live on a tiled floor in my cute and comfortable house and I have a veritable farmyard developing around me daily. I came here to an assortment of dogs, that came and went, leaving me unsure of which ones belonged and which didn’t, and a cat that is a constant. This cat just hangs around delivering no babies. Just existing. The dogs however, breed endlessly, unfortunately, but then they are part of the diet here at times and I do not make any judgement on that. I just remain a vegetarian. I have the power of choice and that cannot be underestimated.
My work here is beginning to produce visible results. Three of the four teacher trainers I am working with are now working in the education system. It is only a baby step as they are working one day a week teaching English in the schools here as volunteers. They are paid a basic allowance but I know in the future they will secure permanent positions when they become available. They are so proud of themselves and it gives them hope for their futures, something to strive for. Such simple things that mean so much, we fail to give a second thought to in our own culture. We have already arrived. These people have just begun their journey. A new road to travel from the treacherous path they have trod so far.
The road that runs from Dili to the west where I am, and further on to the border of West Timor is an ongoing feat to be achieved. It is just like the metaphor for the lives here. Some good parts, some not so good. In fact downright rough. Therefore, some fast parts and some slow. And what a struggle to get this thing built. I will be gone from here before I see it finished. Although it may take off again soon as the wet seasons is ending and the dry begins.
This is the main highway and is more and more heavily used now with an assortment of traffic trundling past from big trucks (and they are getting bigger) not semi-trailers yet but getting close, to cyclists. So, I am officially living on a highway and if the work reaches me before I leave, and I think it will, I will be living under a dust cloud. I can hardly wait… Just another challenge in Timor.
I can now say that I have limited but useful ability to communicate in a second language. With some fits and starts coupled with a few giggles I can eventually make myself understood. Can only get better with practice. It is a nice achievement. Would never have thought I would be doing that at this stage of my life. It is good for the grey matter – a bit of exercise.
Even though it is like an endless summer here, I can now clearly see and feel the changes occurring in the seasons. Yes, it is just either a wet season or a dry season but there are subtle changes occurring every three months. It is amazingly green here now as the wet season comes to a close with the rain coming less and less and the dry setting in. It gets cool in the wee hours of the morning, but cloyingly hot by the middle hours of the day. The daylight hours are from 7.00 – 7.00 but that will change in a few months – just a little.
Dengue has become a big problem here as it has across the world, in particular in developing countries. It is a very debilitating disease and not to be taken lightly. If it manifests itself seriously it requires hospital management. I try to keep myself protected as the only management is cover up and use Bushman’s. Good health also helps. Finger’s crossed.
Well, I am getting to know how life works here, I have tried a number of the culinary delights, have visited some of the most stunning areas of Timor and more yet to see, have danced the traditional dances and getting my head around their cultural ways. I still really like it here. I am about to share my knowledge, experience, and create some new adventures with Jerrica (grand daughter) who is visiting for 5 weeks.
Being here in Timor is truly precious and has been everything I had hoped for. I randomly opened my book today to a quote that sums it all up for me:-
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, all your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
Love to you all