|1st Visit - October 2005|
I had been asked by a teacher, who is a member of the newly formed ‘Friends of East Timor’ in Bairnsdale, to go to East Timor, also known as Timor Leste. Many organisation’s and governments supply money and materials, but there is a severe shortage of technical and trades people to train and assist in the reconstruction process. It is of paramount importance that these people obtain assistance to become a truly independent nation. At present because of conditions, the lack of infrastructure and technical knowledge, they are totally dependant on outside help. It has been known for some time, that it is not desirable for developing countries to be in a situation of long term dependence, as this can result in a demoralisation and a loss of the desire to stand alone. My task was to assist in the setting up of computers and the training of students in the basic use of the personal computer. This was for the 'DonBosco' Catholic school, in Comoro, Dili. Since I have no formal training in IT and only home experience in the repair and installation of software and absolutely nothing in teaching. I wondered if I would be of any assistance. My daughter inspired me by saying. “The only thing to do, Dad, is to go there and find out.” This seemed to me to be a wise enough comment, so I decided on a two week visit to see just what I could do!
On my arrival I was greeted as though I was a long lost relative. I came to nickname East Timor as the ‘Island of Children,’ as there is a noticeable absence of adults. The reason being that during the 25 years of Indonesian occupation and after the independence vote in 1999, the Indonesian Militia had murdered a total of as many as 200,000 people as well as looting what they could carry and destroying the rest. It is unfortunate that as well as being unable to act until it was too late. The Australian government is not noticeably present with aid, apart from an interest in oil reserves. In view of the existence of oil and gas fields, it is a pity that more cannot be done in anticipation of future income from these sources. In spite of all the years of occupation and human rights abuses, these people hold no malice, I could see that for them to have people come and stay with them and care about them meant as much as anything. I had already achieved much just by setting foot in Dili. I had learned the true meaning of the basic Christian commandment. ‘To love your neighbour as yourself.’ Where ever I went, I was greeted by pearly white teeth in a big smile saying ‘Bondia’ in the morning, which means ‘good morning’. In the afternoon it is ‘Botarde,’ meaning ‘good afternoon’. I enquired as to how the Timorese people maintained such beautiful white teeth. The answer, simply, that they don’t eat anything with sugar in it, or meat. Their main diet consists of rice and vegetables. And that is when they do eat.
The ‘new’ donated computers that I was to set up, turned out to be early Pentiums pushing towards ten years. As well as a pile of inoperable monitors, pci cards, old manufacturers books, stacks of keyboards and broken mice. There is a misconception in western countries that third world people will spend the time to fix any old junk. This simply is not true. Electronic equipment these days is generally not repairable except for the replacement of circuit boards and even this needs to be carried out in a fairly well equipped repair shop. Fortunately, after a few hours, I managed to set up seven working stations. I then went and ‘borrowed’ a Philips screwdriver and managed to coax a few more back from the dead. I now had nine operational systems and almost another. My next problem was software. There was a mixture of operating systems, some of which were, well! Anybody who has used Windows 95 and 98 will know what I mean. Guess what? There was absolutely no software backup in the school. Even the main office computers of late vintage had been supplied with ‘Windows XP Professional’ pre-installed and no backup disks supplied. For people unfamiliar. ‘Windows XP Home’ has to be registered on the internet, or it will fail to operate after a short period after installation. Whereas the ‘professional’ version designed for networking computers doesn’t. Although a little ungainly, with the use of an illegal installation key generator, ‘XP Professional’ serves as a pirates delight. I wonder if there is a legal version of the XP operating system anywhere in Asia. In any event, I don’t think it would send microsoft to the wall. It might even do them some good, to have some free versions supplied to developing countries. As the computers were not capable of operating on high resource intensive operating systems, I took a trip into Dili and purchased a printed and packaged copy of Windows 98 Vers2, of dubious origin, since the writing was in Chinese and I had only paid the princely sum of US$3. The other main problem I had in East Timor, was internet access. This is a virtual must when dealing with computers. Only dial up was available and this was extremely unreliable. Often a connection could not be made and due to a noisy line, it was slower than usual with frequent drop outs. I was also horrified to learn that Timor Telecom charged US$6 per hour for this frustration. Basically it was only good for the occasional email.
On Sunday’s I went into Dili to attend the English mass. To and from, the roads are full of people walking either to Mass or home from it. Most are spotlessly clean and dressed in their best clothes in the old tradition. This is quite something for people that live in shanties with very little of anything. In the hills behind the school are a series of monuments to the ‘Ecumenical way of the cross.’ In the slightly cooler late afternoons, when the temperature was at least below 30C, I enjoyed a walk to the top. Part way up is a concrete grotto to Saint Mary. There would nearly always be people there praying. One night after reaching the three concrete crosses of ‘Calvary’ at the summit, I wondered why God would not put an end to such poverty. As if in response, it came to my mind that his answer might be. “Many souls would be lost, if I did it now. They would not have the opportunity to complete ‘their way’ of the cross. On my return back down from the mountain, many children would gather around me. If I had my camera they would eagerly insist that I take their photo and then they would almost pull the camera from my grasp in their eagerness to see their image. On my last walk, without the camera, they came and held my hands as we walked. I wondered if this was what Jesus had felt when the children came to him! On a sight seeing trip on the outskirts of Dili, we came across a rubbish dump. My heart sank at the sight of barefooted children scavenging for anything that they could find. But to my amazement when I took their photo they giggled with raucous laughter at the joy of just having their photo taken.
The Salesian priests had to attend a meeting at a village beyond Baucau, this is East Timor’s second largest city. I took the opportunity for a day trip to visit my companion who was staying there for two months to teach at St. Antonio’s, the Catholic school which our ‘Friends of East Timor’ group gives most of their support to. On my arrival, I stood in awe at the stunning vegetation. Baucau is around 300 metres above sea level in amongst limestone caves and rocky outcrops. There are numerous springs surfacing and running through the city. As it was the end of the dry season it appears that they must run all year. This would explain the magnificent vegetation. Since the school is currently without power to run it’s computer room, I wondered at the possibility of a micro hydro system, which is commonly used throughout Asia, to power remote villages such as Baucau. I met up with my companion and asked if I could watch him teach. I was interested to learn teaching and I had yet to conduct a computer class back in Dili. Before I knew what had happened, the students had dragged me into a classroom to teach them. I suspected that my companion, who had gone missing momentarily, had put them up to this. But he assured me later that he had not. These children just love to be taught and we talked mostly about Australia, which they seemed keen to learn about. This was all a new experience for me and I was amazed at my enjoyment. At one stage there was a bit of trouble between some students. It appeared that some had been a bit too keen and had been fighting over me.
On my last day in East Timor, my host, Father Tran, took me into the mountains to see the villages there and also one of their main exports, which is coffee. It is cooler in the mountains and to my surprise, the coffee trees have a sweet smell reminiscent of spring. Many Timorese live on the mountains to escape the heat and mosquitos. I am told that they carry water from the valleys to their grass thatched huts on the peaks. In the afternoon we passed multitudes of children walking home from school in their perfectly maintained uniforms. We hardly passed any that did not smile and politely greet us. Later in the afternoon it began to rain lightly. The smell of the eucalypts and the innocent faces seemed like heaven. We stopped and gave some students a ride, as they hate to get their uniforms wet because they only have one outfit. After we dropped them off, I enquired of Father Tran if the students were taught about the danger of accepting lifts from strangers. He informed me that they were completely innocent and unafraid. I think it was about this time that emotion caught up with me. It was just as well that I was wearing sunglasses to hide my tears.
On my return to Darwin, among impatient drivers, rude shoppers and the drunk and drugged staggering down the street, I felt really alone. I wondered who was truly rich and who was poor. “Before my subjects I stand stripped. The poorest King that ever lived, even my deathbed is not my own. Yet who has ever been so rich, possessing nothing, I own all! My Fathers Love!”