East Timor – We really do have road rules now!

My work involves building telephone system for people in the developing world. Most of this I can do in the comfort of my home here in Adelaide, but every now and again I need to get some on-the-ground experience to really understand the issues my hardware will need to live with.

So I have just returned from a week in East Timor (Timor Leste). It all happened rather quickly. A few weeks ago I attended a Seaton OLPC meeting (a local OLPC group) where Tom Daly and his son Thomas were preparing to leave for Timor. I asked Tom how easy it was to get to Timor (e.g. visas, travel, and cost). He said, “easy – would you like to come?”. So a week later, after an arm full of injections from the travel doctor and some hurried preparation I was stepping off the plane into the very hot and humid climate of Timor.

We were very well looked after by some Missionary friends of Tom’s – a big thank you to Dayan and his wife Mirna, who let us stay with them for a week. They kindly took us all over Dili and fed and looked after us very well. Also thanks to Warren and his wife Janet – Warren kindly took two days out of his week to drive us to Lospalos – a tiring 6 hour drive across Timor. These missionaries do fantastic development work on a very personal level – for example running pre-school classes for little kids and making sure they get a good meal. I saw their organisations teaching kids who have no other schooling and looking after teenagers who have no other family support. They are making a positive impact to hundreds of lives – while living in very challenging conditions and consistently risking their own health and long term financial security. They perform aid and developing world work at a personal level. It was an eye opener for me.

You know even for secular people I think supporting missionaries is a worthwhile alternative to donating to larger aid organisations. There should be more connections between the secular and Christian communities when working on development.

A Rebooted Country

Timor has been “rebooted” several times in recent history. The Portuguese left and Indonesia took over in 1975. The country was in a very undeveloped state, for example there was only one high school, no local industry, and no economy. From 1975 the government and education was conducted in Indonesian. When the Indonesians left in 1999 much of the infrastructure they had installed was destroyed, so it was back to square one again. The country was only formerly created in 2002 and since then has suffered another set back in 2006 with more destruction.

The incredible lack of what we take for granted is really hard to understand, here are some examples:

  • Since December 2008 electricity has only just become reliable (nearly 24 hours a day), in pre-paid form, at least in the captial Dili. Where electricity is available even the poor has it. I understand it is generated from Diesel. “We are so happy that electricity works nearly all of the time now”, said Warren. He remembers running a high fever with Malaria and not being able to get any relief from even a fan. When I left Timor electricity was out at the airport – manual boarding cards and my passport was stamped by candlelight! In country areas like Lospalos power is available from 6pm to 12 midnight. Curiously in these areas it is free – I guess it costs more to meter it than to make it.
  • There is no established system of land ownership. Deeds are a problem – e.g. who owns the houses of former Indonesian administrators? They are relying on the ability to demonstrate legal ownership, e.g. family occupation of a dwelling or land extending back to Portuguese colonial times.
  • The UN is simultaneously maintaining security (along with the local police and Australian Army) and distorting the economy though large inflows on dollars. East Timor is one of the poorest countries in Asia, but Dili is one of the most expensive cities for some items (e.g. rents are soaring). The currency is USD, as they haven’t established a local currency yet.
  • We could see many guys hanging out on the street, due perhaps to the very high (75%) unemployment. Afternoon drinking sessions are common. You get the feeling another outbreak of civil disturbance is not far under the surface.
  • Literacy levels are very low, one problem is a lack of teaching material in Tetum (also know as Tetun), the local language, lack of text books, skilled teachers, even desks and chairs.
  • Health care needs a lot of work. Western people living there are very nervous about using non-Western doctors.
  • In houses that have running water, pressure is provided by pumps in each house. There are no street numbers or a postal service to each house. Roads in the city and country are rough by Western standards – average speed on city and country roads is 40 km/hr due to pot-holes, washed out sections, and various animals running all over the place! So a 150 km journey can easily take 8 hours of difficult driving. Very pleasant scenery, though.

Hence Warren’s happy declaration, “We really do have road rules now!”. One by one institutions that make up a functioning society are coming one line. Quite remarkable to see a country being built virtually from scratch over a period of a few years.

More posts coming up on OLPCs, cultural observations, and IT in East Timor…..

4 comments to East Timor – We really do have road rules now!

  • thanks for interesting and informative report David – looking forward to your follow up posts

  • sue bennet

    Happened across your story of Timor Leste. Generally here in Australia we know so little about the country, although it has ‘featured’ in much of
    Australia’s history.
    Some 8 years ago, through a good friend in TL, we have sent a young
    girl, who is now a young woman, to school, lst to a local school, and then to
    a catholic boarding school in Dili. (we are not catholic, but the nuns and
    sisters do so much good work.) J. has benefitted so much, as have we.
    I look forward to your next story

  • Good Report and interesting news for education department in Our country, I can Imagine if our Children at encouragement House can access to this program that’s will be very benefit to them. I look forward to read your next story about this.

  • mario

    the separation from Indonesia was based on emotion and not on a rational thinking (whether their human-resources were ready or not, etc). I remember I was in a class in Jakarta (2-3 years ago) with 2 it officers from timor leste’s telkom. They came far from Dilli just to learn about basic unix system (solaris). I was lucky because I was familiar with linux and had played with it some time so shifted to solaris would not hurt me much (hey, I didn’t choose the course level – the company did), but what about them? The course only took place within 5 days, plus another advance course for 5 days. How good they would achive if they didn’t have basic knowledge or experience at all (I could tell that)? I just hope that people in timor leste would become the leader on their own land and would get success on building that new country.

    * I went to Dilli twice: first when the Pope came, and the second was when I helped my late neighbour (a nice dedicated police man – a Mayor) moving to Dilli because he was stationed there. I still remember how we were so happy along the way from Kupang to Dilli. Huppff… I heard he was died later in Kupang – after the separation – and was in a bad condition – body & psyche. Can you imagine lost every single thing that you’ve got after working for more than 20-30 years? May God bless his soul.

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