REGIONAL AFFAIRS: by Br Marcal LopesNews Weekly
East Timor: the challenge ahead
, September 21, 2002
The Salesians have been in East Timor since 1946. They run schools (primary, secondary, technical and agricultural), community health centres, orphanages, parishes and youth centres in Baucau, Dili, Fatumaca, Fuiloro, Laga, Lospalos and Venilale.
Br Marcal Lopes is headmaster of Don Bosco Technical High School in Fatumaca. He recently visited Australia and spoke at the Thomas More Centre in North Melbourne earlier this month.East Timor officially became the world's newest nation last May. It is, we are told, the poorest country in Asia. Ours has been a journey from devastation to democracy.
In many ways it is hard to believe that it is just three years since we suffered the militia-inflicted damage of September 1999.
In just ten days, a great deal of East Timor's infrastructure [houses, shops, schools etc] were burned, smashed or looted during the rampage by pro-Jakarta militia and their retreating TNI [Indonesian Army] mentors.
People fled their houses for the hills to escape the killing. While they were away, the militia burnt their homes.
About 80 per cent of Dili, the capital, was destroyed in those ten days!
Some villages were wiped out. Many schools were torched. [One of the finest centres of education, the Polytechnic in Dili, was totally destroyed.]
As a nation we are deeply indebted to Australia and the international community for their assistance in peace enforcement, peacekeeping and nation building.The economy
We are well aware that East Timor has a great challenge ahead to get the country "up and running"; there is much to be done on all fronts.
While the offshore oil revenues will help the nation along the path of financial independence, these funds are still a number of years away.
More than 75 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers making a meagre living off the land. Rice is the staple crop. However, much of the farming land is hilly and the soil is not particularly fertile.
According to a 2001 UN survey, 60 per cent of East Timor's rural population lives below the poverty line compared with 24 per cent of urban residents. The illiteracy rate exceeds 40 per cent.
Only 20 per cent of villages have electricity and many have to walk four or five kilometres for water.
Throughout rural areas the local farmers participate in the twice-weekly market. Their wares are laid out on the dirt. Some travel to market by pony; the women mostly walk, carrying heavy loads on their heads.
In the hills areas, the moderate climate enables fresh vegetables to be grown: green beans, mandarins, avocados, oranges, potatoes, garlic and shallots.
Livestock is traded at the back of the market.
The farmers, however, make only meagre profits on their sale of produce as buyers from Dili keep prices low.Dreams and challenges
What are the priorities in East Timor? In the words of Bishop Carlos Belo, everything is a priority, and he cites in particular education, clinics and general health, job skills and development of the country.
One of the favourite words of our President, 'Xanana' Gusmao, is "dream". He often speaks of his "dreams" for East Timor.
"When we were in the mountains, we were always dreaming about being independent. It was one of the factors that gave us strength," says Xanana.
I recall Xanana also saying that he wanted all the children of East Timor to be able to go to school and dream, to dream of the future. Xanana wants them to dream about the future that will be theirs now that we have won independence and freedom.
He often reminds our young people of the East Timorese heroes who fought and died for their dream of an independent nation where people could live in freedom.
Dreams are fine - if they lead to concrete, practical benefits. It is my observation that many "dreamers" seem to have their feet planted firmly in mid-air!
Personally I am a fairly practical person. I see that the challenge for us is to turn dreams into reality.
I will spotlight just four areas of great challenge for East Timor.Providing jobs
A major challenge for East Timor is to provide jobs for its people. According to UN figures, more than 70 per cent are unemployed.
Can we expect overseas companies to establish industries and factories in East Timor ? I don't know.
Much also has to be done to increase the output in the rural sector and ensure that farmers get a fair price for the goods they produce.Education and training
With more than 40 per cent of the population illiterate, and with about 40 per cent of children of school age not attending school, there is clearly a great deal to be done in the area of education and training. The Department of Education is making an attempt establish school curricula and standards. It is a very big task.
During the Indonesian times, a large majority of the teachers were from Java or other parts of Indonesia. They have now gone home. The task of training teachers is a colossal one for the university in Dili. The Marist Brothers, now established in Baucau, are making a significant contribution is this area.Health care
Health-wise there are big problems throughout the country. The tuberculosis and infant diarrhoea rates are high. Illnesses such as malnutrition, malaria and pneumonia are rife. Inadequate access to clean water and basic sanitation and poor nutrition are, seemingly, a cause of many of the health problems.
Women mainly give birth at home, and if there are complications they sometimes bleed to death.
Poor health affects how hard people can work and it is a cause of early death and suffering.Communications
Communications throughout East Timor are poor. In Dili, newspapers, television and radio are available; however I sense they only reach a small proportion of the people. Mobile telephones can be used in Dili and in only about six of seven places throughout the whole of the country.
Improved communications would help us to be more efficient. And I feel it could also be a means of reducing illiteracy.Don Bosco Fatumaca
I'm in charge of a technical senior high school in Fatumaca. There are four sections: Carpentry, Electrical, Machine Tools and Electronics. We have 270 students; they all board at the school. Our fees have always been very modest - US$5 per month.
It is no simple matter to:
- feed 270, 16-20 year olds three meals a day;
- purchase fuel to run the generators daily;
- get the materials required for our workshops;
- maintain and repair equipment in the workshops; and
- cover other expenses associated with the day-to-day running of the school.
There is no doubt that our school has a very important role to play in helping provide East Timor with people skilled in the building, metal, electrical and motor trades.
As far as I can tell, most of the students who go through our school at Fatumaca seem to be in jobs - some as carpenters, and electricians, though there is still not much happening in the local building industry. Some have set up electrical repair shops, and I've seen several working at the airport, in radio communications, publications, and various other jobs.Conclusion
We can be overwhelmed by problems. I remember Bishop Belo telling us when I was a novice: "There will always be problems; you can't solve them all. You can only do your best wherever you are working
." How true ! We Salesians will do our job and leave others to do theirs.
Recent years have been pretty tough for the East Timorese.
Despite the problems, there is no doubt East Timor has come a long way in the past three years. We have turned some of our dreams into reality. As a nation we have received a great deal of help from abroad, without which our problems would have been far greater.
The Australian Government, the Army and a range of Non Government Organisations (NGOs) have been very generous in their support of East Timor.
The Australian Salesian Missions Office has given great support in both cash and kind to the Salesians assisting schools, community centres, health clinics, and self-help projects including women's dressmaking cooperatives. And many of you have been part of that effort.
On behalf of the Salesians in East Timor I thank you. I pray that God may reward your generosity.
To return to the theme of "dreaming": Naturally I have many personal dreams for East Timor as a nation and for the teachers and students in the school where I am at present stationed.
I dream that our young people and families become more self-reliant and self-motivated in the rebuilding of the country. I dream that we will be able to get training for all the teachers in the schools.
I dream that our students at Fatumaca will be good Christians and good citizens. It is my hope that our students will generously use their skills and talents for the benefit of others and our new nation.
However, I am realistic enough to know that progress will be very slow for our new nation.
Of course, our job is made a little easier with the help and support we receive from our friends in other countries.
The East Timorese are now walking tall determined to build a future for their children that was different from the past. And with God's grace we will do it.