This year, ChildFund New Zealand’s Laura Patterson visited Timor Leste. Here she talks about her experience.

Laura (left) and school children
I arrived in Dili, the main town in Timor Leste on a very hot Saturday afternoon. I’m here in Timor Leste to catch up with my colleagues at ChildFund Timor Leste and to see how the projects that ChildFund New Zealand supports are progressing.

ChildFund New Zealand, with the support of New Zealand government funds, is funding a three year school rehabilitation and literacy project. The idea is to encourage the community (students, teachers, parents, etc) to get involved in children’s education to help create schools that are great places to learn. This is done through improving the actual buildings, starting libraries and helping everyone in the family to improve their reading and writing.

Eleven of the schools supported by the project are on Atauro Island which is about two hours boat ride from Dili, and that’s where I’m heading very early Monday morning. Atauro has approximately 10,000 people spread in five main villages over the island. What’s amazing is that each village area has its own traditions, culture and even dialects, some of which are shared with neighbouring Indonesian islands rather than Timor Leste. There’s no linking road on the island to the villages and so transport around the island is predominately by boat or by walking. Most of the island has no mobile phone network and so communication to and around the island is much slower than we’re used to.

We had to be ready at the boat for 5.30am. It was actually nice to be up early and enjoy the morning before the day became too hot. As we left the port, fishing boats started returning into the Dili harbour with their fresh catch for the day. The trip over on the boat was calm, considering this time of year when it can get incredibly rough. We saw a pod of whales cross behind our boat path and a school of dolphins came up and played around us for a short while. Atauro Island which looked small in the distance loomed at us as we got closer; revealing its jungle forests and villages dotted around.
Atauro Island - waiting for our arrival
After landing on the island we got into a small fishing boat and were ferried around the island to a school where the project has been involved. The children, parents and teachers were waiting for us on the beach and sung to us an enthusiastic welcoming song. A group of children presented to us the changes happening at the school. Part of this group included a school girl called Sara who was involved in the planning group for the school rehabilitation and activities.

The focus of ChildFund’s work is always children and so it’s important in any project that the voices of children are heard. Sara and her school group had been involved in deciding what work the project would focus on and she told me they had agreed that a new classroom was priority. The old classroom was made out of banana leaves and when it rained everyone got wet and there was limited protection from the sun.

One year later, it was great for me to see the completed classroom and the difference that it has made for the students and teachers. The project also helped the school set up a small library with books in Tetum and Portuguese languages. Sara also told me that this is the first time that she has been able to read story books like these full of colourful pictures. It was exciting to see the children so enthusiastic about the new books and classroom. One of the challenges in the area is that children have to walk from distant villages to attend classes, in some areas on the island children are walking up to 4 hours each day!

Yesterday the UN police dropped us at the top of the mountain in the centre of the island and we walked nearly two hours down into one of the villages. Most of that was in the dark, using our head torches to avoid tripping up on tree roots and rocks. The school children and community were waiting on the beach for us to arrive as we clambered down the path and then the celebrations started. For this community, it is not often that they get visitors to their village and the children had good reason to celebrate. There was a lot of singing, speeches and food being shared.

The community had worked together to repair the classrooms, putting on a new roof so that it didn’t leak when it rained. The class rooms had been freshly painted with bright colours and they had set up a separate room as a library, where the new books were displayed. The school looked like an inviting place to study.
Thank you!!
Knowing that we had to walk back out to the road, we had to leave in the early afternoon. It took us around 3 hours to walk in the cooking heat to the waiting vehicle (being an avid tramper I really enjoyed it and the rest of the team thought I was crazy!). The party didn’t stop when we left, we could hear the music and singing while we walked up the mountain behind the village. Plenty to celebrate there!

The walk back made me realise how difficult it is for children to access further schooling after the basic primary level, as it is a long way from the village to the main town of the island where the bigger school is located. Children have to board with friends and family, but many of them choose not to study further due to the challenge of getting there and being away from home.

Over the week, we visited six schools out of the 17 being supported on both Atauro Island and also Liquica District. It has been great to see the changes being made at the schools and the enthusiasm and involvement of everyone in the community. There’s still more to do in continuing to support the community to have great local schools. The next stage of the project focuses on improving the reading ability of children and their parents and I think it will be a big success based on the changes seen at the schools this week. Access to quality education is extremely important for the future of children and the country, and there is huge need over the whole of Timor Leste for projects like this one. I think we’ve made a good start with this project and look forward to seeing other children have a similar opportunity!

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