Subject: Back to School

Source: Irish Times. Date: March 28th, 2000. Section: Education and Living.


THE suppresion of the East Timorese people by the Indonesian military after last year's cote for independnece has had a catastrophic effect on the educational infrastructure that colony Macdara Doyle of Concern writes.

On the morning of September 12, classes came to an abrupt halt in the village of Maina One. Prior to that date, the small settlement had boasted a relatively modern, two-roomed school whose concrete structure contrasted favourably with the wooden dwellings around it. After September 12, a charred blackened ruin sat where the school had once been.

What happened in Maina One was neither unusual, nor exceptional: virtually every other town and village throughout East Timor has a similar, or more severe tale to tell.For the previous nine months, the Indonesian army (TNI) had been engaged in a precisely-planned campaign of terror designed to ‘persuade’ the people of East Timor to vote against independence, in the referendum scheduled for August 30.

On September 4, the result was announced and the abject failure of that campaign became evident: 80 percent had opted for self-determination.

The Indonesian response was swift, savage and meticulously-organised. By way of revenge, the infrastructure of the newly-independent state was cynically targeted: schools and hospitals were looted and burned to the ground. Maina One was no exception.

In January, an official UN Inquiry Team issued a blunt appraisal of the damage done: "Most school buildings (95 percent) have been destroyed. The education system is in a state of complete paralysis."

It was almost ten weeks before classes finally resumed in this small village, in East Timor’s Lautem District. And even then, they were severely hampered by an absence of the most basic materials ­ pens, pencils, copies, textbooks, chalk.

Classes were conducted in the open, or in a basic wooden shelter when the rains came. A small sheet of plywood nailed to a tree functioned as a rudimentary blackboard, providing at least a semblance of classroom normality.

Nearby lay the charred remains of the former school. Inside, chairs, tables, textbooks and copies had either been looted or reduced to blackened ash.

Today, the children of Maina One still attend class in the open. But their situation has improved markedly. Last December, Concern began distributing £70,000 worth of educational materials in selected areas of East Timor, with the aid of a grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The distribution concentrated on the Lautem District ­ population 65,000 ­ where destruction had been severe. Indeed, basic educational materials had survived intact in only three of Lautem’s 66 schools: the TNI’s campaign of destruction was characterised by an eerie, obsessive efficiency.

With an estimated 14,000 children of school-going age in the area, Concern’s priority was clear, explained Country Director Noel Maloney: "We had to provide the basic materials and equipment that would ensure the kids’ education was restarted as soon as possible."

Thus, the distribution concentrated on mundane essentials: notebooks, copies, pens, pencils, rulers, blackboards, chalk and maps. According Manuel Justina, the teacher in Maina One, the lack of materials had made teaching "very difficult." The distribution of materials had helped enormously, he explained.

In Lautem, Concern worked through the district Education Sub-committee, the body charged with reconstructing a system almost wholly destroyed. The committee comprised representatives of Concern, the UN, members of the Timorese independence umbrella group ­ the CNRT ­ church representatives and local teachers. Delegates from local parent groupings are to join in the near future.

The genesis of a reborn civil society lies in the quiet work of bodies such as these. While "restarting" the education system has been of obvious benefit to the children themselves, it has also proven beneficial for wider society. Parents now have more time in which to rebuild their lives at a local and national level: crops can be planted and harvested, repairs carried out on damaged houses.

Nonetheless, serious problems remain. The schools themselves must be repaired, or built anew. Concern is currently examining proposals dealing with school reconstruction.

In addition, Concern plans to initiate programmes that will utilise local skills to assemble benches, cabinets and other items for use in the classroom.

More worrying is the severe shortage of trained teachers. Prior to the August 30 referendum, there were some 3000 teachers in East Timor, but less than one third of that number were native. Most have since left the country.

As a result, most operational schools are forced to make do with only one, or two teachers. Teacher training is a clear priority for the future.

And then there is the small problem of language. While the older generation speak Portuguese, those educated in the years since the 1975 invasion have been schooled in a dialect of Indonesian. In addition, many East Timorese will speak, or at least have an understanding of Tetum, the country’s indigenous language.

Adding to this linguistic confusion is the widespread popularity of English, especially among the young. Given the proximity of Australia ­ Dili is two hours flight from Darwin ­ it is certain that English will play an increasingly prominent role in the country’s future.

However, until one language was formally designated as the official tongue, the country’s education system remained in a state of suspended animation: teacher training could not begin, nor could work start on devising a national curriculum. The confusion was finally cleared up in mid-February, when Portuguese was adopted as the official language.

Undoubtedly, given the scale of the task, more problems will arise. Yet, these relatively humdrum concerns are precisely the sort of problems that the East Timorese have wanted to grapple with, since 1975.

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