Supporting East Timor

A letter from East Timor

Comunidade Edmund Rice or CER as we call it is an initiative of the Christian Brothers to offer an opportunity for Brothers and volunteers from Australia to express their solidarity with the people of East Timor by living and working at this critical time of their history.

If you were to visit East Timor, you would quickly notice that rural communities are experiencing greater underdevelopment than Dili. Inadequate water supply hinders health, hygiene and agriculture. Overcrowding in what is already poor housing is another change the people want. Lack of transport makes it a real struggle for these rural communities to get anything to the markets. Their isolation is worsened by having no electricity and limited access to radio and newspapers and of course there is no television.

Hence our ministry of community development has come to be focussed on five isolated rural villages in the District of Ermera. The 4200 people in them almost totally live a life of subsistence. Only a few people such as teachers receive a wage while most have to grow what they eat and supplement this with a little income from a small crop of coffee.

The funding provided by Melbourne Overseas Mission has allowed CER to commence responding to some of these needs. The generous grant of $25 000 is channelling $12 000 to projects about Food Security (agriculture, animal husbandry and aquaculutre), $6 000 for Community Well-being (health and water) and $7 000 for Community Education (peace, literacy and carpentry).

CER is working with the people to improve their food security. A substantial part of the funding is going to the development of cooperatives that will increase production of crops and livestock. Mr Andrew Sexton, a volunteer from Sydney, has conducted workshops and training for over 50 people across these villages. He primarily works through four local East Timorese men who are being employed as agricultural extensionists to animate and inform the communities about these cooperatives. Small amounts of money are being given to each cooperative to obtain the necessary materials and supplies to get started. Two particularly popular responses are to make small dams for fish farming and coops for raising chickens.

We are giving a lot of emphasis to peace building amongst the people across all villages. Over forty members have been sponsored to attend week long workshops on peace. The training there helps participants to consider alternative ways of resolving conflict without resorting to violence, something well learnt from the oppressive regimes the people have experienced in the past. Over 90 people attended a peace workshop in their villages and now with an employed peace worker, the village peace animators are assisted to continue and develop these initiatives amongst the people.

The health clinic that CER initiated is now functioning with funding from other sources. However, a medical student from Sydney, Tim Gray, is developing 3 day health workshops for the 50 health animators in the villages. Carol Hobson, a nurse from Brisbane is coming for a month to assist in these workshops and be involved in other ways in the village communities. A young East Timorese woman, Sonia Ferreira, is also assisting in a variety of ways: preparing the material in Tetun to conduct the course in this local language, presenting some of the material as well as continuing her main role as office manager. We have been able to send her to Brisbane for training in English, computing and finance. Building the capacity of East Timorese co-workers and village people is a high priority for us.

Carpenters in three villages have been assisted to build furniture and to refurbish some housing along side ex-patriate workers. In time we hope a workshop will be established to train the younger adults in woodwork.

Another major endeavour in this area of community education are the literacy courses in Tetun and English language courses that the people are very enthusiastic to attend. Sr Rita Hayes, a Good Samaritan Sister from Victoria, is the project coordinator for both these programmes. She is ably assisted by a PALMS volunteer, Barry Hinton, from Rockhampton. In time we hope to do other adult education such as civic education, an important matter in a country learning to live in a democratic way with its new found freedom. Much also needs to be achieved in economic development particularly through micro credit schemes. For this we are seeking an East Timorese worker and further funding.

We have also been asked by the people to assist them in improving the well-being of the community through a sanitation project, to improve their housing ( usually made of strips of bamboo with a grass roof and this is cold in mid year so fires are lit inside), to assist the women to teach the girls sewing and other crafts. The youth have also asked us to help them with English, sport, music and with their scout movement. This also requires more funding, something we are seeking from a variety of sources.

As we move to live in the villages this month, we are trying to find funding to obtain another 4WD and an off road motorcycle, ones that will stay up in the mountains while the 4WD we already have will continue to bring supplies and transport volunteers and paid workers to and from Dili. As we and the village people have no system of emergency communication to Dili we urgently need to obtain four Codan Transceivers to link the vehicles and houses.

The list could go on but the important thing is that the funding from the Melbourne Overseas Mission has given us a great start and for this all of us in CER are most grateful.

Br Dan Courtney