Wednesday, November 23, 2005

What keeps you in Timor?

My German colleague who returned home in August due to poor health is not returning to Timor. He arrived in Timor in April for a three year volunteer placement at my NGO. Within four months of living here he experienced health problems that could not be diagnosed properly in Timor or Indonesia so returned home for better medical treatment. He also experienced a number of cultural problems both at work and with Timorese society in general (some of which I share), and which I strongly suspect were also a factor in his decision not to return.

The German NGO which sent him invest a lot in their volunteers (which in contrast, AVI does not) including six months pre departure training which includes seven weeks Tetun language instruction in Portugal or the equivalent time learning Bahasa in Germany; two weeks English language instruction in Austria; not to mention extensive cultural education. Understandably therefore this particular NGO does not want to lose a volunteer so early in their placement, hence why it has taken my NGO three months to receive a definitive answer as to whether my colleague would return.

My other German colleague on the other hand, has been here two and a half years and wants to secure another three year contract! However, this will all depend on the new German grand coalition (CDU/SPD) government as the particular program that funds her was instigated by the left leaning SPD government in 1999 so there is no guarantee that it will continue nor in Timor in particular (apparently Iraq and Afghanistan are now higher up the list of countries in need). I quickly fathomed why my colleague would want to spend six years of her life here: she loves her work as a social therapist (a bit like a social worker, counsellor and psychologist combined) and gains immense satisfaction from it. Also, her NGO (the same one from where our now departed colleague hailed) are incredibly generous and supportive. On top of the fantastic pre departure training, they supply her with money to buy a 4WD and the salary for a personal driver, Internet access from home along with a budget that she brings to the local organisation in order to pay for different programs including training for staff. When she leaves Timor, the 4WD is given to the organisation.

Based on these resources alone, her experience living here is very different to mine where I arrived after two days predeparture training (and a mere afternoon specifically on Timor) without any language skills or budget and must catch “mikrolets” and taxis (my colleague has never been on a “mikrolet”). In fact, in some respects (but not all), her life is closer to that of a well paid international except that she doesn’t receive as much personal income and she’s here for far longer. Moreover, she is nearly 50, divorced and has no children (although she has two phantom children for the benefit of inquiring Timorese who always ask: “how many children do you have?” as they do not understand the concept of women who are childless). She has spent most of her adult life living in Switzerland and when she reached her 40s newly divorced she decided that she needed a change in her life and wanted to work somewhere where there was greater need. She is not the first person to say to me that the West is full of people like herself but Less Developed Countries have hardly any such people and needs them more than the West does, to which I completely concur.

However, there must be a payoff for a Westerner to live in Less Developed Countries. Hopefully that is their commitment and the satisfaction they obtain from a job they enjoy doing and seeing the small (positive) difference they make, for others it may be the big salary or quick bucks to be made (I have also heard people say for the “lifestyle” but my incredulity at this remains). It’s also true that people hide out in places like Dili in order to escape problems back home which range from being wanted for murder (yes, you heard it right!) to failed relationships to mid life crises to general dissatisfaction with life and work. And then there are those whose egos can’t get enough of the big fish in a little pond syndrome. But whatever the reason, there must be an obvious reward (and for me it is a satisfaction with work that is yet to transpire); otherwise I don’t see what could possibly keep someone here.

The Timorese woman I share an office with has been told that her contract will not be extended beyond 31 December. She was originally hired to fill the position of Executive Secretary to the Director but my now departed German colleague asked instead if she could work with him because her English was so good. This meant her position was funded by my German colleague’s NGO in Germany and when he advised that he would not be returning my Timorese colleague’s position effectively no longer existed. As mentioned in previous posts, I have found it challenging at times to work with this colleague and so I am not too sad to see her go and I’m sure that despite high unemployment, she will find another job because she has experience and skills that are in demand (in particular English language and computer); and now that her team has folded (as it comprised only two people) I am hoping that my team and I can be reunited in the same office. My work here is going nowhere and it simply won’t go anywhere unless I can work in close proximity with my team. Consequently these turn of events have given me some optimism that perhaps things will get better.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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