Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Everybody needs good neighbours [August 24]

Want to hear a good news story? Fifteen years ago I travelled from the north to the south coast of Timor Leste to visit some friends. We hadn’t met before, but we were officially friends, courtesy of an agreement between my local council and theirs. In 2005 there were a handful of ‘friendships’ between Australian local governments and East Timorese communities. The City of Port Phillip, where I was living, had befriended the town of Suai in the district of Covalima, and I was curious to see what that friendship looked like.

It was a perilous drive over the mountains, a reminder of how isolated many Timorese towns are from the capital Dili. In mid-winter the town of Suai was dry and dusty, and skinny chickens pecked hopefully in bare yards. Evidence of the violent Indonesian withdrawal from Timor Leste could still be seen in Suai’s churches, where 200 people were massacred in 1999. Only half the town had electricity each day, so every second night the Suai market was lit by candles. But there were signs of recovery.

In the new community centre, computer and sewing classes were in full swing, funded by the Friends of Suai/Covalima. I camped on a stretcher bed in the community centre, and the next day visited the local hospital, where the Friends were funding a program to feed malnourished patients. At a local pre-school partially funded by the Friends, children sang songs for me and demanded a song in return.

In the decade and a half since I visited Suai, the Friends group has helped the community centre set up a Rural Women’s Development Program, allowing local women to run campaigns against domestic violence, and sell traditional handicrafts. There’s a reforestation program which has led to 10,000 trees being planted. Port Phillip residents have volunteered as election monitors and English teachers in Suai, and scholarships have allowed 160 young locals to train as teachers and health care workers. Right now, some of those trainees are raising awareness about hand hygiene, to keep Covid-19 at bay.

We’ve all become anxious about statistics since that damned virus appeared. Here are some happy stats: there’ve only been 25 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Timor Leste, and no deaths. There are now 50 friendship groups between Australia and TL. It only takes 100 minutes to fly from Darwin to Dili. When we’ve beaten the virus, let’s go visit some friends.


(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2020)