Privileged to Volunteer

Privileged to Volunteer

Now gaining momentum in placement, Philip Cranley from Woodcroft SA looks back over his first six months as volunteer in Dili, Timor Leste.

Volunteering is for young people or retirees, right? They are tradespeople, builders, doctors, nurses and teachers, right? So what do you do if you are none of these things but still want to volunteer?

Well as it works out there are other roles that can utilise your skills in a less traditional sense and that is how I ended up in Timor Leste using my finance, planning, administration, leadership and technical skills to work with the Diocese of Dili, Department of Education as the Catholic School Coordinator. Time really does fly and to my surprise I have now been working here for 6 months, sometimes the work is confusing, bewildering, complex and frustrating but it is also interesting, fun and ultimately very rewarding.

When I arrived we started with the basics, how many schools do we have? How many students do we teach? How many teachers are there? Simple questions with a simple yet somehow very complex answer of ‘I don’t know’. That simple answer raised so many more questions that I personally found more interesting than the information itself, it is nice to know that we have 74 schools, in fact it is quite an important thing to know, however much more interesting for me was to understand why we don’t have the data. Did we ever have the data? Shouldn’t we need this information? Are we asking the right people? Does ANYONE actually know? All of these and so many more questions came to mind and as I asked them I came to realise that it wasn’t a lack of understanding or desire to have the information; in some cases there were real specific logistical reasons for not having the information eg. a school that is a 6 hour drive away and has limited access to communication is not going to have the opportunity to provide information regularly. It seems strange but knowing that was a relief, it was always going to be hard to get the information but these reasons would be much simpler to manage than the alternative. Although sometimes it’s not as simple to find out the why something is or isn’t done and they can be a very complex mix of traditional culture, an unstable and war-torn history, the influences of modern culture and everything else all rolled into one so now I find myself digging deeper into what were simple questions and trying to understand the unexpectedly complicated answers.

We did eventually get there, I won’t say it was easy and it definitely wasn’t quick but then nothing happens quickly.

Philip Cranley at Atabae pre-school
Philip Cranley at Atabae pre-school

In the words of one of my Timorese colleagues “Malae* may have watches but Timorese have the time” and they are right, they don’t have the pressure of time. It will be done, possibly not in the timeframes you were expecting or hoping but it will be done. While I didn’t really understand it then, I needed time too. Time to adjust to the pace of life and to a new culture, time to build my own capacity and to understand that, in the words of Blessed Oscar Romero, “We can not do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way”. And liberating is exactly what it is.

In addition to time, it also required patience and a lot of persistence but in the end we finally took that one step forward and it was amazing. That is one of the main things that keeps me going; each one of those steps. But it’s also the small things like the genuine look of pride and excitement on one of your colleagues faces when they learn a new skill and are able to explain and show their newly learnt knowledge with others. And sometimes it’s just the general amusement of seeing an older man wearing a kids backpack turn up at the preschool, get off his motorbike, look around confused and then ride off again only to come back 5 mins later with the child he’d accidentally forgotten to bring with him the first time. Clearly the things that keep me going and enjoying my time here are pretty simple…


There is still a lot of work to be done but we are getting there. We have a vision, a mission and a purpose, we have some structure and are building the capacity of the staff in the foundation while ultimately hoping that indirectly in some small way we can improve the quality of education the children receive.

It’s not all work though and being in this beautiful and diverse country I also get the unique opportunity to get out and see the ‘real’ Timor, to travel around the districts and see picturesque scenery that no photo can truly do justice and to meet some fantastic people that have comparatively very little and despite all that they have been through are on the whole genuinely happy and optimistic about the future.

All of this is why I feel so privileged to be here, to do my small part to help, knowing that I will no doubt learn more than I could ever hope to teach.

*’Malae’ is a Tetun word for foreigners, especially westerners, and often used with affection. Volunteers generally embrace this description of themselves.

Nostalgia plays is part, but it is obvious that Philip values the initial frustrations he felt during the early months of his placement. A key element is his unfailing sense of humour which helps him find fun and enjoyment in what can seem the most exasperating situations. How does a volunteer fare if taking themselves too seriously?