Subject: Students pay for education in kind

TIMOR LESTE Students pay for education in kind

June 4, 2009 | TL07353.1552

MANUFAHI, Timor Leste (UCAN) -- For the nuns running a boarding school in this remote part of Timor Leste, buffaloes and cows are a real pain. Wooden fences aimed at protecting crops of rice, cassava, soybeans and vegetables are regularly trampled down by the troublesome bovines.

But this is all part of the mission for four nuns from the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters of St. George of Martyrs who have toiled to establish themselves in this flat rice field area since 1993, when the territory was still under Indonesian rule.

Back then, the sisters, who were sent by their community in Indonesia, had identified a real need for better education in this undeveloped tiny territory.

Sister Roswitha recalled how difficult it was the first time they came to their present place in Welaluhu. "There was no public transportation. We had to go to Same (the capital of Manufahi district around 81 kilometers south Dili) where we had no place to stay. But then a former sub-district administrator helped us by putting us up in his home."

Life in Welaluhu started very simply with the sisters providing sewing, cooking and vegetable-growing courses to mothers, and girls who had dropped out of mainstream schools.

Now they are running a full-fledged school and taking on boarders, but have found themselves faced with problems of finance and maintenance.

The school is in a poverty-stricken area. So it comes as no surprise that parents cannot afford to pay the US$15 a month needed for their children to stay there.

This would be a problem for most people, but the nuns have come up with a practical solution -- give us some of your crops.

"Those who are unable pay (in cash) can do so with rice, soybeans, corn, beans, or bananas. We do not force them to pay with money since food is also a valuable commodity," Sister Roswitha said.

Sonia da Costa, 18, is very enthusiastic about the new method of paying for board. "My parents are unable to pay the boarding school's monthly fee, but I'm grateful because the sisters said we can use food and fruit from my parents' garden," she said.

Da Costa said she is happy at the boarding school because there she gets a lot of help from the sisters in building her future. "I hope there will be donors to help fund the work of the sisters," she said.

Da Costa is now in high school and plans to go on to university, "I would like to study management," she grinned.

Felicidade dos Santos, 16, is from Aileu district, around 50 kilometers south of Dili. She said that staying in the boarding school makes it much easier to study. "My mother is dead, so all of my family wants me to continue my studies and stay at the boarding school. They do not have the money to pay, so thank God the sisters have allowed us to pay with food and vegetables," she said.

In 1995, the sisters established two more projects -- one in Natarbora, around six kilometers from Welaluhu and another in Dili. In 1997, another project was established in Dili. Again these have focused on education. However, they also help in the health sector by providing support in Catholic-run clinics.

The people of Welaluhu are very supportive and appreciate the sisters' efforts, so much so that they offered a five-hectare piece land for the nuns' use.

"We are planning to grow more rice, corn, cassava, soybeans, and vegetables to supplement the nutritional needs of the children at the boarding school. Hopefully, this will benefit the children and the community," said Sister Roswitha.

However, the challenge now is trying to raise the money to put up a concrete wall to protect their crops from marauding livestock. "We built wooden fences, but they keep being broken by buffaloes and other livestock that roam around freely here, so our crops are not secure," the nun said.

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