From Little Things Big Things Grow: East Timor

May 2, 2012

Last year I came across a book written by some school children in Timor Leste, I became curious and got in touch with the author for a copy. After a few emails back and forth, I learnt the story of an amazing young lady and the story of the book. I was so thankful when Katrina agreed to do a little interview! I’m so excited about sharing Katrina’s story and the journey this little big book has been on!

Katrina, can you tell us a bit about yourself? When I first got in touch with you, you were in Nairobi, Kenya! 

I’m originally from Brisbane, but I’ve lived in Melbourne for the past few years, working at the Edmund Rice Centre down here. I currently work on volunteer and immersion programs at the Centre, which is why I was in Nairobi! My colleague and I travelled to Kenya and Tanzania for a month with a group of ten young people from Victoria and Tasmania for a cultural exchange program. I love culture, language and people and I strongly believe that every one has a story to share. I guess I’m passionate about working with people, especially women and children.

A lot of people have never heard of Timor Leste, how did you become involved with the country? 

I originally went to Timor as a volunteer through the Edmund Rice Volunteer Program. I went for a year, fell in love with the country, spent six sad months back in Australia, wishing I was back in Timor, and then went back for another year. The more time I spend there, the more I love it. The history, the people, the landscape, the mystery, the stories. They captivate me and I’ve found a second home and a few extra families in Timor Leste.

How did this book come about? 

I had come across a copy of another children’s book called, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” which was the song by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody with illustrations by Gurindji children. This song/story tells the tale of the Gurindji people and their peaceful fight for land rights between 1966-1975 and I had brought the book up to Timor with me as I thought the primary school kids I was teaching might enjoy looking at the pictures done by Aboriginal children in Australia. As I was showing my kids the book, I started telling them the story of the Guridji people, their strength and determination and how with persistence, they achieved what was right. We spoke a little about the concept of “From Little Things Big Things Grow” and I went to put the book away to move on to other lessons.

The kids stopped me and said, “Teacher, that’s like us and our school”. “What do you mean?”, I asked. “Well”, they said, our school used to be just a small shack, and that fell down in the wind, and then we had no school so we had to walk across the valley to the school across there, but we didn’t like it. So our good friend from Australia, Brother Bill Tynan, who had spent alot of time in our village, suggested that we use an empty church building as a school. The building was new and yet to be completed with windows and doors, so we put up wooden partitions to make three classrooms inside and that was our school”. I smiled at the children because this was when I had first started teaching them, in that empty church building.

“Then”, they continued, “Brother Bill helped our village and many of our brothers and Fathers and others worked together to build this beautiful school we have today. So, From Little Things Big Things Grew!”. I was impressed with the connection these children had made, thanked them for sharing the story and went to move on to other lessons.

“Teacher!”, they stopped me again. “Can we make a book?”, they asked. And that was that!

What can you tell us about the children of Edmund Rice Primary School? What will happen to these children once they finish Primary school, where will they go?

The children at this school are exceptional. The culture at this school is very different from that at other Timorese schools, where the teachers are often affected by lack of education themselves and lack of confidence in teaching. Those who do teach often follow a ‘rote learning’ style of teaching which lacks creativity. The students at other schools I taught at were often lacking in confidence, the ability to question and often held a fear of their teachers. This is not the case at all schools, but in the area I lived and worked in up in the mountains, this was the norm. The Edmund Rice Primary School in Deleco, strongly fosters the ethos of Edmund Rice, which includes the values of Presence, Compassion and Liberation. The teachers at the school have been trained by visiting teachers from Australia, and are passionate, creative and caring.

The grade 5 and 6 children during 2007-2009 (whose story this book is and who illustrated the book) and I shared a wonderful journey together learning English. They were passionate and wonderful students. Many of them excelled in their learning, and those who struggled, were constantly determined to keep at it. Lovely memories of the students included Zulmira, who was actually in class 4 during this time, asking me to explain the difference between the words ‘table’ and ‘desk’ – this blew me away.

Unfortunately, the middle and high schools that these children move onto, more often than not, do not offer them the same quality of education as their primary school has. The children will have to walk for at least an hour each way to get to school, and sadly, some girls won’t even continue on as they are kept at home to help around the house.

I have a dream to one day build the Edmund Rice Secondary School in Deleco!

I have a few blog friends who are aspiring authors, could you tell us about the process of getting this book together? 

I recently completed a short course at RMIT called “Writing for Children” (which I would highly recommend)! I suppose it took over three years all up from first writing the story to launching the book. I really just listened to the story the children told me and basing it on the rhyming verse of the original song, re-wrote the lyrics. The children did the illustrations for me, and then just by chance, I had a friend who introduced me to a wonderful publisher, who had actually published the original “From Little Things Big Things Grow” book. She was really interested so it was then a matter of raising A LOT of money to cover the costs of designing, printing and publishing the book (this took a long time!). We also had some Timorese artists do some illustrations for the book and I (with the help of two Timorese friends) translated the story into Tetun. It was a lot of work getting this book together, but I was incredibly motivated by the passion and strength of the children that day in the classroom who asked me if they could make a book!

So what’s next? 

I’ve recently started a small (very small!) not for profit organisation called, “Lia Nain Books For Timor”. Lia Nain is a person in the village who is responsible for keeping tradition, story and culture alive and the idea of the little organisation is to collect stories from the Timorese, and to put them into books (mostly children’s) and have them published and distributed across Timor (in Tetun) and Australia (in English). I guess the idea (and the passion!) is that there are SO many stories in Timor – of courage, strength, resilience, family, love and hope, and no one can tell them better than the people themselves. There is also a shortage of books in Tetun (although this is slowly increasing!) and a general lack of knowledge and understanding in Australia (and the world) about Timor.

I’m working on the next book now, it’s called Abo Orlando/Grandad Orlando, about an 89 year old Timorese man who I called Grandfather. He actually passed away about 3 weeks ago, so I’m even more passionate about getting his story out there now. It’s from his perspective, all that he’s seen in his country over the years. He spent much time before he died sharing his stories with me, so hopefully this children’s book (once I get passed all the tricky parts like publishing etc!) can get some of his story out there! Keep your eyes open for this one!

All images courtesy of Katrina Powell

In my excitement about receiving a copy of this book and what it stands for, I’m giving you an opportunity to win a copy of “From Little Things Big Things Grow: The Story of an East Timorese Primary School”!

All the money raised from sales of the book go directly back to the Edmund Rice primary school in Deleco and also help to distribute the book (and other culturally relevant books) across East Timor. The book is $20. We also have a website (which is about to be updated). We are still trying to conquer online sales, so for now, the best way to get a copy is to email Katrina We also sell a DVD for $5 which is a short clip telling the story of the book with the children from the school.

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