Presence before Programs

Presence before Programs

by Roger O’Halloran

Feature image: [L-R] Dominga , who is now a senior staff member of the Catholic Teachers College Baucau, Timor Leste,  Aurea who got married and moved to Dili, Palms Participant Monica Morrison and Mariano who is a former Deputy Director of the College.

On October 27th Palms asked those who have completed teaching assignments through Palms to write three sentences about the highlight of that experience.  We published them on Friday October 29th as a celebration of International Teachers Day.  Monica Morrison, who worked mentoring the teaching staff at the Catholic Teachers College Baucau, Timor Leste (2009-10 & 2014) included this comment:

Gender equity was an issue, so the words of one of my students is a precious memory: ‘Mana Monica, you have taught me that learning is for life and women are as clever as men’.

If there were more time between receiving that comment and publishing this edition of Global Educator I might have imposed on Monica to suggest what may have lay behind the “precious” remark of her student.  Without that, let me attempt to answer the question of what Monica may have done to receive the positive comment about gender equity.

This is not uncommon.  I believe such comments arise not so much because of special treatment of women in the programs, but rather through the witness given by Palms women that the mothers of local women never had the opportunity to give.  The evidence of competence in occupations beyond the domestic, plants the seed of change.

Palms development philosophy is clear.  Program participants are trained not to push neo-colonial, human rights, or missionary agendas based in their own cultural experience and expectations.  Evidence suggests that such is regarded with suspicion and passively resisted.

Palms prepares each participant to spend their first six months of placement as a pilgrim learning.  As the stranger to the culture, there is a naive foreigner period where it is acceptable to ask questions, respectfully, about existing structures and processes.  Framing the question might go like this:

“This is different to how I am meant to do ‘these things’ in Australia.  I want to do things properly in ‘given country’ I wonder if you can help me understand (Who, What, Why, How, When) in ‘given country.’”

The six months is important too, because while one’s own cultural eyes might see structures appearing to hinder dignified opportunities for all to live their lives to the fullest, it is so easy at first to miss the strengths of the culture that support such opportunities.

While questions may not be answered directly, showing a willingness to learn as a mentee for six months also creates a mutual mentoring environment of learners together.  It opens a respectful space for an exchange of questions.  It is in this space that members of the community are most likely to become receptive to change.

Development ideas requiring structural/cultural change, before communities ask, inevitably fall on deaf ears.  However, one’s presence can encourage communities to consider and see the merit of such ideas.  I recall Mim Buchhorn, an environmental engineer, placed in one of the most remote villages (Hato Builico, Timor Leste, 2011) needing to call on a good deal of patience while being ignored by the men attempting to deal with an erosion issue across their land.

When I visited with an Encounter Tour eight months into the placement I saw the pride on the faces of the men as they showed us the tree planting on the steep gullies and explained other mitigations to stop the erosion.  More than the importance of this work was an expressed belief that women, perhaps their daughters, might be given similar opportunities to contribute to the development of their communities.  The presence of Mim’s husband, Damian, a nurse assisting to build health capacity in the region, also clearly assisted to challenge gender stereotypes.

So yes, central to a Palms assignment is the value that all have opportunities to live their lives to the fullest.  Gender stereotypes can prevent this.  While we receive no requests for experts in how to remove gender stereotypes it is a cross-cutting issue on which the presence of any program participant will have an influence.