“Where the females were early, the males were almost always late. ” English classes in Balibo, Timor Leste

“Where the females were early, the males were almost always late. ” English classes in Balibo, Timor Leste

By Gabby Rankin

Balibo is home to a growing tourist industry and the people here want to learn English so they can comminute with tourists, become more independent, and capitalise on job opportunities. The Balibo 5 Community Learning Centre (CLC) holds a 3 month Basic English Class, at the end of which the students receive a Certificate of Completion.  I have been delivering this course alongside my counterpart, Rofina.

There are two courses, one for children and one for adults. The Children’s Class teaches students from the ages of 12 to 16. By coincidence, the first course I taught a class of all females. In the process of teaching these young girls, I became aware of how vital fostering inquisitive minds is. It’s hard to hear, but tradition in Balibo often prioritises a girl’s domestic responsibility over her education. Despite this (or even because of it), the girls in my class were equally eager and excited to learn English. They showed up early and they stayed late, despite earliness being an almost rare occurrence in Balibo.

Because learning in Balibo schools is by rote, my main goal was to promote confidence in exploring the English language through different practices and activities. It wasn’t always easy- I was often met by confused silences and copying- but gradually, the girls adjusted to the classes. They became more creative and more self-assured. After class, the girls would practice their English with me, and I would practice my limited Tetum and my more limited Portuguese with them. This mutual exchange of knowledge was a wake-up call. These girls were curious, enthusiastic, and desperate to express themselves. English Class was an opportunity, not just a lesson.

In perfect opposition, the adults class (students over 18), were 99% males under the age of 29. It’s an interesting demographic to teach, considering that low youth employment rates and oligarchic traditional culture cause profound restlessness amongst the male youth. 

As with the females, my aim was to give the students the confidence to explore the English language. This manifested in different ways for the males. Instead of participating in games, they started asking questions and communicating when they found something easy or difficult. This initial response was silence and averted gazes, but gradually they improved, speaking up and answering questions.

The duxes of each class, Ofli and Ricky.

Where the females were early, the males were almost always late. Attendance rates could be low, and I would be lying if I said this didn’t dishearten me.  But in a culture where traditional obligations reign and life is a constant labour of physical exercise, it’s easy to understand why you can’t always make it to 5 PM English classes.

There were students who continued to show up and work hard. Students who sometimes forwent showering to get to English class from Atambua (which is all the way across the Indonesian Border) or students who approached me after to class to show homework they worked hard on. These students, some of which who had started down the wrong paths, were determined and dedicated. They went from being shy students afraid to answer questions, to more confident people who told me when things were difficult and asked clarifying questions. 

In establishing a curriculum and teaching these classes, my main aim was to encourage students to examine language and learning. It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes it was discouraging. Being away from home is hard, especially when there’s no hot water and the power intermittently shuts off. What put it in perspective was hearing feedback from the aunt of one of my graduating students.  Because of these classes, her nephew was able to create an opportunity for himself, instead of straying onto the wrong path. She even asked if he could take the course again. It was all made possible with help from the community and the CLC staff, especially my teaching assistant and mentee, Rofina.