The small island nation of Timor-Leste sandwiched between Australia and Indonesia has one of the youngest populations in the world. Currently only one in five children has the chance to go to preschool but Vicente Teotonio Lopes, UNICEF Timor-Leste’s Education officer, is determined to change that.
“We need to start from the beginning so the story will be complete” says Vicente, his smile quickly transitioning to a deep frown as he recalls memories from his childhood. Vicente was born in Dili in 1973, shortly before the Portuguese withdrawal and the Indonesian occupation.
Vicente (second from left) with his family
“Although we didn’t have a lot money, my father took pride in my education. He had to drop out of school when he was only 12 so he was determined I would succeed.” Vincente was attacked by his neighbour’s dog when he was just six years old. The dog sunk its teeth deep into Vincent’s leg and caused him to miss a lot of school and repeat the first grade. His father patiently taught him to count, read and write.
From nine years old, Vicente worked hard to support his parents. Every morning before school, he walked for an hour to reach Indonesian homes where he washed dishes, swept floors and cleaned ditches. After breakfast, he would change quickly into his uniform and set off for school – another one-hour journey on foot.
“Sometimes I was very hungry and only had water to drink at school, because I did not have money to buy snacks,” says Vicente softly while wiping tears from his eyes. His parents worked hard to harvest cassava on borrowed land, but the family rarely had full stomachs. Even today, Timor-Leste is still among the highest prevalence of malnutrition in the world. 46% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting; 24% suffer from acute malnutrition or wasting and 40% are anemic. Many families are reliant on staple foods like maize, rice and cassava and miss out on meat, eggs and dairy products because of the cost.
46% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition in Timor-Leste
Despite the on-going hunger, Vicente says there were magical, carefree childhood moments and recalls playing with coins and bouncing them off the walls and marbles with friends. “Play is so important for children. It helps to develop their brains; you plan how to beat your opponent and you are mentally challenged.”
Children play at a preschool in Ermera Municipality
Vicente went on to study English at University, Universitas Timor-Timur, in 1991 where students were only permitted to speak the language inside the campus. If they spoke English outside, they were at risk of being reported to the authorities. He once tried to open an English course with friends in his residence, but it was immediately shut down.
In 1999, 250,000 people were forced to flee the country and 95% of Dili’s infrastructure was destroyed after East Timorese voted for independence and violence ensued. Vicente saw a role as an interpreter and joined The International Red Cross and then a year later joined UNICEF.
Displaced East Timorese, including many children, wait in line to receive rice in 1999
Despite the hardships Vicente has witnessed over the decades, he says the nation has made significant progress but only 24% of children in Timor-Leste are enrolled into preschool as there is a lack of preschools in rural areas and insufficient government resourcing.
“Many children miss out on attending preschool because they live too far away. Three-year-old children can’t walk an hour by themselves down steep and dusty roads, it’s unsafe and they can get lost. Parents can’t afford the time off work to walk their children to preschool and back.”
Mountain plateau in the west-central Ermera District
A child navigates a steep and narrow mountain path
“In Timor-Leste, the government doesn’t have capacity to extend the preschools like they do in New Zealand. But that’s changing with support of the Government’s New Zealand Aid Programme and UNICEF Aotearoa New Zealand.”
The multi-year partnership is providing preschool education to 120 rural communities reaching an estimated 5,200 children and 2,000 parents over four years. It’s developing cost-effective and sustainable models for community-based preschools and training more mentors and facilitators so children in even the most remote villages don’t miss out on learning. Additionally, it’s supporting 120 preschools to meet minimum standards, so children are better prepared for school.
Vicente proudly shares a photo of his four-year-old daughter Francisca Lopes, who loved her years at preschool.
“Although learning how to count, read and write is important, preschool is so much more than that. It’s a time for children to interact with their friends and learn how to respect each other. When my daughter started primary school, she was more advanced than other children that didn’t have the opportunity to go to preschool.”
Not only is preschool a critical time in their young lives to develop, learn and grow, but investments in early childhood development has economic growth for a country over the medium and long term.
Manuel and Natalina attend a UNICEF-supported preschool
“We need to prepare children to be future leaders and that starts when they are young, teaching them about the world around them, their culture, the arts, sciences, technology and even how to focus during class,” says Vicente passionately. After 21 years at UNICEF, he is still fiercely determined to ensure every child in Timor-leste attends preschool so that no child is left behind.
Obrigadu (Thank you) Vincents for your tireless dedication to children and the New Zealand Aid Programme for fostering long term resilience in the Asia-Pacific for generations to come.
Sources: Quality Education | UNICEF Timor-Leste GOTL MOH 2015, TL Food and Nutrition Survey 2020 (Preliminary report in 2020). Timor Leste Education Management Information System.