Subject: JP: East Timor's schools rising from the ashes

The Jakarta Post June 10, 2002

East Timor's schools rising from the ashes

Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Dili, East Timor

The Maliana State High School in the western regency of Bobonaro looks like a complex of ghost houses.

Most of the half a dozen buildings built during the Indonesian rule are in a state of neglect almost three years after the school was severely damaged in a fire in the 1999 violence.

Walls are blackened. Wooden supports are missing and the roofs crumbled beyond repair. The basketball court is thick with dirt and trash.

Reconstruction has just begun, starting from the front building, where the classroom activities are in progress amid the noise of hammering and sawing.

The school was only one of the countless buildings and residences destroyed by pro-Indonesia militias after most East Timorese voted for independence in a UN-sanctioned referendum in 1999.

Rebuilding the gutted school building in Maliana and buildings elsewhere throughout the territory is but a small part of a host of problems that the impoverished newly born state, where almost 50 percent of the 800,000 population are illiterate, is struggling to solve.

The Xanana government is giving education and health the highest priority, allocating 20 percent of the US$77 million in the 2002/2003 budget to the two sectors. Much of the money in the education sector will go to school reconstruction.

Armindo Maia, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, said that 90 percent of the 700 existing school buildings were destroyed in the 1999 tragedy.

"Reconstructing and building new schools is a top priority," Maia told The Jakarta Post. His ministry office was among those burned down and has just been rebuilt.

The government has spent $13.9 million to rehabilitate 550 schools and build 10 new schools as well as buy 80,000 desks over the past three years. About the same amount will be made available in the upcoming fiscal year that will begin in July.

Recruitment of new teachers is another headache, especially for the secondary and college levels. During the Indonesian administration, 80 percent of elementary school teachers were Timor natives. But the proportion reversed at the higher level.

"We have to recruit a lot of teachers for the secondary schools and universities but few are qualified. So the best thing we could do is to recruit college students of the 6th semester and above to fill the shortfall," Maia said.

Instructional materials are yet to be written and distributed in line with the government's policy to rework the education system and reintroduce Portuguese as the official language along with Tetum in place of Bahasa Indonesia.

At present, the secondary school and university retain the Indonesian language and curriculum of 1994 for "universal" subjects, such as mathematics. Typical Indonesian subjects, such as history and civics have been omitted and replaced with subjects of local content.

In Indonesia, the curriculum is considered outdated and will soon be dumped. The new curricula will be competency based instead of the traditional teacher-dominated classes.

The preparation of the instructional materials has been complicated by the multitude of languages used in the classroom. The government's policy to use Portuguese in the classroom has sparked confusion because the teachers, and more so the pupils, only speak broken Portuguese, which is used by a mere 5 percent of the population, according to official statistics.

Portuguese textbooks are yet to be imported from Portugal and some teachers yet to be sent to Portugal to learn the language. Bahasa Indonesia, which is spoken by 42 percent of the population is a "working language" and will have to be phased out.

Sending teachers on scholarship overseas as part of the huge undertaking to provide higher education for its populace does not seem a big problem now as many wealthy countries have provided Timor with grants as a token of support and sympathy.

Indonesia is among the favorite countries to send students on scholarship. Currently about 1,200 East Timorese students are studying in Indonesia, 100 in Australia, 20 in the Philippines and 300 in Portugal.

Literacy campaigns, which had been started in outlying areas during the Indonesian rule, will be resumed with assistance from Brazil.

"We hope that within 10 years' time the illiteracy rate can be reduced to 20 percent," Maia said.

East Timor, one of the world's poorest countries with a per capita income of $478, is further debilitated by a high unemployment rate of up to 80 percent, according to one version.

"Unemployment is definitely one of our biggest problems. Just imagine the average income is a mere $1 a day," said Helder da Costa, an economics teacher with Timor Lorosae University.

Education is so complicated that the UN Transitional Administration of East Timor chose to steer clear of it. Now, Timorese leaders have to deal with it alone.

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