Thursday, January 19, 2006

An AVI colleague returns home early

Today I had lunch with one of the two other AVIers that we originally came with to Timor. She told me that our other colleague was not returning to her position as an English teacher and trainer in Aileu. She had gone to Bali for 10 days followed by 10 days home to Australia and there supported by her family of origin, she made the decision not to return. I don’t blame her as her situation sounded very difficult indeed.

Aileu is located in the highlands (mountainous interior) of Timor, 47km south of Dili. (It is lovely and cool up there not hot and humid like Dili.) The total district population is approximately 36,000 of whom half live in Aileu town where my colleague lived. Agriculture is the backbone of Aileu’s economy with more than 95% of the population deriving its income from agriculture practice. Although the main form of farming is subsistence farming, several cash crops are grown eg coffee, mangoes, oranges, corn and rice. There are approximately 500 public sector workers in the district most of whom are employed in the education sector; the private sector is very small (kiosks, market stalls etc) and mostly self-employed. The teacher student ratio is about 1:40 and most children do not attend school beyond the primary level. There are three doctors from Cuba for the whole district, 19 midwives and 26 nurses. About half the population have no access to health care.

There are approximately 25 “malae” in Aileu town half of whom are native English speakers. Most of them are American sisters and lay missionaries from the Maryknoll Sisters order based in the USA or volunteers from the secular American organisation Peace Corps. The other half are made up of Portuguese employed by their government to teach the teachers Portuguese; also Brazilians, one German, one Czech; and one Bolivian and two Filipinos sisters from Maryknoll. My colleague was the only Australian.

My colleague had no running water in her home despite assurances that the broken water pump would be fixed, so she had to obtain water for the bathroom and kitchen from elsewhere in town and cart it home in huge containers on her motorcycle; she also had to buy 19-litre bottles of purified drinking water, and transport these on her motorcycle to her house.

Power is only supplied in Aileu from 6pm to midnight and Sunday mornings (a concession to the church) which makes teaching and living challenging. Access to the Internet is only available from the District Administrator’s office (the highest-ranking government official for a district). The few functioning squat toilets at her school were so disgusting (mainly due to the fact that there are not enough for the total number of students and teachers but also because there was not enough water to flush them with due to the dry season), that throughout the day she would have to return home to use the toilet! Moreover, she was forced to teach grammatically incorrect English at the government secondary school and was told that she had to stick with the offending textbook from Indonesia despite protestations that it was inappropriate (I cannot imagine having to do a job for 18 months knowing that what you are doing is incorrect but being told to do it anyway!) She also suffered from poor nutrition and health as she struggled to take care of herself in a very challenging environment. Furthermore, she felt isolated and unsupported.

Although her situation and stresses were mostly different to mine, her story is just one example of how difficult it can be for “malae” to live and work as volunteers in Timor and why many choose to return home early.

The three of us are going up to her place in Aileu this weekend to pack up her stuff for her.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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