spacer No power, no contract but Sister Rita gets her desks

The Daily News (New Plymouth) January 3, 2001

No power, no contract but Sister Rita gets her desks

IT'S taken me a while to discover a role for myself at Futo. Most people I have talked to have had similar experiences. During my first three weeks I've done no building except for two sawstools and a short ladder. Yet, I'm beginning to feel like part of the team, albeit a member who is a foot taller, pale of skin, doesn't smoke, is not a Catholic and is the only one wearing earmuffs around the power tools.

My gawd, a two-inch long cockroach is making its way down the inside of my door. I hit it with my jandal and now it's dragging itself around in a circle. They don't kill easily.

Anyway, back to Futo, the acronym of the organisation putting volunteer workers like myself to work. When I got to the job yesterday, the carpentry team was going full tilt.

I asked if they had a new contract and was told the nuns had asked had them to make 10 desks and 25 chairs. The nuns are Australians, Rita and Michelle, who come and teach English four mornings a week. So when they arrived I said hello and that the men were busy working on their order.

Rita looked horrified. She said she hoped not, because they hadn't settled on a price or even the design. She explained that she was applying to Timor Aid, which might support the purchase of tables and chairs for the Futo women's sewing workshop, but nothing was settled.

I went back to the carpenters and discovered that the tables they had started were not what Rita wanted and they stopped what they were doing. I did a drawing to help clarify things and then costed the materials.

The timber they make most of the furniture from is a red Timorese hardwood, brought in from Suai. In bulk, it cost Futo 13,750 rupiah (about $ NZ4) per metre of 20 by 4.5cm plank. It is beautiful timber, very strong, but is very roughly chainsaw milled.

I then had a meeting with Futo director Meno, head carpenter Fernando and Leandro, who is in charge of some things and has the best English, to explain my costing. Eventually we settled on a price with quite a good profit margin and arranged to meet with Rita at 8.30 the next morning.

That afternoon I took turns with three other men planing 12mm off the entire face of one of these hardwood boards with a 60cm-long wooden smoothing plane. They have a power planer, but there had been no power at the shed all day. It's amazing, but they kept working with the hand-plane, knowing that when the power does come on they would accomplish an afternoon's work in 10 minutes.

I found the meeting the next morning entertaining. First we had to find a suitable room with enough chairs. Rita brought a bahasa Indonesia interpreter, to minimise the vagaries, which was a very good thing. One of Sister Rita's English students is the Futo secretary and another the treasurer, so they were there. Meno was busy with the carpenter until Rita, who was getting impatient with him, told Leandro that the meeting would be off if Meno didn't come immediately.

Eventually the six us sat down and within half an hour came to an understanding on the design and price, all of which was translated between bahasa Indonesian and English, but recorded in Tetum. After, I asked Rita, who would own the chairs and tables? She said, oh, they will.

So this contract that Futo budgeted to make a profit on is for tables and chairs that they will own. At first this struck me as rather audacious until I realised you have to look at it in context. You perceive a lack of skills in your community, so you decide to start a trust to provide vocational skills that people are not going to be able to pay for.

What you have are 200 keen members and two buildings with no furniture, no floor coverings, no lockable, weather-proof or insect-resistant windows, no doors, no power points or light fixtures and no water. That's what you have to start with. Now go for it, make a difference in your community. And, like I said, Futo does not get paid to offer its services nor does it charge for them.

To members, it gives away English and Portuguese classes, provides sewing machine skills and carpentry tutorage, all for free. Transpose this to New Zealand and the community group would get a grant to provide these services and the overhead costs would be part of the contract price. It's a different way of getting to the same point. And instead of the money coming from Winz or the Ministry of Education, it comes from Timor Aid or some donor organisation.

A fortnightly column by New Plymouth carpenter and social worker Dave Owens during his stint in East Timor.

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