Balibo Community Learning Centre (CLC) in Timor Leste is based around the Australia Flag House memorial to the Balibo Five. The Learning Centre provides several services to the local community, including computer training, mechanical workshops, English classes and mentoring of rural women’s cooperatives. Leanne Hayes from Brisbane has volunteered as Institutional Development Officer at Balibo CLC since April 2013. She writes.
Volunteering is something that I have always wanted to do. In my spare time I would volunteer in the community whilst living in Australia, and it was working in this way that I felt most fulfilled in life.
I spent some time reflecting on how I could use my skills more effectively and to benefit others.
I explored all of the volunteer sending organisations and decided that I liked the Palms philosophy which promotes sustainable development, through capacity building using community development approaches. The philosophy and approach really resonated with me, particularly the length of time that one needs to be in placement to be involved in any sustainable change.
When I explored options with other volunteer sending organisations, they seemed more like a ‘job’ and there was a ‘disconnect’ from the community development perspective. Palms responds to ‘requests’ for volunteers from overseas communities and always emphasises ‘localisation’.
I didn’t know what to expect in the beginning. The first 9 months at Balibo CLC were challenging, including no daytime electricity, but I spent time building relationships, learning language and being accepted into the community. Doing everything slowly – I really had to slow down! But the ground work that was done during that initial 9 months has formed a very solid foundation for the work that I am now doing with Balibo CLC. Things have really picked up now. My placement has definitely exceeded my expectations! Particularly with the community. I think this year, when we start to implement more programs, will see some tangible results.
Every day in Balibo is varied.
I could be mentoring our Finance Officer Rofina in streamlining financial management processes, doing lots of book work associated with the various programs (mechanics, cafeteria, English/computer classes or other activities that raise revenue), writing funding proposals or liaising with international supporters regarding the various projects. Every step of the way, I am working with Rofina on these projects.
During the day we can be working with any of these areas, and then we have visitors drop into the centre, and we will stop to talk with them when possible. Mostly the visitors will direct their questions to me, so I always try to redirect the questions to the Centre staff to encourage them to take up the role of talking about the programs/work of Balibo CLC and about Balibo town.
Listening to some of the stories told, provides incredible insights into how Balibo works.
When I see staff at Balibo CLC learning something new, which enables them to work in a different way; Seeing positive change, that inspires and motivates the staff; That sense of excitement and empowerment when staff make decisions together, raise awareness and developing transparent procedures – Witnessing all of these are rewarding parts of working here.
Political and cultural sensitivities are probably the most challenging part of my placement. A lot of things in Australia we take for granted, there are processes in place, that encourage transparency and procedures already developed to deal with delicate or sensitive issues and formal ways to escalate any concerns one might have. In Australia, women can mostly be ‘direct’ in voicing their opinion. In this context, there needs to be a different approach – taking a ‘step back’ is often most appropriate.
However, being an ‘outsider’ gives one more opportunity to have some input into discussions, but always have to be very sensitive and mindful of what is, and what is not, culturally and politically appropriate. Just being aware of this, is really very important, and understanding how it influences everything in your day to day activities and in your work place.
Yet experiencing cultural exchange, when Rofina and I are working on an activity together, and we are both learning new skills from each other, is most rewarding: Seeing confidence build, and a broadening of ideas about what is possible.
Personally I have gained so much more from the community than I have given. They are so welcoming. I have learned so much about Timorese culture, the importance of community, family values, helping one another and ‘patience’.
Would you like to visit the Balibo Community in Timor Leste? Palms Australia conducts Encounters to Timor-Leste visiting our partners and volunteers. Please register your interest here.