Trip to East Timor - Report by Vila Wu (2014)

Prior to the trip to East Timor, my knowledge about the country was from ASCM friends who went there in 2012 and 2013. My friends were shocked to hear that I was going to East Timor, as their perceptions of the country were that it is both impoverished and dangerous. After two weeks there, I think it is a country with countless gifts and huge potential.

East Timor is one of the beautiful Pacific islands just above Darwin, surrounded by mountains and sea. Looking from above, the terrain of Timor is like a cock’s tail, so the cock’s tail is the nation’s symbol and it can be seen everywhere in Dili. To me, this country is both familiar and strange. It is familiar because Dili reminds me of my hometown in China decades ago when I was a kid. The minute I got off the plane, the childhood memories about my city surfaced, and I felt like I was coming home.

Having grown up in a small town in a third-world country, I was not surprised to see chaotic traffic, uneven roads with holes, stinky rubbish sites everywhere, and shacks scattered around. Every street crossing was a challenge, as technically, there are no traffic rules. However, I quite enjoyed the ‘adventure’, as it reminded me every time of the specialness of the city. Life in Dili is peaceful with (skinny) doggies straying and children playing on the streets, taxi driving is slow and bunches of young adults wander around with nothing to do. I could feel life here was a bit laid back, but it does not mean they are lazy, in fact, the opposite is true - they are working hard to have a better life.

On the second day we went to Ainaro – the hometown of Brigida’s great-grandfather (Brigida was another person on the trip and her family are all East Timorese). We drove through mountains and it took us four hours to get there because the roads were winding, bumpy and full of potholes. We bypassed numerous villages, a few market fairs and memorials for many massacres. Everything was so real and simple in the countryside, and it seemed nothing had happened to this beautiful country.

It was a very meaningful thing to go back remembering the ancestors, seeking identities and learning who we were. Prior to visiting the Museum of Resistance, Chega Exhibition (truth reconciliation center), Santa Cruz massacre, my knowledge of East Timor was limited only to knowing it had been a colony of Portugal for more than 400 years, and Indonesia since 1975 till independence. Now I know how much the Timorese people (ancestors) have suffered and sacrificed to defend their dignity, to preserve the country’s independence and freedom. It is hard to reconcile and embrace the bloody history. And from the eyes of people who have lived and experienced the war and killings, I can see their sorrow and sadness.

As the plan to go to Baucau with Dr Helen Hill’s study tour didn’t transpire, it spared us more time to explore Dili, and meet more people. Dr Hill invited us to an education seminar, and from there I got to know about the lack of qualified teachers (the actual ratio of student to teacher is 68:1) and capacity which are their major problems. Currently, the Administration of Education is undertaking a food program to provide students from pre-school to year 9 students with simple lunches, and now there are 1,264 schools under the program.

Because of Timor’s history, students are taught in Indonesian and Portuguese, and the country’s own language Tetum is at the risk of disappearing. We were also invited to go to a baby’s baptism in a Catholic church where I was impressed by the amazing choir, even though I could not understand a word. By talking to other people and visiting places (Tasi Toru, Christ Rei, Cathedual Dili, the Red Cross, Antonio’s house etc.), I got a deeper understanding of the people and culture of Timor.

We met Student Christian Movement Timor Leste members a few times, and discussed the plans and problems they have. The founders of SCMTL, Franciso and Antonio are very passionate about promoting social justice and human rights, and they have done a lot of things since 2004, but because of the lack of staff and funds, SCMTL has limited capacity to make initiatives. We discussed how the ASCM and SCMTL can have some joint programs, and suggested that maybe they can send one candidate to ASCM as an intern and learn how to run activities, and bring the knowledge back to Timor.

It was a meaningful trip, and what I enjoyed most was teaching the students English at UNTL(National University ofTimor Leste), as I felt I did something practical and helpful. The students are very keen to learn, and some of them hope to study overseas and come back to serve their country. One of the hotel staff asked me how I felt about Timor and I told him that when God closes one door, at the same time he has already opened another one for us. Timor is a young country, it may be poor but it is full of potential. The people in this land are diligent and hard working. They deserve a better life, and I believe it is only a matter of time.