Subject: AGE: Journey to a new life (Atauro)

Journey to a new life

By Liza Power
June 8, 2005

A community worker has helped islanders change their lives.

Approaching Atauro Island by boat in 1994, Gabrielle Samson looked across the inhospitable waters of Selat Ombar to a slip of even more inhospitable land and wondered if people really lived there.

Three days later, having toured the island's towns and hamlets, Samson prepared to leave, only to find her ferry trip back to the mainland cancelled due to rough seas. The following day, Samson was approached by a village leader with a request. Would she stay for six months to train local teachers in early childhood education and set up the island's first kindergarten? It was at that moment, Samson says, that she was struck by a clear sense that the island was going to be significant in her life.

"The challenge was put in front of me, and while I'm not a fatalistic person, it did feel like it was meant to be. I thought I could make a difference."

Samson has made a difference. The tiny island of Atauro, a three-hour ferry ride due north of East Timor's capital, Dili, just 20 kilometres long, now has five kindergartens, one for each of its five villages.

Its fledgling economy, based on subsistence-level fishing and farming, has been boosted by the opening of an eco-tourism village, funds from which support Atauro's health clinic and school. Home to four cars, a weekly ferry and a wooden boat, the island also has a library. Plans for a mobile library, to take books to children living in some of Atauro's more remote villages, are also on the drawing board - if the local librarian, who publishes and produces her own books, can print the pages fast enough.

Samson, along with a team of community workers, was also instrumental in establishing the island's own NGO, Roman Luan (ROLU), resources for which were initially drawn from a community service program supported by an Indonesian university.

"When the university withdrew at independence, we were left with a handful of people with experience in community development, along with a few resources, an office, a computer and a boat," says Samson.

"The question came up of what to do with those things - look for support from the mainland, find financial backing. So a meeting of community leaders was called and it was decided that starting our own organisation was the best way forward."

The leaders also chose the organisation's name, which translates roughly as "spreading light and clarity widely", a reference to its role in promoting early childhood and adult literacy.

Despite the enthusiasm of islanders, Samson says she was initially wary of the impact tourism might have on island life.

"There was talk of a casino, big tourism stuff. I felt the islanders were very vulnerable, because they couldn't anticipate the effect tourism might have on them, either environmentally, culturally or socially."

To encourage islanders to consider the values and risks of tourism, Samson arranged a series of workshops. One involved putting individuals in groups to consider what they thought development might mean for their future.

Their responses, she says, were fascinating.

"They came up with a lot of things - ideas about making life more meaningful, making humans more human. What they didn't come up with was lots of money and cars and TVs."

Called Tua Koin village, the eco-tourism venture opened in 2003. Comprising eight bamboo huts, several sleeping platforms and a kitchen area, it was built by local tradespeople using local materials.

Features include recycling facilities, solar power and a store where local craftspeople can sell their wares. Travellers to Atauro divide their time between snorkelling the island's reefs, hiking its mountainous spine, discovering the local culture, or mellowing out under a palm tree.

Despite proving popular with UN and international NGO workers, Samson says the mass exodus of foreigners from Dili means islanders must now consider ways to attract visitors from further afield. While the island's geographical isolation has been a blessing in the past - Atauro was largely left untouched by World War II, the Indonesian invasion and occupation, and subsequent militia attacks that decimated the mainland population - it may prove a challenge in the face of attracting tourists.

Those who do visit are greeted by a culture quite distinct from the rest of East Timor.

"Mainland people talk about islanders having their own way of thinking," says Samson, who claims that, after close to a decade on the island, there are still many things she doesn't fully understand.

"I grasp things on a functional level, but there are plenty of gaps, particularly on the level of ethnography."

Currently in Australia for three months to promote the work of ROLU - she is speaking publicly today and tomorrow - and to celebrate the birth of her first grandchild, Samson says the culture shock of Melbourne is difficult to negotiate.

"I have to shift from a deeper sense of what's it all about when I come back, and that's hard to get over. People ask about running water and electricity (on the island) and it doesn't even cross my mind. There are too many other good things to think about."

Now an international advocate, adviser and liaison person for ROLU, Samson says that working with islanders, empowering them with the skills, knowledge base and the confidence to make decisions for their future has been richly rewarding.

"Whatever happens, I will always have a connection with the island. Older people say to me, 'You will die here, won't you? You'll have a really big funeral, lots of people will come'.

"Wherever I am, the island is in my heart, and it will always be there."


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