Hands on

Imagine a group of Australian schoolgirls, clustered in the customs office of an international airport, their gear spilling all about them, playing solitaire and joking with the local security police.

It’s not the way travel goes these days. More usually it’s a business of anxious queues, searches, dogs sniffing, silent and armed inspectors. But there was nothing usual about this trip. And by the end, the girls were so inured to the unexpected that they took what came and made a feast of it. ‘When we first arrived in Dili, we wouldn’t have dared even speak to a policeman’, one of then tells me. ‘Too scared. We’d heard so much about troubles and violence. But by the end—well, it was just different.’

Very different. I’m listening to them, a few days after their return, gathered now in a formal, high-ceilinged room at school. It echoes a little as they all talk at once. The principal, Helen Toohey csb, is making tea, offering jellybeans, letting them unpack the experience. 

Eight girls and three teachers from one Australian school took part in an experiment. Kilbreda College is a beachside Brigidine school and one-time convent in Mentone, Victoria, and this year it celebrates 100 years of educating young women. But these girls and their three teachers went away instead of staying home and congratulating themselves. They raised the money (degree of difficulty high), and went to East Timor, to the cities and out into the country. They visited schools, slept in dormitories, played basketball and volleyball with local kids, spoke English, taught some, tried to learn Tetum. They watched the reconciliation process in action. They met children, politicians, teachers, bus drivers, policemen, and the odd celebrity.

They tell me that they were astonished most by the affection and interest with which they were met. These are cool young women. And with Australian teenage coolness goes a certain inhibition of expectation. They don’t expect other people to take them on, don’t expect relationships to be built quickly. ‘But the things they said, they actually meant’, one of them tells me. ‘They’d say, “I send my love to your family”, and they’d actually mean it.’

Sometimes the girls’ reception was formal and a little overwhelming. The hour-and-a-half ceremonial welcome in Ossu astonished them. ‘We were treated like royalty.’ They look astonished even now, as though they are only just beginning to understand the rituals of a culture that takes hospitality seriously, and wondering how much of it has rubbed off on them.

I met these young women before they left for East Timor, and I listened to their expectations, so it is intriguing to hear them now, less sure of themselves, though far more knowledgable, than before. They seem surprised, shocked almost, to have been so liked, so accepted. They went with good intentions, but have come home more grateful than satisfied.

Sometimes the interest and the sudden intimacies generated out of concentrated experience had their comical side, and they loved it. ‘How many children are you going to have?’ they were asked, often. If the answer was the predictable Australian one—‘Oh, one or two probably’, they were told, ‘No, have twenty.’ Much hilarity and strenuous refusals. But then they saw many villages in which extended families, up to 18 or more, all slept in the one tiny house, the cooking done outside, and most of the living too. So the question—‘how many children?’—acquired a context. They saw how the economics and support structures worked. They saw also the way village culture is being played out in the reconciliation process. They saw how East Timorese have to get together, how people who were the aggressors and people who were the victims must now sit together on the mat that has been the traditional place for sorting out differences.

They are also surprised, confused even, by the complexity of the sociopolitical culture. In Ossu, while they are being ceremonially welcomed, they hear East Timorese students acknowledge, indeed thank, Indonesian teachers for the part they played in their education. Then they have to sort that with the fact that, after Independence, only two Indonesian teachers remained. They note, as only school students can, the specific differences between what these children take with them to school and what they are accustomed to lugging along. In East Timor the basic textbooks are there but there is ‘none of our usual paraphernalia’. Necessities or luxuries? And they observe differences in attitude. ‘You could really see these kids working hard.’ The contrast with attitudes back home is unspoken, but implied. They don’t look chastened but they do seem puzzled, as if poised for some shift in the way they understand and deal with their own lot.
They notice too, a culture that seems at home in its religion. Some of the most interesting people they meet are religious—the Bishop of Bacau for instance. Bishops don’t much figure in their daily lives in Melbourne.

While in East Timor they swim and play and talk but they also visit some of the prisons and torture cells that speak of the recent past and the violence of Indonesia’s occupation. ‘The solitary confinement cells—they are really creepy.’ They search for words. ‘Exorcise’, one of them says. Another mentions Port Arthur. It’s as though something has to be cleansed, and because they have been there, inside the places where brutal acts were committed, they feel the need to be cleansed too. East Timor exacts a price from them.

But it gives them boundless and unexpected pleasures as well. Some of it is sublimely simple: swimming out to the coral reef at Bacau (‘Almost too idyllic. I thought, “I can’t believe I’m here”.’) Or playing with children. One day they run amok in the rice stacks with a bunch of young East Timorese. And become children themselves again. They are amazed at ‘how beautiful’ East Timor is. Before they left they knew what they were going to do there. Something like good works—not a phrase they’d use. But none of them anticipated the degree to which the country would act on them, gratis.

They play basketball and volleyball. The trip was originally conceived in part as an exchange of sporting skills, and the girls come armed with gifts, including guitar strings, dress up dolls made at school, and sporting equipment. But do they dominate on the field? Well, ‘In basketball we did fine’, but volleyball—‘a bit of a problem’. So much of a problem that by the end, their driver, Marcus, who speaks no English, can manage a fluent ‘Volleyball, no good?’ and barracks for the Australians, out of desperate solidarity.

While they are there, Australia and East Timor become embroiled in rancorous arguments over territorial rights to the rich energy reserves in the Timor Sea. Accusations of exploitation from the East Timorese government are countered by righteousness in Canberra. On the ground in Dili there are signs of a different kind. Leading up to Independence celebrations, the girls visit the Alola Foundation, set up by the Australian wife of Xanana Gusmão, Kirsty Sword. They see how it promotes women’s health and craft. They come home wearing the Tais woven by the women, and they have their own experience of the kind of linkage between Australia and East Timor schools that the Alola Foundation promotes.

Finally, just before the Independence fireworks begin, they go to a concert and hear Paul Kelly sing. His support act is Peter Garrett. The Paul Kelly song the girls reprise to me in the echoing Kilbreda room is ‘From little things big things grow.’ They figure it was sung expressly for them. 

Morag Fraser is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. She was a student at Kilbreda during its half-century celebrations.

The eight girls were Camille Ravesi, Angie Stuart, Tracey-Anne Collins, Bridget O’Brien, Laura Bartholomeusz, Caitlin Wood, Amanda Sheppard and Jess Wilson. The teachers were Michelle Moore, Joanne King and Mary Stack.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up