asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A Woman of Independence
Kirsty Sword Gusmão, with Rowena Lennox
Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2003

One curse of a life of intense action is that you may not have much time for reflection, not much time to take stock. You’re too busy doing. This certainly seems to be the case for Kirsty Sword Gusmão, who plunged into activism on behalf of occupied East Timor in the 1990s and didn’t emerge for air until—well, ever. There has always been, and continues to be, just too much to do.

A Woman of Independence captures this perfectly—the rush from one thing to the next, the clamor of small matters demanding attention while momentous matters loom in the background:

My whole day had been taken up with the petty problems of the rapazes [boys]. It was a tiny job really, this passing on of information between various parties, but it felt big and time-consuming enough to prevent me from articulating and recording my own thoughts and responses to the events unfolding around me.

Those events being, in this case, her impending visit (in 1995), on behalf of the imprisoned independence leader Xanana, to guerrilla commanders out in the field. And very soon she’s on her way to attempt that meeting, stopping to give a letter from Xanana to the wife of one of the guerrilla commanders:

[Olinda] wore the years of physical hardship and the pain of separation from her husband on her face. Nevertheless, as I handed her the envelope from Xanana, I noticed that her eyes gleamed with satisfaction, a tear threatening to escape down her bony cheeks. She had spent many years in the bush herself, having given birth to her son, Benvindo, in a guerrilla encampment in 1986. The food shortages and absence of medical attention led her and [her husband] Aluc to decide to place the infant in the care of Aluc’s father in Los Palos town. But the child was kidnapped en route by an Indonesian lieutenant-colonel who no doubt wished to use Aluc’s boy as a bargaining chip in the effort to force the Falintil to surrender. Olinda had not seen the boy since.

devotion to the cause )

Kirsty on education )

Overall, though, what’s best about A Woman of Independence are the hundreds of dramatic encounters and interactions that Kirsty describes—a revolution seen from the inside, recounted in vivid detail.

It's been more than ten years since the book was published, and Kirsty has continued her work. She’s been active advocating education in mother tongues (coincidentally, today is International Mother Language Day), as well as maternal and child health and welfare through a foundation she established for that purpose, the Alola Foundation. She’s spoken out against Australia for the bad faith it has shown—as evidenced by spying—in negotiations with Timor-Leste over oil reserves in the waters between the two countries, and when a vice-minister of education made a flippant remark regarding allegations that the principal of a Dili high school was preying on his female students, she turned the discussion back toward "the impact of sexual harassment and coercion on girls and their education."

Oh and one other thing? When she does find a free moment, she apparently isn’t averse to reading science fiction:

The following day I read a novel … hoping that the concepts in the book would help give some form to the thoughts and emotions clamouring for attention and expression in my tired brain. The novel was an eclectic blend of sci-fi and cyber-punk—pure, way-out escapism. The phone didn’t ring all day and I’d finished the book by early afternoon.

Any guesses what it might have been? (She doesn’t say.) The year was 1995.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A bit back I posted about spirits that live in geodes in Timor-Leste. Here's a real-life example people interacting with the spirits. It sounds like something from an old folktale--only it's from 1994. I came across it in the memoir A Woman of Independence, by Kirsty Sword Gusmão. She, you may recall, is the wife of Xanana Gusmão, the current prime minister of Timor-Leste. In 1994 Xanana was in prison in Indonesia, and Kirsty was his English teacher and liaison. They were communicating only by letters, and Xanana sent Kirsty this letter, regarding a photo she had been given to send to him, of a boy in an orphanage, a boy Kirsty had been told was Xanana's son.

My dear, thanks for the photo of my son of war )

This story entrances me, the story itself, most of all, but also the way Xanana shared it with Kirsty. It's a delicate thing, explaining about beliefs. The world is a complicated place, and how people live in it is different in more than just material ways. Some people experience a world that's thick with spirits, others a world with very few, others a world with none at all.

More on the book when I finish it--I'm nearly done.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
I get emails from the East Timor Action Network, and today a really wonderful story came down the line, a story that, at present, doesn't have an online home. The author gave me permission to share it here: it's a story of women embracing nontraditional jobs in Timor-Leste. Having experienced firsthand how intermittent the water supply can be in Ainaro, I was moved and impressed that Diolinda wants to be in a position to help secure the water supply in her community.

The course she's taking is terribly important. Until now it hasn't been possible to get construction qualifications in Timor-Leste--the nation had to hire foreigners to do that work. Now, not only are Diolinda and her colleagues getting a great qualification and a chance to earn a good living, they're helping make the nation self-sufficient and strong.

Women Can Too
by Sarah Francis

Diolinda 2
photo by Sarah Francis

Meet Diolinda Ximenes, a 26-year-old who is leading the way for women to branch into non-traditional jobs in Timor-Leste.

“I’ve been studying Certificate 2 in Plumbing at Tibar Training Centre for two months ... I decided to study plumbing because I wanted to learn new skills ... I am married and have a five-year-old son. My husband stays at home in Manatuto and looks after our child.”

Diolinda is one of 457 students studying construction certificates in Timor-Leste. As part of the Mid-Level Skills Training Project, three training providers, namely Tibar Training Centre, Don Bosco-Comoro and DIT-Baucau, are being developed so that they have the capacity to offer construction courses in levels 3 and 4.

“I’m really enjoying this course,” says Diolinda. “I’m learning new things and developing skills in plumbing ... The teachers here at Tibar Training Centre are good. They share their knowledge with us and have good teaching methods. When we do practical exercises they demonstrate the tasks step-by-step so that we can learn from them.”

Until 2012 it wasn’t possible to gain formal nationally accredited construction qualifications in Timor-Leste. As such most of the construction jobs in Timor-Leste that require skilled workers are given to foreigners. This project aims to equip Timorese youth with skills that will lead to paid work, reduce Timor Leste’s high youth unemployment rate, and put local people in local jobs.

Read more... )

Text in Tetun )

Sarah Francis first came to Timor-Leste six years ago, and was so inspired by the people she met and their stories that she moved back in 2012. She has since worked in communications roles to promote programs that effectively engage Timorese young people, including the Mid-Level Skills Training Project and Action for Change Foundation
asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
So, you're growing up in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, and you're taking ballet lessons, and you're pretty dang good at it, good enough to think about being a professional dancer, but you find yourself thinking, "You know . . . it's a bit narrow. And I am not sure I can live up to my bladey surname as a ballerina." You've always loved Indonesia--you learned your first words of Indonesian at four--so you study the language in college, where you also come to hear about the plight of East Timor, at that time occupied by Indonesia. Genocidally occupied: an estimated quarter of the population of East Timor were killed in the early years of the occupation.

May I present to you Kirsty Sword Gusmão

So in her twenties, Kirsty ups and goes to Jakarta as a foreign aid worker . . . annnnd then somehow manages to become an, um, "clandestine activist" is what Wikipedia calls it, code name Ruby Blade, working for the Timorese resistance.

Kirsty's daring exploits )

And now there's a movie about her: Alias Ruby Blade.

Alias Ruby Blade: a Story of Love and Revolution from Alexander Meillier on Vimeo.

She recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she's taking it all in stride, and I feel pretty sure she's going to wrestle it into submission. Chin up, Kirsty!

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 5.29.00 PM-Mar 6, 2013

2002 Interview: "Dangerous Liaison"
2005 Interview: Enough Rope"

1Xanana, who's 20 years older than Kirsty, did have a wife from his youth. This fact pained me. Throwaway wives: not good. However, two ameliorating factors. First, it seems as if the two had grown distant even before Kirsty entered the scene. The wife had fled to Australia and Xanana was in prison. And second, he's continued to be involved with his kids by his first wife. But who knows. That's their personal story, and there may be some badness and sadness in it, but who among us is without sin?

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