Friendship, Family and Fulfilment

What one family gained from a year volunteering together in Timor-Leste.

A story is told of a pragmatic Singaporean who approached an East Timorese fisherman fishing by the sea, and asked: "Why don't you go and invest in a boat instead of fishing by the beach?" 

The fisherman asked back: "Why do I need a boat?"

Singaporean: "So that you can catch bigger fish, make more money, and then buy more boats. "

Fisherman: "Why do I need more money and boats?"

Singaporean: "So that you can retire and fish leisurely."

The fisherman flashed a toothless smile and answered: "Am I not doing this now?"

My family and I spent a year in Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor.

I went to help equip local teachers in the areas of critical and strategic thinking.

The teachers and I crossed language barriers and exchanged culture and life experiences in often humid and sometimes pitch dark classrooms when there were electrical outages.

In the beginning, I tried to understand more of their culture and thought processes.

Pragmatic Singaporean

And then, like the pragmatic Singaporean, I tried to challenge them with "why" questions.

Often, they had puzzled looks at my lack of understanding about things that seemed simple and straightforward to them.

At other times, while urging them to look beyond their present situation, it was I who was left speechless that their hopes were so simple, and yet often still unattainable to them.

I went to Timor-Leste thinking that I had something to give the people there; that I had the right answers; that my way was the best.

'Aha' moments

In my one year there, I grew in my respect for them and learnt important lessons, receiving from the locals, learning from their culture and coming to understand – not just empathise with – their perspective.

All this was often achieved only after slowing down and reflecting on what was truly important - my "aha" moment. And that was something that they helped me with.

Back to the fisherman.

The teachers were not impressed by a fisherman having many boats for his own pleasure and economic success.

But when challenged to think beyond themselves, their "aha" moment came when they connected the fisherman's possible success with the potential to feed many more relatives. 

Teachers recognising that we do not live just for ourselves can create a ripple effect among their students, encouraging them to pay it forward and ultimately transform their community and their nation.

If you'd like to sponsor a student's education or nutrition at Shallom or help with the school's expansion, please email the school principal, Isabel Ferreira, at [email protected]

Or you can make a direct bank transfer to:

ANZ Timor Leste
Rua Nicolau Lobato, Bidau Lecidere,
Dili, (Branch No.018950)
Account No. 111619

You can specify which area you would like your contribution to go towards:
1. Nutrition
2. Scholarship
3. Shallom Building Project

About Wilson

Wilson Tan and his family moved to Timor Leste to volunteer for a year at Shallom School, which offers subsidised education to 500 children.



Wilson Tan

Producer & Editor

Thomas Franks