Youth Smiles Without Any Reason

Youth smiles without any reason. It is one of its chiefest charms
Thomas Gray 1716-1771

This strikes a chord with Brian and I, and at the moment more than ever, as we both work with young people in Timor-Leste, a nation emerging from oppression and war.

Our oldest being befriended by 3 delightful high-school students who are out and about at Malae (foreigner) hangouts hoping to engage in conversation & therefore improve their English.

The majority of Timorese are under the age of 30, and it shows; just stand in the street as thousands file out of schools across Dili, resplendent in their squeaky-clean, distinctive uniforms.  They hold hands, laugh, unwittingly cause major

The flag: they proudly wave it, wear it, paint walls to resemble it.

traffic disturbance and simply shine with their energy, hope and well, youth.  They have the odds stacked against them for a successful career and financial stability but odds don’t come into it; they have heart.  There are simply too many of them for their paths to be an easy one.  There are also few employment opportunities, today.  The lucky few may get a chance to study in Indonesia, Europe or Australia although the majority will be competing with the tens of thousands of peers with similar education.  If statistics are to be believed, things are improving steadily for these young, soon-to-be-leaders of Timor-Leste.

The young guys Brian works with are wonderful young men, in their early 20’s, recently completing their studies in electrical, welding & plumbing trades.  My Dad once told me that young, innocent people have a glow that is simply joy for an older person to witness.  Brian and I must have slipped into the older demographic, as we truly find it a joy to witness.

The Kids & their mentor about to board their first flight to Australia, as part of their ongoing education. A truly special moment for all of us.

Brian refers to his students as “the kids”, with great affection, and they refer to him as “the big boss”.  At 6’4.5” his presence is felt in any room but it’s his gentle, unassuming nature that they like.

He has the patience of Job and the wisdom that getting involved and making mistakes gives a person.  Add to that a big heart and yes, I think that these young boys have a great Mentor.

I say, Mana you are ALWAYS smiling”. She grins broadly and says “Of course, Mana” (Tetun word for Sister, used to address a woman/peer).

The young people I am lucky to work with are also delightful. I bring the average age up by 20 years by being in the building.  I sound like a Nanna when I say that it’s difficult to not feel young around them, yet on some challenging days I feel old, out of touch and clueless, but they’re also feelings that keep me on my toes.

It’s election time in Timor. This is what a few hundred hopeful youth look like on the campaign trail. It’s the picture of happy chaos, provided no one gets upset with anyone else… but that’s fodder for a separate blog post.

As I type this I can hear the usual sounds from over the fence; Latin tunes like Duele el Corazon and Despacito.  These embody the spirit of the young people in Timor-Leste today and you won’t go into the street without hearing them.  Passionate, Portugese blood definitely flows through many veins here and throw in the affinity they have with Reggae and you have a pretty good feel for the tone of the place.

The Timorese can move and groove and despite their shyness they’re quick to respond to a beat or a strum of a guitar.  In the corridors at work I constantly hear them sing as they walk towards the coffee pot or return from a meeting. If the power goes out, which it does often, out comes the guitar and they all adjourn to the verandah for a singalong.  Their bodies begin to move and their faces light up with smiles, as my skin tingles.  I hope they never sacrifice this joy for a serious workplace like we endure in “developed” countries.

This is the fresh face that I met one day in a village, as he was walking home from school with his mates. I wish my Tetun language stretched beyond 5 words at the time….

Micro finance, Macro effect

On the 10th day of Christmas my good friends said to me “we’ll make a microenterprise for my family……..”

It’s the giving season. The U.S. Embassy has 4-foot high letters on its front fence saying Happy Holiday but it’s actually Christmas time in this 99% Catholic country. (Someone should maybe tell them….again….).

We’ve been warning our kids that Santa is aware of our family’s desire to live minimally, share and appreciate more. ie he’s bringing very little. We’re also explaining to them how giving is better when it hurts a bit, like when we can go without stuff and then give to someone else with that $. They get it, kids are smarter than we grown-ups give them credit for.  Yes, the Big one is worried about Xmas morning (cue my evil laugh) but the Small one is already making room in his collection of “precious gems and stones” (read: rocks) as he’s always wanted to touch and feel coal, apparently. That doesn’t surprise me and it’s probably why he’s been such a handful this year.

So, Microfinance. This has been a bent of Brian’s for years.  He’s wondered where and when he could find the opportunity to try it out and it appears now’s his time.  This morning we took our Timorese friends, a brother and sister in their 20’s, to several stores run by enterprising Chinese immigrants who are skilled at the art of fleecing, I mean bargaining.

it seems that these types of shops are popping up often in Dili, for better or worse.

The Chinese most businesses in Dili and they do it well however we wonder how great it would be if there was more than one guy with an importing license; maybe then we’d see variety. At present each store has the same Chinese plastic of dubious quality. Hey, we do live on an island so we should be grateful that there are so many things available in the first place.

The shopping trip was great fun and a cultural eye-opener for this malae (foreigner). A few hours of hard bargaining had our ute full of things for their new kiosk in their mountain village.  This new, so far unnamed, kiosk will be offering the Timor staples: rice, oil, sugar, coffee, toiletries, school supplies, candles and light bulbs.  Bulk will be turned into small, affordable, portions (I gasp at more plastic bags going into the Timorese wilderness) and will no doubt save villagers from having to make the long and perilous trek up & down the mountain to the shops.

Microfinance is how they’ll grow this enterprise from a small bamboo table to a fully-fledged store, in the future. Already they’re awake during the night with the excitement of planning their new venture and necessary house expansions, as the present bamboo-walled home is only just big enough for the several family members sharing it; there will need to be the addition of 1) a lean-to made from bamboo and tarpaulin, then 2) an upgrade to a tin roof and steel mesh walls as the inventory value increases, then 3) the modest ‘dream’ home made from Timor cement bricks.

a typical kiosk at the front of someone’s home

Our kids helped us carry this loot to our friends’ temporary home in Dili, along a skinny dirt path under a cool and lush towering canopy, past little Timorese kids smiling and waving “hello Malae”, we all sat down in the simple living room and commenced our business discussions.  An assortment of chairs were dragged from bedrooms while other family members, with babies on hips, curiously appeared from behind curtain to greet this strange Malae family. Not only are we twice their size half their colour and speak a weird language, we have that the holy grail: money. Not that we much of it but we have the ability to give enough to provide an opportunity to climb out of the vicious and non-discriminatory poverty cycle.  We also have something equally unattainable and valuable: experience in business.  This family is half our age and their own senior family members haven’t survived the war or the illnesses that have a firm grip on Timor-Leste.  When we sketched out the basics of income, expenses, inventory and cash management their eyes were wide, their brains tuned in and their pencils sharp.

load up, off we go up the hill

Tomorrow one of those psychedelic buses will cart them and their goodies back up the mountain.  We would dearly love to be there to see the little kiosk come to life.  Our hope that their stock runs low after only a few days and their cashbox is overflowing.  They will be returning to Dili with a shopping list and a pocketful of money to reinvest in more goodies to sell.  They will need a cash injection so we will lend a few US$ which they will repay in small amounts each month, plus a nominal amount as savings. In Timor-Leste it is cost-prohibitive for low-income earners to own a bank account and they can not leave money at home hence a savings plan like this is a new & welcomed idea for our friends.  This project won’t include an interest component but if and when it expands to other families then we will introduce a nominal rate.

You may be thinking that this is all a bit ambitious and even predestined to fail. After all, not everyone can operate a small business and you’re right, it will be challenging, but they deserve the opportunity to try.

If you would like to help them on their way, please click here

to make a donation

Brian’s volunteer work in Timor-Leste

After finding his feet in the past few months, while the rest of us were still getting here, Brian is keen to “show us around” the training centre and introduce us as real humans, not just something he talked about.

His role with Engineers Without Borders is starting to become clearer. Officially he is Vocational Curriculum and Teaching Development Mentor (Steel Fabrication) so he is going to be sharing his knowledge of welding, light engineering and all-thing-mechanical.

To set the scene, 70% of Timorese are under the age of 30.  This is largely due to a horrible period of Indonesian occupation so picture what you will. It is also due to the perils of surviving in a developing country where most live way below the poverty line (it’s the poorest place in South East Asia, and that’s really saying something). Basically, as a local you can expect to have a life cut short by disease, malnutrition or some catastrophic event such as a road accident.

This water receptacle was waiting for someone with mechanical know-how to show up. Now you see it racing around with eager Timorese students in it.
The horticultural section is inspiring. A hive of activity, supervised by a lovely Dutchman (long term volunteer).








it’s a tranqil setting, conducive to forming new friendships

The training centre is a vibrant place headed by a Timorese man who seems to infect everyone there with his passion for learning and hope for the future.  He’s been there since the beginning and it appears to be his ‘baby’.  He’s had volunteers from EWB before but Brian’s position is a first so they’ll work it out as they go.

Brian’s been observing how things work in Timor, learning the language and generally making himself useful around the place as he attempts to weave himself into daily Timorese life, as this is how he will be most effective. So far it’s been slow but promising. There really is a thing as “Timor Time”. The wheels turn slowly here and with their own unique rhythm.  Some previous volunteers have found it a hopeless situation but we wonder if it’s their age…..  there’s something comforting about not being “spring chickens” and having seen that other cultures work differently to ours. It also helps that we’ve lived remotely and we know it to be challenging. Not all roadblocks here can be blamed on Timor. More often than not it’s just “a remote thing’, like gear not arriving on time, or arriving wrong, or broken, or gear just not being available or too expensive.  Anyway, more on that later but for now we can see that a year won’t be enough. It’s going to take longer to make a dent.

Generous donations have stocked the warehouse and built the premises but the all-important skills & experience is badly needed. That’s where Brian comes in….

So, walking around the centre today filled us with pride as we tasted Brian’s ‘other life’ that we haven’t been able to share with him until now. The actual setting is beautiful; quaint yellow buildings dotted around an expanse of tall trees and rich, green, grass.  The short drive out from Dili is on rough, broken roads and you pass dilapidated, grey buildings.  It’s surprisingly dusty considering the daily deluge that is normal this time of year.  Then you arrive at the centre and it’s a breath of fresh air, nestled between mountains and a wide stone riverbed which, after more rains, would be flowing wildly. Can’t wait to see that!