Sunday, June 7, 2009

My encounter with an inspiring man in Timor Leste

It’s rare that I meet inspiring people despite the kind of work that I do. I’ve met some who are really intelligent, industrious, enterprising, wise, funny or kind, but not many are inspiring. I think they are like a needle in a haystack.

In 2001, I worked as a UN Volunteer for the first time in East Timor. I was working as a Civic Education Officer then. I was posted to the furthest eastern coastal district of Lautem.

I still hold the same belief that it’s the most  tranquil and heavenly place I’ve ever been to. Since then, no beaches I’ve seen have come close to the uncorrupted white sand and crystal clear blue water of the beaches in Los Palos, Tetuala and Jaco Island. It was also the first and only time when I had sighted a whale from a distance in the ocean.

Every few months, I would drive through five to six hours of unpaved roads alongside barren fields that seemed to last for an eternity, curvy, narrow and hazardous coastal cliff towards the capital, Dili, to attend trainings.

We had an Australian trainer, “KD”, who had been living in East Timor for quite some time. Words had it that he was previously a human rights activist in Australia, fighting for the Timorese’s rights way before the country became a sovereign state in 2002. So, he wasn’t just any trainer. He was a trainer with a deep cause.

KD’s method of training was rather unconventional. Since, we trained together with our Timorese counterpart, it was important that the session was conducted in 2 languages, sometimes 3; English, Tetum (official language of Timor Leste) or Bahasa Indonesia. It was equally important that these trainings took into account the level of education of our local friends. So, we engaged in a lot of group activities instead of sitting in a classroom, listening and taking notes.

Anyway, KD was the only staff who could switch from English to Tetum with such ease that it was rather surreal to watch. After that, it was just amusing looking at this white man clad in his usual T-shirt and knee-length khaki pants, speaking in a language which most of us could hardly get used to, what more mastered it.

Apart from that, he was extremely funny and witty. He was also the sort who was so down to earth that everyone warmed up to him quickly.

Our training sessions usually lasted for about three to four days. It was a time when all the district Civic Education teams got together to share experiences, brainstorm, draft action plans and receive new materials. Above all, it was a time to get to know each other and build team spirit. Every training session ended with a special lunch and dinner where everyone of us could just let our hair down and have some fun.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun and motivation while attending training sessions than the time I had spent in East Timor. Looking back, it was simply because KD was responsible for them.

I remember one day during one of these trainings, KD gathered us outside the training room. There were about thirty of us. Since it was held in a school, there was a big field just outside the classrooms and we were made to form a large circle. KD stood right in the middle of the circle.

He started doing all these silly movements and we were supposed to follow him. It was really funny to see all of us; different shades of black, brown, yellow and white of very different age range as well; wiggling, squatting, jumping and shaking all about. We all felt as giddy as kindergarteners and inevitably, roared with unrestrained laughter that when we finally trooped back into the room, we were filled with renewed energy and a huge dose of endorphins.

That was KD for you. He was never too proud to make a fool of himself and hence, we were never intimidated by him, just admiration and respect. He’s just like that; whether as a trainer or an individual.

He was the one who opened up my mind about how fun training can be, even if it’s for adults. He taught me how to engage people, explore different methods on adult-learning, using games and activities to awake the participants’ senses and to build team spirit. Learning isn’t the only important thing; sharing and bonding are as well.

Sometimes, KD would go on trips to visit all the Civic Education Officers stationed at the districts just to provide additional support or guidance for our activities. Once, when he came to Lautem to visit. I went to welcome him as he stepped out from his white four-wheel drive Tata, grinning from ear to ear. He has a narrow gap between his two upper front molars which made him looked goofy when he smiled. We hugged each other and he brought me chocolates!

We had a lovely time when he stayed over albeit it being a short trip. I took him for a short drive around Los Palos and it was pleasant looking at him talking to the locals amiably along the way. He even made them laughed but not before shocking them first with his fluency in Tetum.

The last time I saw KD was when he visited me in Kuala Lumpur nearly seven years ago. I usually don’t receive foreign guests when I’m home; not because I don’t want to but I’m rather shy and uncomfortable meeting people whom I haven’t seen for quite some time. I made an exception for KD because he was different from many people I’ve met. There was no air or pretention in him and he had this special knack of putting people at ease.

I’ve lost contact with him since then even though I’ve tried to get in touch with him through some mutual people we know. At some stage, he was offered a transitional justice position in Afghanistan with the UN but decided to work in Nepal instead, much to my disappointment as I was still in Afghanistan at that time.

I recently googled him and he is apparently back in Timor Leste, working as the UN’s Spokesperson. He was speaking to ABC Radio Australia on the handing over of police forces to the local authorities in Lautem, the first district in Timor Leste to have such ownership. It is strange to read about him and Lautem, the place which has linked us together.

There are people who make policies and there are those who really make a difference. KD is the second type and this is what makes him truly inspiring.


  1. Unfortunately I got to see a very different side to this person and cannot share your enthusiasm...

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    sorry to hear this. I guess different people have different experiences with each other and it's difficult to conclude what is right or wrong since we don't always have all the information.

    Anyway, all the experience I had with this person had been positive and could only judge from this.

  3. Could Anonymous here be KD's ex wife or someone he had a disagreement with?

  4. Dear Whatmeworry,

    the thing with being anonymous is, you'll never find out! :)

  5. Plus, I really don't expect everyone who knows KD to feel the same way as I do.