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Day Seven in Timor-Leste

Day Seven in Timor-Leste

“Kangaroo furak los!” said mana (‘Older Sister’) Judit – a common Tetun phrase that loosely translates to “very good-looking kangaroo”. Mana Judit is somewhere near Castlemaine in Victoria watching a kangaroo hop by. There aren’t any kangaroos in Timor (although I did see something that looked like a kangaroo foetus suspended in coconut wine in Los Palos once). In today’s blog, we compare our experiences of Timor-Leste, with Mana Judit’s experiences of Australia. Let’s begin.

Back in October 2013, Oaktree had its tenth anniversary and invited representatives from our partner organisations in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. Mana Judit was nominated by Ba Futuru and came to Melbourne for five days of presentations, tightly scheduled meetings, looking at Australian schools, not seeing the botanical and the cold. The similarities in how she describes her trip to what we have been talking about over our past 12 days in Timor are whatever the opposite of stark is.

[Video blogging re. Timor]

“How’s it going?”

“It’s hot.”

“What else?”

“People have been exceptionally welcoming, kind and friendly”

[Mana Judit on Australia]

“How did you enjoy Australia?”

“It was cold. Very cold. Mana Kim [Oaktree volunteer] was very generous and drove me around everywhere.”

I was interviewing Mana Judit and asked her to tell us her thoughts on the similarities and differences between Timor-Leste and Australia. I was a bit nervous that this would be interpreted as a prompt to talk up how much better Australia is than Timor-Leste – a cardinal sin, that goes against all that our attempts at ethical communications stand for. Of course this is all wrapped up in the fear of communicating the change we are trying to support as linear, Western-imposed development – that Australia has got it right and other poorer countries just need to become more like us. This is the legacy of misguided international development that had been sitting just below the surface of every interaction we had had in Timor.

Mana Judit visited Lilydale Secondary when she was in Melbourne. She described her shock at witnessing a teacher silence an entire hall of 200 teenagers in moments by simply raising their hand. She speaks very highly of our education system – of students participating in class unprompted, compared to her shy Timorese students; of our sophisticated school infrastructure against Timor’s comparatively simple classrooms; of how Australian teachers can silence a crowd with merely a gesture.

And she’s right. What we feel shy and sheepish about is the bare fact that the Australian education system is world-class. It’s absolutely something to be proud of – not something to be brushed aside. But equally, the fact that our education system in many ways outstrips Timor’s doesn’t at all mean that Australia as a whole is superior to our neighbour; that the fact that we have innovative curriculums, committed teachers and world-leading facilities somehow means Australian people are better, braver, more generous or funnier than the Timorese (Judit again proved that today with her whip-smart cracks sailing right over Geordie’s head).  

In our week-and-a-bit in Timor, we’ve consistently come across some of the gentlest, kindest, most compassionate and hardest-working people we’ve ever met – so to suggest that just because our schools are sound our people are better is absurd. Line up this afternoon’s tuk tuk driver who smilingly lugged a 30kg water bottle under the blazing lunchtime sun for us against your Australian correspondents complaining loudly about the six-hour gap between catered lunch and banquet dinner.

We’ve reacted to decades of Western-led development with an odd kind of inferiority complex that makes us pretend that we don’t see our own country’s strengths – and that’s not helping anyone. What we could do is see Australia’s strengths, see Timor’s, bring both perspectives to the table, and thrash out ideas, colourful and conflicting and energetic and bold, that draw on the strengths of both systems, challenge their shortfalls, and ultimately create something far better what we both have right now.