Looking Back On 2 Years Volunteering In Timor-Leste

Looking Back On 2 Years Volunteering In Timor-Leste

After volunteering in Timor-Leste for the last two years, Palms Australia volunteer Michele Rankin is preparing to return home to Australia. Michele, who has been working at the Balibo Community Learning Centre (CLC) to build the capacity of the management team, has shared her reflections on the experience.

What have you learnt from volunteering in Timor-Leste for two years?

  1. Resilience and resourcefulness. I’ve learnt how to manage without the enablers of our western society. This could be basic utilities such as water, electricity, internet, a western toilet, a hot shower or even a washing machine.
  2. How to deal and cope with loneliness and isolation. Coping without my family back in Australia has been my biggest challenge. I’ve learnt to understand the triggers and implement measures to deal with this.
  3. How to appreciate and value what I have no matter how little or how much. I always thought I had a good concept of materialism in our western society. I suppose there was a certain arrogance around how I thought I didn’t succumb to the consumerism of today’s society. Now I am more aware of the true values of life without all the trappings; the importance of family and relationships, forgiveness and understanding. I’ve learnt to do without, and how in the overall scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter.
  4. A level of patience and understanding in dealing with such a patriarchal society. I’ve learnt to adapt and work within these restrictions while endeavouring to empower marginalised groups (particularly women) without offense. I’ve also learnt not to impose my own moral principles on others.
  5. Tolerance. I’ve developed an understanding of cultural differences, and learnt not to be so judgemental. This means taking these differences into consideration before opening my big mouth!

What are you going to miss about your volunteer placement?

  1. My Timor-Leste family. I have established a close relationship with the people I’ve worked with, and have even had the honour of becoming a God parent here. I will miss starting my day with breakfast with Mario (one of my local counterparts), cooking and sharing our midday meals with the gang at Balibo CLC, and kisses from little Michelle, my Timor grandchild.
  2. Being part of a small rural community. Things like walking down to the Mercado (markets) and hearing all the “Bondia” (hello), “Botarde” (good afternoon) and “Bonoite” (goodnight) “Mom/Avo Malae” (Mum/foreign Grandma).
  3. All the people who drop in to Balibo CLC for coffee or just to say hello.
  4. Joking and laughing with the Balibo CLC gang or the kids that come into the dental clinic.
  5. Learning and appreciating the difference in culture. I’ve learnt something new every day.
  6. The value of the work we do. Knowing that the work we do at Balibo CLC is not only needed by the community, but asked for by the community.
  7. Mentoring people and teaching people new skills.
  8. The slower pace of living
  9. Dancing tebetebe (Timorese dance).

Balibo CLC Staff waving

What has changed for you over the last two years?

  1. My outlook on life has definitely changed. I think I am now more laidback and have a better appreciation, understanding and acceptance of differences of attitudes and beliefs.
  2. My confidence and skill development. Dealing with the unknown (being in situations in which I have no idea with what was happening) has helped me as I’ve learnt and mentored others with the management of the Balibo Dental Clinic. Dealing with Government bureaucracy in a foreign country and speaking to large audiences or groups of people has helped my negotiation skills reach a new level.
  3. I am more adaptable and capable. My driving ability has improved dramatically and I feel empowered with what I can achieve.
  4. I believe I am more patient, tolerant and accepting. I understand by doing things that don’t align to my own personal moral principles doesn’t necessarily compromise my ethics.
  5. My acceptance of death. It sounds strange, but now I no longer have a fear of being around the deceased. It is an accepted part of life in Timor-Leste, and although it was confronting at first, I now consider this as a respectful way to say goodbye.

What has been the highlight of your placement?

This is probably the hardest question there has been; there are so many to date, both personally and professionally. A few of the top highlights have been:

  • Building my Timor-Leste family.
  • A visit from my husband, Paul, and my daughters where I got to show off my Balibo home, family and friends.
  • Meeting a range of wonderful people, including other volunteers and international sponsors.
  • Being part of the team that established Balibo CLC’s wheelchair program. We organised the first wheelchair for Cecilia, a 12 year old girl from a remote community. My best memory is watching her mother wheel her home from the hospital and realising this is the first time she was able to take in her surroundings sitting upright. She was previously carried by her mother in a tais scarf to the chest, sandwiched between two people on a bike or spent the day lying on the floor.
  • The first delivery of school supplies in the remote regions and seeing the children’s’ faces.
  • Being part of the Veterans visits with Gary and Michael Stone of Timor Awakening. I feel really honoured. Organising the Balibo 5 Kindy kids to sing to them and seeing the joy on the veterans’ faces.
  • Being part of a team to provide oral health services throughout the Balibo sub-district.
  • Meeting the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos Horta, Robert Connelly, Shirley Shackleton and Peter Gordon.
  • Participating in Cruz Joven (religious celebration), although not the 3-4 hour masses. Cruz Joven is a huge event that takes place over the year. The cross will not return to the area for another 30+ years.
  • Helping to establish our cafeteria and working with Ella and Rofina (local counterparts) to create a diverse range of dishes with traditional foods. Our cafeteria has become a meeting hub for locals and international visitors.
  • Attending Rofina and Marino’s wedding.
  • Becoming a Godmother to Olympiana Mali Laca de Carvelho Rankin.
  • Independence Day celebrations and dancing tebetebe for hours.
  • The 42nd Commemoration of the Anniversary of the Balibo Five. Particularly the night concert and children’s’ games, including introducing the egg and spoon race to the children.

Balibo CLC is currently looking for a volunteer to continue Michele’s work. You can find out more and apply here.