Encounter in Timor – “Who am I?”
I find my encounters with students at Nossef, the Railaco secondary school, very fulfilling. Chatting casually after hours with lovely kids from distant villages, who live in the dormitories ratchet things up a notch. One afternoon, I watch the boys kneading and baking bread for their breakfast, and they take me to meet their pig being fattened for a festa.
These kids can take any adversity in their stride, and keep smiling. The hand-me-down ‘fridge to keep the butter in the boy’s dorm is ‘on the blink’, so no butter; just bread and water in the morning.
In the girl’s dorm, the breakfast now consists of porridge only. The $500 per month budget that pays a lady and buys food for 25 girls for a month no longer stretches to eggs and milk in the mornings. What to do?
Up here in the mountains, the roosters start crowing each day from 4 am. It’s a strangely peaceful feeling lying in my bed listening and waiting for the dawn. Dozing, I then hear the parish church bells tolling and the muffled sounds of children’s singing wafting across the grass. Finally, I need to steel myself to climb out of bed and ever so gingerly face the shock of cold water splashed over myself with a pail. The only redeeming grace is the cup of hot East Timorese Arabica black coffee waiting for me in the kitchen.
Novelty aside, there are serious moments in which I gain a great insight into many cultural and personal issues of Timorese living in small remote rural communities. Accompaniment in such societal change is an imperative for the Jesuits. But that also comes with the question ‘Who are we to ourselves and to others?’
This question is key to such a cultural enterprise. It enables an insight into their own calling, as well as to what they can offer: to better understand themselves and their people – to serve and guide. In a country where parents of today’s children never had a chance to go to school, providing a secondary education in a rural school for 375 local children is hugely important to them.
Being distanced from distractions of my everyday life; no newspapers; no television; and plenty of time alone in my room, I relax into a sense of deep interior freedom. Even being stricken with Covid on the day I’m due to depart from Timor, I am accepting, and continue with this feeling of peace and submission through my week of isolation. This overall experience is faith affirming.
In the nearly two weeks on this trip, I learn not only about ‘encounter’, but about myself. I develop an enhanced awareness about my own direction and purpose in life. And, especially, the important question; “who am I, not only to myself, but to others?”
I share my feelings each night with Dan Elias, a good Sydney friend who’s travelling with me on his first visit to Railaco. He is touched even more deeply by his experiences.