Eight hours’ drive from the Timorese capital of Dili, in the remote south coast district of Natarbora, Federation funding is giving local teachers new skills, says David Gallan, who worked as a teacher, principal and lecturer in Bega for 25 years before volunteering for the Natarbora project.
Natarbora was left derelict after the violence surrounding the end of the Timorese struggle for independence in 1999. Schools were in disarray, literacy levels were “abysmal”, Mr Gallan said, and the Natarbora Agricultural College, the pride of the area, was largely in ruins.
In 2004, the farming community of the Bega Valley in NSW began a rich and wonderful relationship with the poverty-stricken agricultural communities in Natarbora to revive education and develop sound economic and social structures. Schools, shops and churches, farms, the local council and individuals in Bega — one of the lowest socio-economic areas in Australia — are investing in Natarbora’s education.
At first, Mr Gallan, a member of Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste (BVATL), concentrated on education fundamentals — setting up and equipping primary schools and getting the children of the area to a physical state to attend classes.
Many local children were then badly malnourished. TB was and still is widespread. Nowadays the government sponsors school lunches, and Mr Gallan says the school gardens supported by BVATL contribute produce to supplement the daily school meals.
Ten years ago, Natarbora schools had no reading resources in their own language. Today, every school has hundreds of Tetun readers written and published by the Mary MacKillop East Timor mission literacy team, which writes the curriculum and helps teachers plan their lessons through the training sponsored by Federation, the Department, and other agencies.
Now, Mr Gallan says, the education emphasis has shifted to teacher training — “There are very few trained teachers in the area”. A new Resource and Training Centre is in operation, refurbished with $2500 in annual funding from Federation and managed by the Natarbora Education Commission, set up two years ago. This year’s funding provided a toilet block and furniture for the centre.
Good and bad news
“The centre is a valued facility in the district,” said Mr Gallan, who visited Federation House along with Nikolas Klau, a member of the education commission, to brief the General Secretary on how Federation funds were being spent.
While the centre’s main function is for teachers’ professional development it is also a community resource. English classes of 20 students and computer classes of 14 students are held twice weekly, using second-hand laptops donated by Wolumla PS and Tanja PS. The English classes have generated English conversation and reading groups.
“The advantage of the centre is in saving time and travel expense for isolated people to get to the capital several hours away,” said Mr Gallan.
The centre is developing links with the Instituto Superior Cristal in Dili to gain more professional development for teachers and provide part-time study for people seeking teaching qualifications.
There are eight local trainee teachers supported by Australian scholarships currently studying for their B. Eds at Baucau Institute, East Timor’s main teacher education facility. Three others have graduated and served internships in Natarbora, and two are now permanent teachers.
Mr Gallan returned from Natarbora last month with good and bad news. The bad news was that the DEC will not renew a five-year $5000 per annum funding agreement that ends in 2016 — a blow piled onto the earlier loss of AusAID funding.
“The good news is although income is declining the demand for professional development is growing,” said Mr Gallan. “A total of 64 teachers from Natarbora and the surrounding districts have registered with the training centre for ongoing professional development.”
“We would really welcome more help from Federation associations and members.”
Cash is of the most help, and also donations of laptops that volunteers could take over to East Timor. In the past, organisations donated goods but this is less important now with increased government support for education.
Contact David Gallan on (02) 64944116 or email to learn how to help. Tax deductible donations can be made through the Australian Foundation for the Peoples of Asia and the Pacific (AFAP). Select “Donate to partners — AFAP Partners — Bega Valley Advocates for Timor-Leste”.