TIMOR Leste ‘ the new name for East Timor ‘ celebrated its first birthday last month.
I have been co-ordinating support for Timor Leste in the Salesians Missions Office for the past four years during which time I have made nine visits to what is now the world’s newest nation.
I’m frequently asked how things are going now? Has everything settled down? Well, yes and no.
There is certainly general peace and calm throughout the country. However, the people are very poor and many struggle just to get the basics.
President Xanana Gusmao recently spotlighted that half the population lacks any formal education, youth unemployment is high, and two out of every five people live on less than 55 cents.
The East Timorese had very little preparation for self-government. Their independence was attained after 31 months of UN stewardship, 24 years of often brutal Indonesian rule and four centuries of Portuguese colonialism.
Timor Leste is a small country with big challenges. It’s the poorest nation in Asia with a population of 800,000.
More than 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 21. Life expectancy is about 50.
The nation has very serious health problems ‘ malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery. The infant mortality rate is especially high.
As a new country, they need everything:
- More capable personnel to run the government and the civil service.
- An efficient justice system.
- Help for schools.
- A regular electricity supply.
- Means to control weeds in rural areas and increase agricultural output.
Oil and gas developments in the Timor Sea will provide a stead source of funds in future years, however there does not appear to be too much in the way of income-generating industries on the horizon in the short run.
The Salesians have been in East Timor since 1946. Their work is mainly in education. There are 70 priests and brothers, of whom more than 85 per cent are East Timorese, working from seven centres (Comoro, Baucau, Fatumaca, Fuiloro, Laga, Lospalos and Venilale).
In addition there are 40 Salesian Sisters working from Dili, Comoro, Fuiloro, Laga and Venilale.
I am impressed by the contribution that the Salesians are making to help rebuild Timor Leste. Quite simply they are trying to give people both the self-confidence and the skills to help themselves. It is work that is constant, not spectacular, but very necessary.
For me it has been a privilege to support and encourage their efforts.
The work in the schools includes:
- Don Bosco Technical School, Fatumaca: The three-year program has courses that give students strong foundations for work in the mechanical, electrical and electronics fields and also the building trades. There are 270 students, aged 16-22 at the school.
- Don Bosco Training Centre, Comoro on the outskirts of Dili has short courses in carpentry, electricity and welding. It caters for abut 100 students. A third of this year’s group are former guerrilla fights, members of Falintil, most of whom have not previously attended school.
- Don Bosco Agricultural School, Fuiloro has a three-year program to provide 200 students with basic agricultural theory and practice. A dairy project at the school set up by Kwinanis International (Australia) has helped broaden the curriculum. It has also provided a daily glass of milk for 1000 youngsters on the campus at the elementary and junior high schools, as well as for a number in neighbouring villages.
- The Salesian Sisters Vocational High School, Venilale, has courses in cooking, dressmaking and hygiene in addition to the usual academic subjects. There are 100 students at the school.
- St Anthony’s, Baucau and St Peter’s, Comoro are both co-educational and regular academic high schools.
- More than 50 elementary schools in Baucau, Fatumaca, Fuiloro, Laga and Venilale are directly assisted by the Salesians.
- As a large number of students come to school on an empty stomach, efforts are being made to provide them with a midday meal.
- Work to help orphans is based in three main centres:
- Lospalos: The Salesian orphanage for boys caters for 100.
- Laga: The Salesian Sisters have an orphanage for 100 girls.
- Venilale: The Salesian Sisters’ orphanage has 100 girls.
The orphanages don’t have a regular source of income and rely largely on donations.
The Salesian communities at Fatumaca and Fuiloro provide an agricultural outreach program for farmers in neighbouring villages that often involve the loaning of tractors and other equipment.
The Salesian Sisters’ Medical Clinic at Venilale, run by Sr Paola, a doctor trained in Italy, serves several thousand people in the hill country. The nearest doctor is at Baucau, more than an hour’s drive away.
The Salesian works are not only impressive, they are essential for the growth and development of the nation.
Donations can be sent to: Salesian Missions Office, PO Box 80, Oakleigh, Vic 3166.
Salesian Brother Michael Lynch runs the Salesian Missions Office, based in Melbourne.