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Postcard from an Air Force Padre in Timor

SSGT Josh Hill gives out football jerseys to children in Timor
SSGT Josh Hill gives out football jerseys to children in Timor-Leste.

22 August 2011

Just prior to our deployment to Timor-Leste, the Marist Junior Football Club in Palmerston North asked us to take a number of soccer jerseys over to give to young Timorese players. 

Recently a community event just outside our Base, and a patrol to the south of the country, allowed us opportunities to at least partially fulfil Marist’s wishes (I say partially, because there is a heck of a lot of jerseys to give away). 

The community event had its origins in the previous GYRO contingent’s hope that we would complete a set of goalposts they had started making to allow local children to play soccer (or should I say futebol or football). 

We completed the goalposts, and GYRO 11 thought it might be a good idea to celebrate with a game against the locals.  The soccer field has an interesting history;  it used to be part of an airfield the Japanese used in World War 2 to bomb Darwin, but it is a patch of gravelly dirt now.  We would not allow our children to play on that kind of field for safety’s sake, but when in Rome (or in this case Dili) we do as the Romans do ...  so one Sunday afternoon, with our Australian Army mates, GYRO competed against the local community’s soccer stars.  The goalposts were presented and we can happily report to our GYRO 10 predecessors that the good work they began has been finished. 

We also took the opportunity on a recent patrol to distribute soccer jerseys to children at local villages on our route.  I’m constantly amazed at how children can appear out of nowhere in such a quick time.  In New Zealand we get the news out by text, or Facebook etc.  Here I think it’s a quick shout.  As far as I can tell there is very little organised soccer in Timor-Leste; clubs are few and far between, but it remains a national obsession.  I had control of the TV remote one afternoon in the recreation area of our Joint Headquarters (very briefly - a small victory) while I was waiting for a friend to finish a meeting.  I received a warm smile from a couple of Timorese employees on their coffee break because I switched channels to a sports channel playing a club game in France. They were transfixed.

Much is made about how barriers between cultures can be broken down through sport.  Most New Zealanders would think of Rugby as that sport, but when in Timor it is soccer. 

Timor used to be a Portuguese colony, so it is understandable that soccer is infused within Timorese culture.  We spoke a bit – What is your favourite team? Who is your favourite player? What do you think of this game? I told them I supported Barcelona – more smiles. 

Empowering a people, at least in the small part GYRO makes to that effort, seems to me like a conversation about soccer – a willingness on our part to listen to a voice that wants to be heard, that wants to offer an opinion to the conversations and ideas for its context.  What are the important issues for Timor?

The rebuilding of infrastructure, healthcare, education for a largely young population, economic development - people have an opinion and genuine concern about these issues.  So, in our good works, it is wonderful that GYRO is able to rely on the generosity of Kiwis willing to donate their time and possessions for the use of others – not only for their generosity, but also because it is a pathway for us to form friendships.  Beyond this it is a pathway to much greater conversations.  That is our job, and if at the end of the day we will be able to withdraw from Timor having listened respectfully, and having helped in some way to supporting, we will have done a great thing here.

by Padre Katene Eruera, RNZAF.

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