Notes from the Field

From Timor-Leste: Books Reach Remote Villages

May 27, 2009

Last summer, we drove a mobile library – a specially equipped mini-bus fit for travel on our small island nation’s rugged roads – outfitted with books, audio recordings, and visual media from Dili to remote parts of the country. Nothing like it had ever existed in Timor-Leste before, and what we saw on our travels to all 13 districts of the country confirmed the deep intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm this young nation has for books.

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In Timor-Leste, 36 percent of the population is under the age of fourteen, 61 percent is between the ages of 15-64, and nearly 50 percent of the total population is illiterate. In this new, democratic nation with no lending library and no postal system, pervasive poverty and a lack of public access to information hampers the development of a culture of reading.

The mobile library project was launched to reverse these grim statistics. At each village stop, we visited the local schools and, repeatedly, we witnessed the same scene. While we sought permission of the principal to distribute books, children would curiously approach the van and, when they discovered books inside, become ecstatic. Then, we would stay behind to read the books aloud. Two recent college graduates traveled with us on the mobile library bus to promote literacy through reading circles and skits at primary and secondary schools.

After driving 194 kilometers for nine hours on a damaged road, we reached the village of Wetabe in the border sub-district of Salele near Indonesia. The village was quiet; all of the farmers were in the rice fields or out looking after their cattle. With no direction, the school was impossible to find. Then, we saw students just sitting under trees.

Shouldn’t they be in a classroom?, we asked each other.

We went to the students, who directed us to Rosita de Araujo, the Wetabe Pre-Primary School director. According to her, the teachers and students had been using the shade of the trees for learning and teaching over the past two years. There was no schoolhouse in Wetabe, and 37 students were divided into outdoor “classes.”

But this didn’t stop them from learning.

“If the rain comes,” she explained, “we can’t teach. We have to send the students home and wait until the rain stops. We use a small private house to keep books and school materials, but we need more books for students.”

We brought Rosita to the mobile library, and the children soon followed, ecstatic, like the others, to see a van filled with books. We stayed and read aloud from the books, performing skits from the stories.

“We are very happy with your visit,” said Armando Araujo, a 5-year-old student. “We enjoyed the books and really like having them.”

Most of the students suggested that we donate more children’s books in various languages, painting tools, painting books, and writing books.

The mobile library project in Timor-Leste has stimulated demand for access to books from schools ordinarily isolated by poverty and a legacy of neglect. In six months, the Mobile Library Program in Timor-Leste was able to reach over 100 schools, donating over 13,000 books in remote and underserved areas in all 13 districts of the country.

Next month, this project will run out of funding; with continued support, this innovative initiative would reach thousands more children in rural areas outside the capital city with access to literacy and learning that they do not otherwise have.  For more information about how you can help Books for Asia in Timor-Leste, visit www.booksforasia.org, or read a press release about two new English-language libraries inaugurated there last week with the help of the Foundation’s Books for Asia program.

Almerio Borges is The Asia Foundation’s Mobile Library Project Officer and Hugo Fernandes is the Foundation’s Books for Asia Manager in Timor-Leste. They can be reached at aborges@asiafound.org and hfernandes@asiafound.org, respectively.

View all posts by Almerio Borges

View all posts by Hugo Fernandes

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