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Focus on Timor-Leste

November 2007

Engineering a Brighter Future

Eighty percent of the Hera campus remains a wasteland of blasted walls, twisted girders and blackened tree stumps.

photoThe still ruined campus at Hera.

But in several rehabilitated buildings Japanese experts are coaching young associate teachers in the finer points of mechanical, civil and electrical and electronic engineering.

The situation on the Hera campus, situated among banana plantations, palms and tropical acacia trees and only yards away from a sweeping bay is symbolic of the turbulent past of the tiny nation of Timor-Leste and its slow struggle to overcome years of violence in an attempt to build a viable future for its almost one million people.

The campus, the biggest in the country and part of the national university of Timor-Leste, was deliberately gutted by Indonesian militias in 1999 during several years of bitter conflict with local guerrillas which preceded independence in 2002. Along with the classrooms, administrative offices and student dormitories, all of the campus equipment was also destroyed.

With Japanese grant aid, an administrative building and some classrooms were rehabilitated starting in 2003.

But the country faced crippling shortages of everything from money to infrastructure to experts such as engineers who will be key to rebuilding the country.

In 2006, JICA launched a three-year project to improve the skills of a small cadre of young teachers who in turn will teach future generations of Timorese engineering students. The agency also provided $300,000 worth of equipment.

There were 50 faculty and 500 students on the Hera engineering campus but the program ran into immediate problems—once more reflecting the fragile nature of the situation in Timor—when it had to be suspended after only a couple of months because of renewed civil strife.

The project was kick-started again in August 2007 and will now be completed in 2010.

Reflecting on the enormity of the task facing this modest project, chief Japanese adviser Rikuo Ogawa, a retiree of the Hakodate National College of Technology, estimated the country will need 50,000 fully qualified engineers in the next decade to rebuild and then maintain everything from a national telecommunications system to autos and televisions.

He is one of two resident Japanese experts teaching the new crop of Timorese lecturers. They are reinforced by regular visits of other Japanese engineers.

In addition to the actual teaching, they face a host of other problems. No one lives on the still devastated campus. Teachers and students must travel from the nearby capital of Dili every day in a country where there is little public transport. The Timorese teachers salaries are low—if paid at all—at around $200 per month. Many must take second jobs simply to survive or want to move immediately into private companies where salaries are higher.

"In the last few years, the standard of education in primary and high schools here has been very low," according to Prof. Hidehiko Kazama from the Geosphere Research Institute of Saitama University. "So the calibre of new teachers is also low compared with many other developing countries," he said shortly before completing a brief teaching course. "But we are moving ahead, one step at a time."

Project coordinator Hideki Shimazu, who worked previously as a volunteer in Ghana in 2001 and then as a JICA expert in Nigeria agrees, saying "motivation and results are improving slowly."

A Rare Woman Teacher

photoA Japanese instructor and his engineering students.

Twenty-three-year-old Olga Maria de Sousas, the only woman in her class, said she entered engineering because "It was a very different challenge and my country needs engineers. She began studying in 2002, independence year, and her sister is now also an engineer student. "We must have more and more engineers," she insists.

Another young teacher, Cancio Monteiro, 26, said Timor "is starting from ground zero" in trying to rebuild the country. "It desperately needs so much of everything, and that includes more and more engineers. They are vital to our future."

Lourenco Soares, 38, has just returned from Japan where he completed a masters degree in engineering under a long-term JICA training program at Saitama University. He speaks good English rapidly, and proudly shows his diploma to visitors before explaining his specific mission.

"There are only a few roads in Timor. But there are many, many landslides each year which not only disrupt the road system but also destroy villages and kill people," he said. He specialized in geo-technical engineering which means he will be able to use his new skills in trying to combat the deadly slides. "I want to fight the mud and continue my research," he said.

Timor-Leste will need many such committed teachers to help rebuild the country.

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