When I told my friends that I would be going to Timor-Leste for two months to work for an NGO all of them asked me the same two questions: “Where is Timor-Leste?” instantly followed by “why go there?” Well, I can’t name just one reason, but after graduating with my bachelors degree in business administration from the University of Mannheim, I knew that before continuing my studies I had to get out of my comfort zone and do something new. I had to do something meaningful and finally put all that theoretical knowledge to good use. Having grown up in the United States and Germany and having had plenty of opportunity to travel in my childhood, I’ve always been eager to discover new places. Needless to say, when I found out about the Timor Foundation and its engagement here, I was instantly hooked.
Before coming to Timor-Leste I had read about the young countries tragic, but also inspiring history and its fast progress towards becoming a modern and open democratic society.
Of course, Timor-Leste is still very much a developing country — most of the population living below the absolute poverty level, staggering rates of unemployment among young people and many without access to clean drinking water — however, there is an undeniable desire by the people to learn and educate themselves, to lift themselves out of poverty and strive to improve their life and their country.
Working in Timor-Leste is not without challenges however. While there is immense potential in this country to be tapped into, there is still a severe knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. School education is nowhere near European standards and professional expertise is still very limited. There are organizations such as the East Timor Development Agency (ETDA) in Dili and Fatumaca near Baucau that are doing a wonderful job in providing education and training to young people and fostering a pragmatic learning environment for their students, but unfortunately only very few have the chance to take advantage of these opportunities.
Education and health go hand in hand, building the basis for any countries development and the Timor Foundation is working hard to support these education facilities with clean water solutions and technical expertise to accomplish the common goal of furthering Timor-Leste’s economical and social development.
In addition to the lack in education there is also a vastly different perception of time and urgency in the Timorese culture — I soon found out that Tetum, the language of the Timorese, doesn’t distinguish between the past, present or future. “Time is money” and “communication is key” might be accepted mindsets in most developed countries, but they haven’t quite made it to Timor-Leste yet. Waiting and absence of notification are common place and widely accepted in most parts of society. As you might imagine, working in an environment that doesn’t regard time as definite and merely sees punctuality as a suggestion presents quite a challenge to the efficient operation of business. That being said, there is a visible change in attitude with younger generations adapting to the European business standards and the Timor Foundation as well as Scope Asia Timor, there teams, do a great job navigating this disparity in culture and mindset.
In my time here I was also fortunate enough to be given the chance to explore the rural areas of Timor-Leste and often found myself captivated by the countries intense natural beauty. While traveling to Fatumaca near Baucau and to a remote mountain school in the Ermera subdistrict of Lete-Foho the scenery could not have been more contrasting. From long sand beaches, past lushes wide open rice fields, across high mountain ranges and through dense tropical forests, to rugged cliffs giving way to the smooth serenity of the ocean, this small country boasts a staggering amount of natural diversity, quickly posing the question why there is only very limited tourism. The answer became apparent just as rapidly — there is a severe lack of infrastructure and basic amenities anywhere outside of the larger cities. Many mountain villages still don’t have access to electricity and the availability of clean drinking water is very limited, even in form of bottled water. There is however an active effort to build roads and modernize existing infrastructure including the water supply systems, where the Timor-Foundation and Scope Asia Timor/Switzerland are already contributing with a large number of clean water solution pilot projects using machines from Trunz water systems in Switzerland to bring clean drinking water to the taps of offices, schools and hospitals and to their surrounding communities. With the current investments by the Timorese government and the many international institutions aiding the country, it’s not a long shot to think that Timor-Leste will become an attractive tourist destination and a vibrant prospering nation given just a few more years.
Having spent almost two months giving English courses at the ETDA and working for the Timor Foundation and with Scope Asia Timor on a multitude of different projects, I was astounded time and time again by the kindness and appreciation the people showed towards us and our work. I am convinced that Timor-Leste will continue maturing into a progressive, thriving nation.
Coming to Timor-Leste has been an eye-opening experience in many ways and I am both proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to become a part of this ambitious endeavor.
Written by Konstantin Kern