A strong link has existed between Australians and East Timorese since the days of World War II, when Timorese villagers spontaneously helped the young Australian diggers of Sparrow Force as they battled against the Japanese army. Some 40,000 villagers were killed by the Japanese in reprisal.
In 2000 the Victorian Local Governance Association and the Municipal Association of Victoria decided to encourage ‘Friendship Relationships’ between districts of Timor-Leste and cities, shires and councils across Australia. A prime mover in this was Abel Guterres, then consul-general of Timor-Leste in Sydney and now Timor-Leste’s ambassador in Canberra.
Friendship Relationships aim to develop friendship, support and cross-cultural understanding at a grassroots level between Australians and the people of Timor-Leste. A key principle underlying the Friendship Relationship is that it should function both ways.
The Friendship Relationship promotes contacts between individuals and community organisations such as schools and hospitals by means of visits and the exchange of technical and cultural knowledge. At a broader level, these interactions and friendships will result in a good neighbourhood, peaceful coexistence, and future trade between Timor-Leste and Australia.
Mansfield and Venilale signed a memorandum of understanding establishing the Friendship Relationship in May 2005.
• A Mansfield Shire delegation of about a dozen people, led by the then mayor Tom Ingpen, made a week-long trip to Timor-Leste including three days in Venilale.
• Sr Pedro de Sousa of Bercoli Public Junior High School spent three months in Mansfield teaching at various schools.
• July: A planned trip by various FoV members was cancelled because of civil unrest. Kaaren Smethurst and Will Twycross made a brief visit.
• Sr Gil Ribeiro spent three months in Mansfield teaching at various schools. When Gil returned to Venilale, Justin Meadows accompanied him and stayed for a month.
• Kaaren Smethurst attended the Timor-Leste–Australia Friendship Conference in Dili and visited Venilale for a couple of days.
• July: Padre Justiniano de Sousa, then parish priest of Venilale, made a brief visit to Mansfield.
• Easter: An FoV delegation of about a dozen people spent five days in Venilale.
• October: Anne Irvin led a group for a two-week tour.
• April: Anne Irvin led a two-week tour.
• June: Sr Carlos Guterres spent six weeks in Mansfield and Melbourne on a scholarship from the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development. He was joined by Sr Julio Tome da Silva for the last week.
• July: David Foster and family spent time in Venilale and visited schools.
• August: Michelle Harmer attended the Timor-Leste–Australia Friendship Conference in Maubisse with Sarah Angus, Sr Julio Tome da Silva, Sr Manuel Castro and Sra Georgina Sarmento; they made a presentation and showcased items made by the Feto ba Dame (women’s craft group).
• December: Anne Irvin made a solo flying visit.
• July: David Foster led a ten-day trip by eight Mansfield Secondary College students with four teachers and two parents.
Support and connections
Mansfield Shire grant
Under its Community Matching Fund, Mansfield Shire provides an annual grant of $2000 to FoV to assist the development of local government in Venilale. It also assists with administrative and internet support and provides meeting rooms.
From time to time FoV organises events such as dinners and film shows and it also raises funds by selling various items through the Made in Mansfield cooperative shop and at the bush markets held four times a year.
- Handicrafts: FoV has helped to establish and equip a women’s craft group, Feto ba Dame, which makes bags and other products from locally woven tais (pronounced tice).
- Coffee: Coffee is not grown around Venilale, but FoV purchases Fair Trade coffee in bulk from the district of Same. It is ordered through Coffex, which does the blending and packaging, and supplies are stored at the shire offices.
- Calendars and cards: FoV volunteers have made calendars and cards from some of the many wonderful photos taken on Venilale visits, and these are popular especially at Christmas.
The Mansfield community generously supports FoV’s work. Mansfield Rotary provided a very substantial donation for building school toilets and Mansfield Apex contributes to the salary of our Friendship Liaison Officer. Students at Geelong Grammar Timbertop have raised funds and the school has its own contacts with Timor-Leste, including a visiting teacher program. Students at the Howqua campus of Lauriston Girls School through their community service program have helped with display and presentation of goods for sale. Mansfield Secondary College raises funds to support its Friendship School at Bercoli.
Articles in the local paper and occasional newsletters keep the community up to date on FoV activities. A tourism website has been set up by Justin Meadows, and FoV has a page on the Shire of Mansfield website. Heather Matthew created a video called Venilale Adventures which is on YouTube. For details of these, see Contacts, p. 00.
Friends of Venilale has established three priorities in its relationship with Venilale: to promote English-language education, to improve the role of women, and to develop tourism. There are many worthy causes and initiatives in Timor-Leste, but FoV has found that by adhering to these priorities it can focus its efforts to maximum effect.
Two teachers from Venilale, Pedro de Sousa and Gil Ribeiro, did three-month stints in Mansfield in 2005 and 2007. Based at Mansfield Secondary College, they also taught at Mansfield Primary School and Mansfield Rudolf Steiner School, visited Jamieson and Merrijig Primary Schools and taught senior Indonesian classes at Benalla College.
The two teachers were well-liked by their host families and their students. They were introduced to a wide sample of Australian life, with skiing trips and visits to Melbourne for church services, football and soccer and sightseeing, and they improved their English-language skills through lessons with local providers. Pedro continues to teach at Venilale Public Junior High School. Gil found his employment conditions in Venilale were unsatisfactory and is now teaching in Baucau.
This program had mixed success, with the lengthy placements and lack of support casuing culture shock and homesickness for the teachers. FoV decided to explore more cost-effective ways of supporting education, such as providing scholarships for Venilale students.
Venilale’s community development officer, Carlos Guterres, was one of six Timor-Leste government officials who took part in the Timor-Leste Training Partnership Program run by the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development in mid-2010. As well as receiving training in Melbourne, he had a month in Mansfield in a comprehensive program organised by Kaaren Smethurst which covered all areas of the shire’s work, including governance, budgeting, customer service, economic development and land use. He spent time with engineers, planners and local laws officers and learnt about water, sewerage, public health and immunisation. He also met community groups and inspected Meals on Wheels, the Rail Trail and the Made in Mansfield cooperative. Recreation included a trip to the snow and watching local footy.
The administrator of Venilale Sub-District, Sr Julio Tome da Silva, joined Carlos for the last week of his visit, viewing the shire’s work and making visits with a focus on water conservation, reafforestation and tourism.
FoV placed a community development officer, Kirra Litchfield, in Venilale for twelve months from July 2008. The appointment was made through Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD), which handled recruitment and in-country support. Kirra’s time in Venilale was extremely fruitful, improving FoV’s liaison with Venilale and producing initiatives in education, training and community development.
The following year Sarah Angus was employed as a community development officer by the Venilale Sub-District, auspiced by Australian Volunteers International (AVI) with the support of Friends of Venilale. After a vist to Mansfield and AVI orientation and language training in Dili, Sarah took up her position in February 2010. She had trouble finding accommodation in Venilale and for two months had to live in Baucau and commute by mikrolet, an arduous and inconvenient arrangement. Eventually accommodation was provided at the Madres’ Guesthouse. Later she stayed in Sr Julio’s house, and he generously made available a small building on his land which Sarah had renovated at a cost of approximately $1000. Sr Julio has promised it will be available for future volunteers.
Sarah established excellent relationships with the Venilale community and her time there was extremely productive. She promoted FoV projects, making enormous efforts in overseeing the construction of the school toilets and basketball court, and planned the visit by Mansfield Secondary College in July 2011. She also worked on scholarships, tourism, women’s sewing, tais and jewellery, plans for a community centre and a Midiki dictionary. She completed her placement in May 2011.
Donations from individuals made possible the purchase of a vehicle for Sarah’s use in April 2010, with the Shire of Mansfield as the registered owner responsible for maintenance. The two-door Pajero greatly eased her work, enabling her to move around the sub-district and transport people and goods to and from Dili for FoV. At the end of Sarah’s term the vehicle was leased, and later sold, to Friends of Baguia, with the funds set aside for the eventual purchase of a new vehicle.
In 2008 FoV employed a project officer, Julieta Ines da Costa, to assist the community development officer. Julieta received on-the-job training and took responsibility for developing the women’s sewing group. After Julieta left to pursue her education in Dili, Georgina Sarmento (who is married to Carlos Guterres) was appointed as Friendship Liaison Officer in June 2010. The Mansfield Apex Club generously contributes to the FLO salary of $US120 (plus a phone credit of $10) per month.
Joanico ‘Joni’ Sarmento was appointed as Tourism Officer on a probationary basis in April 2011 and his appointment was confirmed in July. The Mansfield Apex Club supports his monthly salary of $US60. He has developed tours that visitors can take, has prepared posters and other publicity, and is improving his English.
In line with its priority to empower women, FoV has a long-standing commitment to women’s economic activity. The women’s sewing group has adopted the name Feto ba Dame Venilale, meaning Women for Peace. About half a dozen women produce bags, purses and other items from locally woven tais and from batik cloth, and they are developing management skills in bookkeeping, maintaining stock records and presentation of goods. The quality and range of their products is continually improving.
The group obtained a place at the Dili market for a week in October 2010, and has linked up with GTZ, a German non-government organisation in Baucau, which sells their products and provides training in small business. FoV has provided the group with two treadle sewing machines and an overlocker as well as clothing labels and fabric paints, and markets the products in Mansfield. The group was in recess for about ten months from August 2009, but with Sarah’s encouragement was reactivated.
Sarah initiated a survey of tais weaving in the Venilale district and found at least 200 women were involved, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies. Feto ba Dame supports several tais weaving groups by buying fabric and has recently begun to make bead jewellery.
FoV financed InfoTimor in Baucau to provide IT training to eight Venilale community members. It is intended that these students will share their knowledge with suco chiefs, police, teachers and community members.
The people of Venilale regard tourism as crucial to their economic future. Sites in the sub-district include hot springs, a natural rock bridge and waterfall, a climb up Mount Ariana, tunnels dug during World War II to store Japanese ammunition, and the cave where resistance fighters including Xanana Gusmao lived during the Indonesian occupation. There are many other potential sites, both scenic and historical.
In developing tourism the aim is to ensure that it is controlled by locals and does not damage communities. The xefes de sucos have identified sites within their respective areas but to control visitation and ensure safety they prefer that tourists be accompanied by guides. There are plans to research the history of tourist sites and develop tours and interpretative signs.
In 2009 FoV funded two people to participate in a Tour Guide Training Course at the East Timor Development Agency in Dili. As described above, in 2011 FoV appointed Joni Sarmento as Tourism Officer to encourage the development and promotion of tourism in consultation with the xefes de sucos, and to train local guides.
With funding from Mansfield people, Friends of Mansfield selected two young women to attend a ten-month course at the Canossian Skills Training College (CTID) in Baucau during 2011. One girl had to drop out because of health problems. The course covers sewing, cooking and nutrition, languages, computer training, small business management and accounting. The selection process in Venilale is rigorous and at less than $200 per student for board, tuition and books this seems a cost-effective way to contribute to education, especially for individuals who want a direct person-to-person connection. FoV plans to extend the scholarship program, and Mansfield Secondary College has arranged funding for two similar scholarships in 2012 for boys graduating from senior high schoolu
In Venilale electricity is supplied by unreliable diesel generators from 6pm till midnight, one consequence being that computers cannot be operated during the day. The Melbourne-based Alternative Technology Association makes regular visits to install solar power in Timor-Leste, providing photovoltaic cells and batteries as well as training in operation and maintenance. A submission to this program was successful and four solar panels were installed on the former police station, which was to become the new community centre. Although the police have moved out of the building, the centre has not yet been developed. The solar panels are currently waiting to be moved to a community-based project.
In response to requests, FoV undertook to construct toilets at Venilale Public Junior High School, Uai Bua, with a $10,000 donation from Mansfield Rotary, and a basketball court at Bercoli Public Junior High School funded by students at Mansfield Secondary College. Both were officially opened during the visit by Mansfield students in July 2011.
After lengthy negotiations with government the contract for the Uai Bua school toilets was signed in July 2010 and construction took about four months. The building comprises squat toilets, four each for girls and boys and one each for male and female staff. Work on the Bercoli school basketball court began in January 2011, with Bercoli students bringing stones to build up the ground level; despite problems with subsidence and drainage it was completed by mid-year.
These large and complex projects could not have been completed without great efforts from our volunteer, Sarah Angus, and generous donations of materials and expertise by Sr Manuel de Castro and Sr Juliao da Costa.
FoV has long wanted to create a community centre (centru komunidade) to provide for women’s crafts, tourism, training and internet access, and the Venilale community has identified it as a priority. Ben Spencer, a US Peace Corps volunteer, prepared plans as far back as 2004, and among other FoV efforts Sarah Angus made an unsuccessful submission to the Community Grants Scheme of Australian Volunteers International in mid-2010. The lack of a suitable building and issues of land tenure and funding prevented any action. In mid-2011 the Venilale community secured land and prepared plans and costing for the centre.
With many young people unemployed or under-employed, sport is important for community development. FoV has provided Fair Trade soccer balls and basketballs, along with two sets of uniforms that identify players as belonging to the sub-district rather than a particular village.
FoV and Mansfield individuals have made many donations in kind, including computers and associated equipment, dictionaries and other books in both English and the Tetun language, clothes and bedlinen for the orphanage and health supplies, as well as stationery, musical instruments and dental equipment. In general, we have learnt that it is preferable to purchase items in Timor-Leste than to send them from Australia