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Day Six in Timor-Leste

Day Six in Timor-Leste

Any Oaktree volunteer worth their salt would be able to tell you that our international engagement work is done in partnership. We’ve got Power Points and website copy; hand-written posters and even in-jokes that hammer home the point that when we work with organisations like Ba Futuru, our Timorese partner, we’re equals in a mutually beneficial relationship – not a dominant powerhouse with our fingers round the pursestrings; nor a dopey youth group being bled by another NGO.

But a few thousand kilometres and a language away from Oaktree’s copy deck, what does that word partnership mean?

Geordie found that out this afternoon, sitting on a bamboo bench in a hot dry schoolyard, talking with Mana Judit, who manages the Ba Futuru project we fund. We started funding the High Schools Transformation Project in 2013 – which had Judit on the other end of a near-dozen quarterly reports, two evaluation trips, countless Skype calls, and a trip to Melbourne for Oaktree’s tenth anniversary – and commenced funding Quality Education immediately after HSTP finished. Judit’s been close to the procedural parts of our partnership for several years – but as Geordie found out this afternoon, ticking the technical boxes doesn’t even come close to what we mean when we use that word partnership.  

I was in a classroom observation while Geordie spoke with Judit, so here’s his version of this afternoon’s chat.

We’re sitting outside a pre-secondary classroom that the high school students and teachers are using because they need more space. Inika and Sophie are observing a sociology class. I’m talking rubbish with Mana Judit outside, trying to ask questions about the project that sound both vaguely informed and casual. We get on to talking about Mana’s trip to Melbourne in 2013 [more to come next time]:

Mana: It was a very amazing experience.

Me: It sounded great [vapid, enthusiastic tone].

Mana: I would very much like another holiday in the future. I would like to ask Oaktree to pay for another holiday for me.

Me: Errrrr…

Mana: [Deadpan]

Me: I can certainly speak to our CEO about it.

Mana: [Bursts out laughing]

Part of the reason that Oaktree is so lucky to be able to work with Mana Judit is that once there is trust, she really tells it as it is. And as much as possible we try to do the same. Even though I’ve known her for the past three years, we haven’t had much to do with each other. But the fact that we can joke about donor/recipient memes – prodding the stereotypes and insecurities about how international and local organisations are meant to ‘work together’ – indicates that we’re at least on a path to equitable partnership.

We’ll speak with Judit more tomorrow about her trip to Melbourne in 2013. I’m really looking forward to hearing what she has to say about the differences between the Australian and Timorese school contexts, which is likely something big missing for me. She did mention today that Australian students seem very driven in comparison to Timorese kids, which surprised me (but then maybe, in the way that I’ve been interviewing the keenest students at schools here, with the biggest, best-articulated dreams, she’s likely interacted most with earnest, engaged Australians – so both of our perceptions are coloured).  

I can’t totally shake that, though. This evening, after we left the school, moved to our new accommodation, wept joyously over our hammocks and beachfront huts, and downed dinner, I talked with Sophie about both of our plans for the next year or so. She’ll be finishing a masters degree, continuing at Oaktree, moving house, and teaching herself how to surf, and I’m not sure: I can’t choose between work or study or something else; I don’t know what city I’ll be living in; and overall I feel vaguely listless and indecisive about my next steps.

Over the last couple of days I’ve lined that up against the confidence and drive of the students I’ve interviewed – I’ve spoken with future politicians, accountants, mothers and biologists, who all seem completely convinced of where they want to be and the path needed to get there. I envy that – deeply.

The guest information book in our new accommodation urges us to not feel sorry for the Atauro locals. They are poor, but rich in life, it says, earnestly. My ennui this evening reminded me of that line – partly because my cornucopia of choice seems a petty thing to fret over, and partly because it reminded me again that of course I’m capable of envying a person living in poverty; of course that chance circumstance isn’t the single thing that defines them.

For me, the most striking thing about my adolescent Timorese peers is their drive, not their poverty – and for Geordie, it was Judit’s jokes and the trust they’ve built, not her employer nor her job title. There’s a lot more going on here than a line of snappy copy could catch.