The burden of being young in Timor-Leste

The burden of being young in Timor-Leste

While many developed countries wrestle with fast-ageing populations, Timor-Leste is blessed with one of the world’s youngest demographics. But that blessing could become a nightmare if youth unemployment continues to rise.

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DILI, Timor-Leste: “Life is hard,” he repeats for the third time in our conversation. Like the first two times, Arsenio de Deus utters these words smilingly and without the slightest trace of bitterness. Life may be hard, but compared to many other young Timorese, Arsenio – a lean young man with strong features – knows he has plenty to be thankful for.

In a year’s time, the 25-year-old will be graduating from the National University of Timor-Leste with a degree in Education. That puts him in a small, exclusive club in a country of 1.2 million people, where only 3 per cent have post-secondary education.

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Arsenio de Deus at home in his bedroom which he shares with his uncles. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Even more enviable to other Timorese youths: Arsenio has a job. Each week, except for the few hours of university class time, he works from Monday through Saturday as a library catalogue assistant at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room, a local non-profit organisation.

His monthly income, though small, is enough to pay for tuition and personal expenses. But every other cent goes towards supporting his parents and two younger siblings.

“My family life is very simple. We are poor,” says the aspiring teacher.



In the traditional Timorese society, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews and even godchildren are all considered immediate family. And as the oldest child, Arsenio says he has to work hard not just for himself, but for every family member.

“There are a lot of familial commitments for those who do have money,” says Del Bovill, a volunteer librarian from New Zealand who works closely with Arsenio. “There are always demands for available income to go to celebrations, commemorations or funerals… and that makes it difficult for young people to save.”

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Arsenio at home with his parents and brother. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

An astounding 7 in 10 Timorese are aged 25 or younger. On paper, that makes for a huge, energetic base of productive young workers with the potential to support any number of families. Timor-Leste’s demographics are what many a developed economy with a fast-ageing workforce would kill for.

But youth unemployment is at an estimated 60 per cent. And with more than 10,000 high school graduates joining the workforce each year, the problem is set to get worse, unless the fledgling country can diversify its largely oil-based economy and create jobs by developing sectors such as services and tourism.

That’s an uphill task for the 14-year-old nation which only gained independence in 2002 – after four and a half centuries of continuous colonisation (first by the Portuguese, then by the Indonesians), and a more recent history bathed in violence.

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The Santa Cruz cemetery in the Timorese capital of Dili. On November 12, 1991, during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, at least 250 pro-independence demonstrators were massacred here. (Photo: Ray Yeh)


Scarcity of opportunities isn’t the only challenge for young Timorese. The World Bank also lists ensuring its young people are educated and healthy as posing the biggest development challenges for Timor-Leste.

For Arsenio, home is a cluster of three self-built concrete houses 20 minutes outside of Dili Central. It is shared by his large extended family of more than 20 people. The houses are dark and very sparsely-furnished inside, but the heart of family life is out in the back where the courtyard is – almost everything happens here. The adults sit, drink coffee, smoke a cigarette or two and socialise, while the children chase the dogs, chickens and one another around.

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Animals kept in Arsenio's backyard. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Meals are prepared by Arsenio’s aunts, usually comprising rice, sweet potatoes and stewed vegetables. The De Deus family does not eat meat often. Animal protein is expensive in Timor-Leste due to the lack of large-scale commercial farms.

There is also not enough “awareness of the importance of a balanced diet, particularly protein,” says Susan Marx, country representative of The Asia Foundation. “It’s not as simple as ‘people are poor and therefore they don’t eat well’. Timor-Leste did in the past grow a large number of crops that were higher in protein. Under Indonesian times, the shift to a rice-based diet happened and I think that’s part of the problem.”

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Arsenio's nephew having rice at home. There is not enough “awareness of the importance of a balanced diet, particularly protein,” according to The Asia Foundation, an NGO that operates in Timor-Leste. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

To commute to work, Arsenio usually rides his motorcycle. He saved up for months to buy his own. Sometimes, to save money on gas, he takes the mikrolet – privately-owned numbered vans that have been converted into minibuses to take passengers. This is the only form of public transport available in Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital.

Although there are many aspects to his life that Arsenio wants to improve, he is not complaining. “That's fine,” he says. “It is life.”

He is grateful to be “in the minority” of youths who are gainfully employed. Many of his friends who have graduated have not been so lucky.

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Arsenio pictured at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room where he works. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Arsenio’s colleague, Maria Guterres, knows exactly how it feels to be fresh out of school and desperate for a job, any job. That happened to her six years ago, when she was 20 years old. For months, she had idled at home and watched her parents and her six younger siblings grow hungrier and skinnier.

“A lot of youths want to carry on with a lot of stuff,” says Maria. “But we cannot blame them for not doing so, because work is very minimal (in Timor-Leste).”

When things could not get any worse for her, a letter changed her life.

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Maria Guterres works with Arsenio at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room. (Photo: Ray Yeh)


Timor-Leste’s then-Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, the former resistance fighter and living hero, had married an Australian, Kirsty Sword. During the resistance years, Sword had felt so strongly for the plight of the Timorese that she became a spy for Gusmao and other Timorese activists, disguising herself as a humanitarian aid worker in Indonesia. When the Indonesian troops finally left Timor-Leste after much bloodshed, she married Gusmao and founded the Alola Foundation to improve the lives of women in the country.

Maria had heard of what Sword did for young women through her foundation – helping them find jobs and giving them scholarships. She needed to be one of them. But as the prime minister’s wife, Sword must have received hundreds of pleas for help. Maria thought there was no way Sword could respond to every request. But she had nothing to lose. She sat down and began to write. Then she sent Sword the letter, expecting only silence.

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Maria at home with her two young children (left) and her nieces. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Days later, her mobile phone rang while she was sleeping.

“Hi, I’m Mana Kirsty and I received your letter,” said the woman on the other end of the line. ‘Mana’ is a local term of respect meaning sister. “Maybe next week I can meet with you?”

Maria thought she was dreaming. When she finally met the former First Lady, she recounts: “She asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I answered, ‘I want to have a job, can you help me?’ She asked, ‘You have a skill?’ I said I didn’t have any skill. She said, ‘Oh, you don’t have any skill, how can you work?’”

That conversation made Maria realise just how important education was. Sword enrolled Maria in an English language school, before giving her a scholarship to study Computer Science at the Dili Institute of Technology. When Maria graduated last year, she was given a job at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room, another project founded by Kirsty Sword.

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The library at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room on a weekday afternoon. (Photo: Ray Yeh)


According to statistics from the United Nations Development Programme, half the adults in Timor-Leste are illiterate. In Bovill’s opinion, the biggest challenge facing the Timorese government is to “lift the quality of education” and create opportunities for young people to “use those skills in a meaningful way.”

Marx from The Asia Foundation agrees. Although education up to the secondary school level is free and compulsory, one in four children drop out of school before Grade 6 due to circumstances at home. She explains: “If you send children to school, that means that they will not be available to work in a home or on a farm. So there has to be a practical link of what is the inherent benefit of sending children to school.”

Besides the younger children, Marx also thinks it is important to reach out to “the ones who are past their school age, who also feel disenfranchised and are unemployable”. Training them to become “mechanics, electricians, plumbers, in skills that are practical” would not only create jobs, it would also help to diversify Timor-Leste’s oil-dependent economy, she believes.

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Maria's 19-year-old brother Domyngos Guterres is a university athlete. He describes his experiences going overseas to compete in marathons: "Sometimes I have tears in my eyes. I feel sad because my competitors have the full support from their government. They stay in boarding schools, and they are given a monthly allowance. When we go out to participate, we prepare on our own and spend our own money. All we get is a pair of shoes from the government right before the competition." (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Between 85 and 90 per cent of government revenue comes from offshore petroleum projects in the Timor Sea. Foreign experts have called into question the sustainability of Timor-Leste’s current economic model. Some even go as far as calling the country “a failed state”.

But changes are happening, and Marx is optimistic about Timor-Leste’s future.

“People look at Timor-Leste as sort of a new frontier. There’s a lot of excitement among investors,” she says. “I think Timor-Leste has that opportunity to sort of leap frog over a lot of the learning curves that many countries in the region had to go through, by embracing technology, particularly mobile technology.”

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Young people in Dili often spend their leisure time along the beach that stretches across the northern part of the city. (Photo: Ray Yeh)


In the last decade, Timor-Leste’s mobile subscriber base has increased rapidly and penetration has moved past the 100 per cent mark. There is no doubt that young Timorese are connected to the world. “People know what’s going on. People know about social injustice,” says Marx.

“People know about the level of services in other places and so, even if they are not questioning it yet, my feeling is that we will see a rise in demand for services.”

Bovill has a similar outlook. Her experience working alongside many young Timorese for the past three years has given her unique insights into their mindset. “I would say they are hopeful,” she says. “They are in tune with the political situation. They are often members of political organisations. So they have a commitment to the future through that avenue.”

At the Reading Room, Arsenio often talks to other young people about the importance of getting involved. “If they come to the library, I will give some my ideas, and we will support them to give their ideas,” he says. “We should talk about it because it is very important. And because life here is very, very hard for young people like me.”

No matter the challenge, Arsenio believes it can be overcome: “We are Timor. Timorese people (are) very strong to do all this, because we come from a strong people.”

Up next: A diamond in the rough Timor-Leste’s tourism potential. This is part of a series of reports by Channel NewsAsia’s Ray Yeh, who recently spent a week in the young country. Follow him on Twitter @RayYehCNA, and visit CNA Insider on Facebook for more stories.

Source: CNA/ry