9 August 2011
There are signs of hope in the mountain villages of Fohorem and Datorua with many Timorese building new houses, sometimes from cement blocks they make themselves, sometimes newly thatched traditional houses with fenced vegetable gardens to stop animals trampling new plants.
It has taken a long time for the people of Timor-Leste to recover from the trauma of the massacres of 1999 when the Indonesian militia attacked whole villages, raping, torturing and killing hundreds of people and burning homes and buildings in anticipation and then retaliation for the overwhelming vote for independence from the brutal Indonesian regime.
Violence flared again in 2006 and in 2008 when attempts were made on the life of the prime minister Jose Ramos-Horta and president Xanana Gusmao.
But in Fohorem in the district of Cova Lima near the border with Indonesian West Timor where the villagers eke out a subsistence living with a few pigs, cattle and vegetables, the building of new houses shows people are starting to think longer term.
Early education a key
Sr Helen Nolen has been in the district for six and a half years, living alongside the people, struggling as they do with unreliable services and supporting them in their griefs and anxieties, hopes and joys.
Sr Helen started a kindergarten soon after she arrived, believing in the necessity of early childhood education for the viability of a nation.
Last year, she built another kindergarten at Datorua in the centre of the parish to foster the same kind of directed play. Two women, Rina and Senhorina, teach the children of the villagers to count and to learn through play the alphabet in Tetum, the language most widely understood in Timor-Leste.
The teachers at both kindergartens meet weekly with Sr Helen to plan their lessons taking account of the festivals in the parish communities.
A key challenge for the teachers is the government’s choice of the language of the first colonisers of Timor-Leste, Portuguese, as the language of education.
Sr Helen feels this is an unfortunate decision because some 60 percent of Timorese are under 15 years and most of the young people have grown up speaking Bahasa in the Indonesian education system. Only those born before 1975 when the Portuguese withdrew from East Timor can speak Portuguese, not many in a country where life expectancy is 57 to 62.
At present some primary and secondary school classes lose their teachers for months at a time while they are in the district capital learning the new language.
A major challenge arises with parliamentary elections next year. With literacy rates at only 50 percent, there is a great deal to do before the fledgling nation catches up with its more powerful neighbours.
Parts of the country, particularly in the coffee-growing regions of Emera many girls do not finish primary school, being required to work in the plantations. There are large gaps in infrastructure from a lack of skilled workers to build and maintain roads and other effective systems.
Whichever of the around 20 political parties is successful, the future of democracy rests on the willingness of the losers to accept the choice of the people and pull together for the benefit of the whole nation.