Being Irish gave me instant kudos in East Timor
But now it’s time to come home and make a new start
Martin Browne with farmers weeding their maize seed production area in East Timor.
I first visited East Timor (Timor-Leste) in 2005, as a backpacker embarking on an overland trip back home. Though I spent just over a week in the country at that time, it was sufficient to leave a lasting impression and led me to live there for a much more substantial period.
Then the country, which had gained its independence three years previously, had relatively empty potholed roads and most of the vehicles encountered seemed to belong to the UN peacekeeping mission, or one of the many NGOs working there, such as Concern or Trócaire. The scars of conflict surrounding the 1999 independence vote were still present. Much has changed in the intervening period.
That first visit included meeting and travelling with Timorese professionals who had returned from post-graduate study in England. Being Irish afforded me instant kudos in one of these men’s eyes. He had previously collaborated with the Irish government’s development cooperation programme in the country. Though dwarfed in scale by larger contributing countries such as Australia, he was effusive in his praise of how effectively it was utilised to support, among others, grassroots civil society organisations.
He also drew comparisons to what he considered common histories of both countries – predominantly Catholic nations existing on partitioned islands with lots of post-colonial baggage.
This man was also keenly aware of the efforts of the likes of Tom Hyland and others who, in the 1990s, established an East Timor solidarity movement in Ireland.
This worked very effectively to draw attention to the abuses being committed in the country, then under Indonesian occupation, and the calls from its people for a vote for self-determination. The Irish government, together with Portugal, the former colonial power, was very active in placing the plight of the East Timorese on the EU and international agenda.
I started working on an Australian-funded research and development programme in the ministry of agriculture in 2009, an institution I remained in through various roles for the subsequent eight years.
Although encounters with tourists were few, a large international community resided there, particularly during the UN peacekeeping mission. These included a substantial number of predominantly younger international volunteers working through their home country volunteering programmes, to support Timorese organisations.
They would typically be in Timor for one to two years. Others, who considered working in international development as their career choice, tended to stay in place for three to four years – after that it was considered time to broaden one’s horizons and gain experience elsewhere.
A few, like me, decided to hang around longer term. During my time there, I attended countless housewarmings for new arrivals, as well as the almost obligatory farewells to mark their departure. Occasionally, there would be the pleasant surprise of encountering one of them down the track, back again working and living in Timor.
Time to depart
The moment eventually arrived when it was also time for me to depart. Reasons were both personal and professional, with push factors determining that it was time to move on (or at least take a time out) from Timor, as well as those family reasons pulling me back ‘home’.
When I did eventually leave Timor at the beginning of November, I did not travel directly back to Ireland but instead spent the time between then and now travelling in the region. There were twin rationale for this. One was exploring places I had not yet been to. Another was to meet up with friends. With the exception of Indonesia, where a cancelled flight scuppered a planned rendezvous, all countries visited allowed me the opportunity to catch up with those I got to know while in Timor.
Apart from two Timorese friends taking a rare overseas holiday, who joined the Laos reunion, the others were, like me, non-Timorese who had lived there for a significant period, developing a strong affinity for the country and its people, but eventually moved elsewhere.
The meet-ups afforded the opportunity to share reminiscences on life in Timor, as well as discussing life after Timor. Thus in Bangkok, Vientiane, Yangon and Kathmandu, I was able to get an insight into how others had handled the transition since they left the half island.
Timor, although still facing many challenges, is a place transformed from those earlier years. The peacekeeping mission finished in 2012. An official Irish presence in the country, begun in the wake of the 1999 independence referendum with the Irish Army ranger wing deploying a contingent overseas for the first time in its history, ahead of UN peacekeeping operations, ceased with the closure of the Irish representative office 12 years later.
The last of the Irish-based NGOs subsequently left. Although sad that the Irish presence in the country has dwindled, it is to be welcomed that the requirement for external support is not at the same level it once was.
Some, of course, are still to be found. Tom Hyland has become something of a celebrity in Dili. Every meeting with him in a public place gets interrupted with what seems to be every second person that passes, stopping to offer their regards. Though often contemplating retirement, he never seems able to cease his work in this country.
The question now arises as to what I do next. By Christmas I will be back with family on the Co Limerick farm where I grew up. The preferred option at this stage is to find work in the agriculture sector in Ireland. That would also herald quite the change in going from working with smallholder, mainly subsistence Timorese farmers where their family farms would typically be one or two hectares, to working with Irish farmers on their ever expanding holdings.
There is also the possibility of providing short term inputs to various overseas development projects from an Irish base, which could conceivable even take me briefly back to Timor.
If, in the meantime, I get a craving for some interaction with Timorese, or conversing in Tetum, I could just drive up the road. There is a large Timorese community living north of the border around the towns of Dungannon and Portadown.
This is likely better known in Timor than in Ireland – the response upon informing someone in Timor that I am from Ireland invariably tended to be “Oh many Timorese in Ireland”. Some were perplexed as to what I was doing working in Timor when so many Timorese were going to Ireland to work.
A friend who visited Dungannon recalled how surreal it felt when, after speaking to Timorese kids there in Tetum they responded in English, with thick northern accents.
There was also a recruitment process underway in Dili before I left, where a business from the south-east was trying to hire Timorese to undertake similar type employment as their compatriots in the north. One benefit centuries of Portuguese colonialism bequeathed these people was the ability, after a complicated year-long process, to obtain a Portuguese, and more importantly, EU passport.
Those now in Ireland are following in the footsteps of so many generations of Irish emigrants – trying to better their and their families’ lives by seeking opportunities overseas which do not exist in their own country. This is mainly achieved through filling the type of employment roles that nationals of their host country are no longer prepared to undertake.
I haven’t really applied myself to focusing on my next job as yet though. After Christmas with family, I have one other trip to complete – a long planned gathering with friends at the randomly selected location of Montevideo, where we will welcome in 2018. Anyone want to guess where I got to know them?