Subject: JP: Gusmao gives courage to new nation

Gusmao gives courage to new nation

10/02/2005 03:15:28 PM EDT


Ubud has always had a special place in the heart of Kirsty Sword Gusmao, a teacher-turned-first lady of the world's newest nation: Timor Leste.

"When I first visited Indonesia in the 1980's, I spent over a week in Ubud," she told The Jakarta Post through an email interview early this week.

"It was my first experience of Indonesia. Its beauty, tranquility and rich cultural life took my breath away," the Australian-born Gusmao recalled.

Her visit to Ubud, Bali, will be slightly different than previously, as she will be attending "in my capacity as First Lady and perhaps more importantly, as the author of a book which relates the story of her love affair with Indonesia as well as that of my involvement with my new homeland, Timor Leste".

Gusmao and her husband, Timor Leste President Xanana Gusmao, will be the distinguished guest speakers of the upcoming Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), which will be hosted in the art village of Ubud from Oct.6 through Oct.11.

The couple will share ideas and speak with numerous Indonesian and international writers -- senior as well as young talents in the literary world.

"I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the town again," she added.

In her best-selling memoir, A Woman of Independence, Gusmao touchingly and bravely tells a story of love and the birth of a new nation.

The driving force that motivated her to write this book was a simple desire to tell the story of her unique perspective on an extraordinary tale of courage and determination.

"Perhaps I did it for my children in the hope that one day, they may gain an appreciation of the history of their homeland, its amazing struggle to be a nation and of their parents' role in that difficult birth," Gusmao said.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, in l966, Gusmao grew up in that city and in Bendigo, and attended Melbourne University, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours), majoring in Indonesian and Italian, and a Diploma of Education.

In 1991, after working as an Administrative Secretary with the Overseas Service Bureau of Australian Volunteers International, she joined the Refugee Studies Program at Oxford University as Assistant to the Development Coordinator. During that year, she traveled to then- Indonesian territory East Timor as a researcher and interpreter.

From 1992 to 1996, she lived and worked as a teacher and human rights campaigner in Jakarta, Indonesia. But her life would turn out to be much more than that of a scholar, educator or advocate.

She first met Xanana Gusmao in 1996 in Jakarta's Cipinang prison, where he was serving a 20-year sentence as a political prisoner.

"It was a breathtaking and life-changing moment. Xanana and Timor Leste are presently, quite simply, my life. My commitment to both consumes my every waking hour," she recalled.

Kirsty Sword married the East Timorese freedom fighter and independence leader Xanana Gusmao in July 2000, and today, the couple is blessed with three children: Alexandre, 5, Kay Olok, 3, and Daniel Gusmao, 10 months.

Being the First Lady of Timor Leste was beyond her dreams and expectations.

"I feel excited, honored and frequently overwhelmed! Our country, Timor Leste, has had to rebuild from the ashes of the violence and destruction of 1999."

The country has taken great steps forward, but there is still much to be done in terms of restoring basic services, rebuilding infrastructure and more importantly, giving people hope for the future.

"Being the country's First Lady is no easy task," she said, "particularly since the role doesn't come with a manual and nor do I receive any financial support from the East Timorese state."

Thanks to her women's organization, the Alola Foundation, she is able to go some way toward meeting the needs of women and children in the country.

Gusmao clearly enjoys the challenge of living up to people's expectations of her as a role model and as a "mother of the nation".

"I also love being involved in work which offers me the satisfaction of knowing that I am making a difference, speaking three or four languages in the course of the average day and being a Mum."

The struggle to balance her responsibilities as a mother to her children with those extending beyond the home may be a struggle with which all working mothers around the world may identify.

"It is a daily battle and one which saps me of a great deal of energy and provokes multiple layers of guilt every single day. When I succumb to the public demands made on me, I feel guilty for neglecting my young children," she said.

This delicate balance seems to be a socio-cultural norm among women in Timor Leste, about which Gusmao comments: "I am in awe of East Timorese mothers who have, on average, 7.5 children and who are the backbone of the social life of their communities and nation."

Being the First Family of Timor Leste, one of the poorest nations in the world, is far from the comfort and privileges generally associated with a presidential family.

The expectations of the nation and its people seem to follow the Gusmaos into the farthest reaches of their private life, and it is not uncommon for visitors to turn up on their doorstep late at night to request an audience; sometimes it is a church leader soliciting a donation for a commemoration or religious rite, or a desperately poor family in need of a scholarship for their children.

Even the constant security presence at home, in the form of bodyguards, makes for an extraordinary life.

One quality that stands out in Gusmao is that she never gives up hope. Through the Alola Foundation, the first lady is in the frontline against poverty and illiteracy, and has a vision to empower her people with dignity.

"My mission is to create the conditions for a better life for the women and children of Timor Leste," she asserted.

This, she said, involved reminding the world of its responsibility to play an active part in the rebuilding process, from the commitment of ongoing funds to the provision of technical and other forms of assistance.

"I am most concerned about the alarmingly high rates of infant and maternal mortality in the country, which are amongst the highest in the world.

"Having said that, the needs are so overwhelming that it is hard to avoid the sensation at times that my contribution is nothing but a small drop in a huge ocean," she said.

That "small drop" covers the areas of economic empowerment, advocacy, education and maternal and child health through Alola's programs: "We are equipping women with the tools and skills they require to take control of their lives and to play a leading role in bettering their lot."

Toward this end, Gusmao has established the National Breastfeeding Association and Mother Support Groups at the village level, which place responsibility for promoting maternal and infant health in the hands of the women themselves.

She is also active in the Handicrafts Industry Development project, which helps women to earn an independent income.

"My hope for Timor Leste's future is that it may one day enjoy true independence, in the sense that it will be free of dependency on foreign donors and have the human resources and wisdom within its leadership to set the country on a course of economic prosperity and a dignified life for all of its citizens."

Kirsty Sword Gusmao will be speaking on A Woman of Independence and life in Timor Leste on Oct. 8 at the Indus Restaurant, Jl. Raya Sargingan, Campuhan, Ubud. For more information on the Alola Foundation, visit

Rita A. Widiadana, The Jakarta Post/Ubud, Bali

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