Reflections on a Year Volunteering in Timor-Leste

Reflections on a Year Volunteering in Timor-Leste

For the last year, Liz Keating has been volunteering as an English teacher at vocational college Instituto Filhas de Maria Auxiliadora (IFMA) in Baucau, Timor-Leste. As she comes to the final weeks of her placement, Liz reflects on what it’s been like to live and work in a developing community.

Going back a step, it’s probably worth explaining why I came here. I guess there were several reasons and those reasons relate very much to what matters to me. Two very important things to me are experiences (which explains my love of travel) and people. I also am motivated by doing things that I consider to be worthwhile. Teaching English to local students as I’ve been doing here will hopefully assist them to gain work in hospitality. The students here are mostly girls and educating women is one of the most powerful ways to reduce poverty.

Although global poverty is slowly declining, unfortunately approximately half the world’s population still live in poverty, including many in Timor-Leste.

It was also a good time in my life. My children are adults, I had the support of the school system I work for and my Principal in Sydney (for which I’m very grateful) and the security of going back to my job as a teacher next year.

Liz Keating with her students.
Liz Keating with her students at Instituto Filhas de Maria Auxiliadora in Baucau.

Going from living in cosmopolitan North Sydney to living within a community of nuns in a rural boarding school in Timor-Leste has seen just about every aspect of my life change. Many aspects of life in rural areas here are more conservative than where I’ve come from. And in some ways it’s probably like Australia was a few decades ago; the way people dress, corporal punishment is still common, a more patriarchal society, and religion plays a much greater role in people’s lives.

Life in a small town is very different from that in a city of around 5 million people.

Besides the obvious things like no traffic or running water, there’s also very little stress as we know it due to a much slower pace of life. People are rarely in a hurry. There are also no restaurants, cafes, shops or cinemas and sometimes no other malae (non-Timorese people).

One of my favourite places here are the pool in Baucau (an hour’s drive away) where I swim almost every Friday. It’s fresh spring water, filled up and emptied twice every week. I also love visiting Jaco, a totally unspoiled island just off the eastern tip of Timor-Leste.

Beach on Jaco Island, Timor-Leste
Jaco Island, Timor-Leste.

I’ve met many amazing expats here doing a wide variety of interesting things. Fellow volunteers helping develop skills among the locals to improve their countries economic stability. Intrepid travellers, including two women on solo journeys travelling across the world. Many school groups who have sister relationships with Timor, and health workers who volunteer their time to treat the locals here.

Timor-Leste is a beautiful country, with a history that has some parallels with Australia in that both places were colonised by European powers.

Our histories since colonisation have been very different though.  Although I always knew I was lucky to have been born in Australia, living here has truly embedded that knowledge.

Hospitality students at Instituto Filhas de Maria Auxiliadora in Baucau.
Hospitality students at Instituto Filhas de Maria Auxiliadora in Baucau.

Though it’s not always been easy and I’ve felt homesick at times, it’s been an amazing, life-changing experience. The students here are lovely. Aged between 16 and 22, they’re a lot older than I’m used to teaching, and I can’t help but wonder what their future holds for them. They’re studying to work in tourism and hospitality, which is a growing industry in Timor-Leste. Hopefully, as Palms volunteers continue to help build capacity in this community, there’ll be more and more opportunities for these young people to find meaningful work and break out of the poverty cycle.

Want to experience volunteering in a developing community for yourself? Find out more about volunteering with Palms Australia.