Volunteering in Timor-Leste
Discover volunteering opportunities in Timor-Leste, a young country working hard to secure a prosperous future.
Colonised by Portugal in the 16th century, and later occupied by Indonesia in 1975, Timor-Leste has a fascinating history and cultural heritage. In 2002 it became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century, with the decade-long struggle for independence creating numerous development challenges for this young nation.
Timor-Leste is a small country that takes up half of Timor Island, and is bordered by Indonesia to the west. It has almost 16 different ethnic groups and 32 dialects, with the major ones being Mambae, Tetun or Fehan, Makasae, Fataluku, Bunak, Kemak and Atoni.
Since independence Timor-Leste has taken great strides towards economic development and continues to tackle social, political and economic challenges. Human development indicators continue to improve, but 30% of the 1.3 million citizens still lives on less than US$1.90 a day.
Timor-Leste was formerly known as East Timor or Timor Timur (in Bahasa Indonesia) and has stunning landscapes. The mostly mountainous interior terrain is surrounded by beautiful sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters.
Timor-Leste grows coffee, corn, sweet potatoes, rice, soybeans, mangoes, vanilla, maize and cassava. Main exports include coffee and oil.
Local legend has it that the island of Timor was formed from the body of an ageing crocodile as compensation to a little boy who helped him while he was unwell, and residents of the island are thought to be descendants of the little boy!
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of partner organisations in Timor-Leste to achieve their development goals since 1995.
Volunteering opportunities in Timor-Leste support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Human rights
Life as a volunteer in Timor-Leste
Culture, religion and dress
Timorese people are incredibly hospitable and friendly. Celebrations held at national and community levels are many and a vibrant as part of the culture. Timorese society is conservative and traditional with focus on family and community
The 1.3 million Timorese people are linked closely, while at the same time the national identity is composed of many different indigenous groups, each with their own language and cultural practices.
Around 90% of Timorese people identify as Catholic, and animism continues to be a persuasive force in most people’s everyday lives. Observing the way animist and religious beliefs are seamlessly blended is one of the interesting aspects of Timor-Leste.
Work dress is quite modest in Timor-Leste. For women, a skirt and blouse or a long dress are acceptable. For men, long trousers and long or short sleeved shirts are appropriate but suits are required for very formal occassions.
Personal relationships with colleagues and clients are really important in terms of minimising the feeling of distance, making people feel comfortable, and feeling like the workplace is like their home. Volunteers are encouraged to start their relationship with light topics of common interest before getting to the real work of their assignment. Presents of some value from your home are encouraged, as are visiting families in their homes as part of starting a relationship.
Timor-Leste has many spoken languages reflecting past migration, colonialism and occupation by other countries. Tetun and Portuguese are official languages, with Indonesian and English considered working languages.
Timor-Leste has a hot tropical climate with a dry season (May – November) and wet season (December – April). The temperature on the coast is usually between 25-35°C and in the mountains at higher elevations the weather is much cooler – sometimes wet and misty and at other times clear and invigorating. There are many different microclimates, from dry, barren hillsides to thickly forested peaks interspersed with cultivated areas. In general, as you drive south the countryside becomes much more lush and greener.
Three telecommunication providers provide mobile phone and internet services. While 4G has recently become available, the speed and quality of access is variable and lower than in Australia. Internet access is usually via a USB modem or mobile phone. There is limited wireless and virtually no landline internet.
Dining and entertainment
Timor-Leste has a strong culture of hospitality and most socialising involves food.
A traditional Timorese lunch or dinner includes rice, meat or fish, beans and corn, seasonal vegetables with clever use of local spices, fresh herbs, tropical fruits and sometimes coconut milk accompanied by extremely hot ai-manas (chilli paste).
For a city of its size, Dili has a wide range of restaurants reflecting many differing influences. International options include Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, Thai, Turkish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Brazilian, among others. These vary from up-market to very casual. Many have beautiful views out over the water where you can enjoy the sunset. Seafood caught daily and organic fruit and vegetables from local farmers influence menus. Most restaurants serve beer and wine, and a few make an excellent cocktail.
In Dili and throughout Timor-Leste there are a variety of accommodation options that fall within the budget of the volunteer accommodation allowance. Properties regularly become available and volunteers usually find accommodation within the first two weeks of arrival in-country.
There are a range of transport options in both Dili and across Timor-Leste, however public transport can be difficult and many volunteers purchase their own vehicle while on assignment.
Timor-Leste is relatively stable however there are occasional incidents of fighting between groups in various districts around Timor-Leste, often but not always related to martial arts groups. These incidents often involve stone throwing and occasionally machetes and knives. Most happen at night. Foreigners haven’t been targeted, but leave the area immediately if you become aware of fighting.
Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Timor-Leste, please do some further research on living in Timor-Leste and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
For close to 20 years the Australian Volunteers Program has partnered with organisations in Timor-Leste working towards gender equality.