Tackling Timor’s Issues, One Classroom At A Time

Rosemary Fenton is UNICEF NZ’s Programmes Manager. She recently visited Timor Leste to monitor UNICEF’s early childhood education projects, funded in partnership with The Morgan Foundation.

Timor Leste is very special to me. I lived there from 2007 to 2010, on my first mission working for an aid organisation. It was really emotional to go back, and I was nervous about how I would feel, especially on the first day. But it was great! I found that when I arrived, I talked nonstop about my past experiences — I couldn’t shut up!

Words were coming back to me. I was remembering how things worked. Above the beach I could see the beautiful statue of Jesus — Cristo Rei de Dili. We used to go there in the weekend and have a coconut or mango juice, or head down to look at the ocean — there was a crocodile who used to live there.

Memories of the upheaval are still fresh, and most people have some connection to the troubles. One of the staff members I met told me about how her house was burned in Dili and she had to flee the country.

The thing I love about East Timor is, despite its challenging history, the people are really positive and committed to building their country. It’s had quite a troubled history. It’s a post-conflict country that was occupied by Indonesia, who then pulled out after a referendum in 1999.

Memories of the upheaval are still fresh, and most people have some connection to the troubles. One of the staff members I met told me about how her house was burned in Dili and she had to flee the country.

Thankfully, things have changed for the better. There are still issues in Timor Leste, but they have a good human rights record and some very progressive policies. However there’s still not the infrastructure in place, and because communities are so rural and remote, it’s hard to provide services.

There’s definitely more development in Dili. And outside of Dili I saw more households with solar power, more communities accessing Government grants to build water systems or school buildings. But it’s going to take time — the level of need is huge.

I feel we’re making a difference. It comes back to humanity. And believing that what we do is worthwhile.

40% of the population lives in poverty. In rural areas, most families live in a thatched hut. Food consists of rice, some greens and other vegetables, cooked over an open fire. Meat is a luxury, reserved for ceremonies. There may or may not be a toilet outside but there is always a pig pen to do your business.

People make the best of what they have and enjoy a good story and joke, I guess that’s people everywhere.

These were two of the girls I met. Through going to school, they were receiving access to education and exposure to play and learning they couldn’t receive at home.

The children don’t usually have books, and any toys they have are made with local materials. Children learn through play, so that’s why preschool, where books and toys are available, is so important.

The biggest challenges in Timor Leste are definitely health and education. Children make up almost half of the population, and early childhood is a vital period of time.

Investing in preschool means children will learn better throughout their school years, be more prepared, and continue on to secondary school. It’s really long term stuff, but hugely important, and hugely effective.

This little boy was enjoying time with his books!

Around 40% of the population has stunting. Stunting isn’t just physical — when children under the age of two don’t get adequate nutrition, their brain doesn’t develop as it should, so they can’t learn as well and reach their potential.

It’s really important we don’t arrive in a country and tell people what to do — it’s vital we work with local communities.

Only about 30% of nutrition is addressed through feeding — water and sanitation are just as important. If children are having constant diarrhoea because they don’t have a toilet, then their nutrient absorption is affected, increasing stunting, and limiting their development.

Parenting is linked, too. When parents interact with children, it helps their brain grow and develop, and prepares them for their education.

But if a child is often scared or frightened, their brain doesn’t develop properly, so teaching parents about positive discipline is really important.

UNICEF’s role is working side-by-side with Government, finding out the priorities, and helping to achieve those.

We want communities to be able to do activities without us in the future, so it’s really important we don’t arrive in a country and tell people what to do.

There may be reasons they don’t do certain things — cultural, religious, political, or bureaucratic reasons.

It’s about gaining that trust so people feel comfortable sharing with you what the challenges are. The other thing is having the right intentions — being yourself and letting people know who you are.

I know it’s just a small part we play, but when you to go East Timor and see the children, and meet the parents, and hear some of the stories of change and how things have developed, you get a real sense of achievement.

I feel we’re making a difference. It comes back to humanity. And believing that what we do is worthwhile.

With some of the new little friends I made!

To find out more about Unicef’s early childhood education work in Timor Leste, visit unicef.org.nz