Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Malae Part Two

The other side of Ruben's work is being involved in a community-run project up in the hills of Emera. His enthusiasm is infectious and we go along with him to take a look. On our way we stop off at an orphanage run by Izza, an Aussie, and his Timorese wife Ina. Over a cup of local coffee we discover that Izza is an old traveller who settled here many years before. A local priest approached them with the idea of running the orphanage at an old school site. With limited resources they have built a dormitory for about 30 kids, with a dining room and outdoor kitchen. They have no regular funding but have somehow managed to keep the place running and the children fed for several years. It's a remarkable story of commitment. Whilst some of the children were orphaned through conflict, the majority of their parents died from TB. Some of the children have grown too old now for school, but there are few opportunities to leave.

Out of the city most of the people are subsistence farmers. Whilst the population had fallen, the average family now has about 7 and a half children - a frightening number, and it's no surprise to learn that Timor Leste has some of the worst rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world. The majority of the population are Catholic and the local church has agreed to support a policy of "birth-spacing" to help improve the health of mothers. Up at Bakhita Ruben takes us to the health clinic set up and run by a local committee and team of staff. Anders, a young American volunteer enthusiastically shows us around. Originally the clinic was staffed by volunteer doctors from Australia, but the government now provides some staff and training for the mid-wife. Field clinics are also delivered in more remote areas. Whilst we are there, two Cuban doctors appear from the nearest settlement. The Cubans have 300 doctors working out across the country. We are a three hour rough drive from Dili but it feels quite remote. The community have developed a second project to improve farming output, particularly coffee cultivation, with a nursery programme and planting of shade trees.

The first Malae we actually met was riding in the minibus with us when we crossed the border. Her name is Crystell, an Englishwoman working in the department of education to develop a teacher training programme. We read about her experience after we met her. The teaching she observed was quite basic. The only teaching tool used is the blackboard, and even then some teachers write too small for children at the back of the class. Most learning is by rote and often kids are sent out to play whilst the teachers chat amongst themselves. School hours are short. All of this reflects our impressions from state schools in Indonesia. One of the big problems is the lack of materials and understanding the need for literacy. Izza confirmed that hardly anyone has anything to read in Timor Leste and the kids have only a notebook for copying off the blackboard. If materials are provided they are locked away in the headteachers office to prevent them being spoiled! A new free magazine, produced in cartoon format primarily to spread public health messages, is very popular and read by everyone in the home - if they can read. But there's an even bigger issue to affect the education of the children and that is the government's decision to use Portugese as the national language. This is seen as folly by some. For a start Tetun is the majority local language. Then there is a large percentage of the population who learnt Bahasa Indonesia at school during 25 years of rule from Jakarta. Everyone watches television from Indonesia. But many of the ruling politicians are the rare few who received an education under Portugese rule. It's an interesting decision to say the least. All the teaching staff will have to learn Portugese before they can teach the children.

Our time here flies by in the sweltering daytime heat. At the weekend we head down to the Dili beach where people go to relax. There are locals and malae, with an almost imperceptible divide down the middle. Perhaps this is to do with the location of restaurants and parking? Beefy Portugese soldiers play games on the beach. A Timorese man splashes in the shallows with a whole class of schoolkids - except, wait, there's eight of 'em - they are probably all his children. Hundreds of malea jog along the esplande to the headland point where a statue of Jesus sits atop.
(The bay behind this one is known as 'Jesus Backside Beach'.) In the evening the beachside restaurants are busy. Should peace and stability continue here then Dili at least will have the infrastructure for tourism that might just mitigate the effects on the local economy of the eventual withdrawal of the foreign workers.

We have our new Indonesia visa and it's time to depart. Once again we are sorry to say goodbye to good friends and kind hosts after only a short visit. But our brief time here has left a lasting impression on us, I am sure, for which we are very grateful to Val and Ruben and all the other Timorese and malae that we have met here.

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