Subject: Time: Connecting nuns in East Timor to the Internet

Time Asia

Asia Buzz: Making a Difference Connecting nuns in East Timor to the Internet


January 4, 2001 Web posted at 2:55 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:55 a.m. EDT

The Internet changes your life. Well that's what the nerds say, but in recent months, about the only thing changing in most people's lives has been the plummeting balance on their day-trading account.

So if you remain a believer in the Net as a social enabler instead of a 'get- rich-quick' instrument, it's gratifying to see that in action. I got a glimpse of that recently in East Timor at the Carmelite Convent in Comoro, just outside the ravaged capital of Dili.

The nuns there had somehow gotten hold of an old computer, a Dell desktop circa 1996. It had arrived through an aid shipment, most likely from Australia, which is using East Timor as a depository for old stuff that might ordinarily be destined for the scrap yard. The nuns at the convent have done fabulous work over the past two years, and the place has been a refuge for East Timorese escaping the horrors of the 1999 militia onslaught.

I had gone there to interview the nuns about their experiences, and to drop off a few coloring books in the local Tetum language for the neighborhood kids. I happened to be carrying my laptop case when Sister Fabiola asked if I could get "something called e-mail," because they couldn't on their machine. In fact, she wasn't sure what e-mail was, and was asking because a nun from Spain had called to say she had e-mailed them some important information.

Sister Fabiola turned on the computer and said she knew how to use Microsoft Word to write letters, and print them out. But where was this e-mail thing? And what was this thing called the Internet? Could I help?

The machine was pre-loaded with a browser from 1996. I assumed she couldn't get access because East Timor isn't exactly a communication hub and the phone lines were unusable after the troubles. But she told me some American guy had set up an Internet access account via a provider in Darwin, but he didn't show them how to access e-mails or the Net.

Surrounded by a group of enraptured nuns, we tried to connect, and successfully did so at 28.8K. We then set up an Outlook account by experimenting with likely server addresses, and sat back to see what happened. Suddenly about 50 unread mails, some as old as six months and in Italian, English, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia tumbled into the inbox. The nuns squealed as they recognized the senders' names.

Then came the Internet. I clicked on the old browser and asked where one of the Spanish nuns came from. She was a Catalan, from Barcelona, so I called up the site of the Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia, based in the Mediterranean city. The day's news appeared on the screen. That prompted requests for information from Portugal, Australia, Jakarta and the East Timorese sites set up by activists.

These nuns were now as connected as any New York yuppie, or Eurobanker. Then we tapped into the 'special interests' stuff, sites like, the site of the Holy See, and and Within 30 minutes, the nuns had 50 new sites in their "favorites" list and were busy sending e-mails around the world.

The look on their faces was a Christmas present I will always remember. The nuns didn't say "it's a miracle," but they may as well have.

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