Playing ball in Baucau

Exercise science lecturers, old friends and AFL competitors Dr Paul Callery and Dr Ross Smith established a program in East Timor to get kids off the streets and into team sport. Annalise Vogel spoke to the initiative's student volunteers about playing ball in Baucau. 

It’s 1.30 pm in Baucau at the Hotel Melitas. Eight ACU exercise science students sit attentively in front of a whiteboard in a large open-air common room. It’s hot, the roosters are crowing, and a shimmering Pacific Ocean is visible in the distance.

“We leave in 15, team,” says Dr Paul Callery energetically. “Let's get going, get the van packed, Beth you’re on registration, is everyone else clear on their roles? How many t-shirts are we taking, say 500?”

The students pile enthusiastically into a battered blue van half-filled with dozens of footballs, traffic cones and the 500 t-shirts. It all seems to be running with military precision. Dr Callery drives, accompanied up front by fellow leader and ACU graduate Beth McLeod who may have more of a lead role on the expedition next year – if Paul lets her. This is after all a project of the heart and “his baby”.

Kids run alongside the van as it heads out of town screaming “Mista Paul…Mista Paul…”. Whenever it stops they dive in among the ACU students – somewhere between backpacks, soccer boots and soccer balls, hanging on to each other with pure excitement. When the van comes to a halt at roundabout, a man with a huge white smile folds himself in too. This is Nunu one of the East Timorese head coaches. Everyone is looking at each other happily, the kids are giggling, and all are feeling lucky to be going somewhere this baking afternoon.

As the van bumps along over huge potholes, heads hit the roof intermittently but no one seems to notice. The ACU students are attempting to chat to the kids, asking them diak ka lae? or how are you? The kids just laugh happily.

Along the way older women and men emerge from thatched huts to observe the commotion. Kids of all ages and sizes, with or without shoes, appear in larger groups now – walking single file along the roadside in the same direction to the football ground.

The van slows as it approaches a whitewashed archway. It passes underneath and is greeted by hundreds and hundreds of children sitting in groups on a dusty field. When the van pulls up in a cloud of dust they converge on it yelling bola, bola, bola! The people of East Timor love soccer, and in the wake of 24 years of Indonesian occupation, it has become a focal point for national pride.

What happens next is nothing short of organised chaos. After a period of discussion, gesturing and gathering of coaches, the loudhailer siren blares and more than 600 kids from every corner of the rocky field fall into line behind the coaches. There are 33 of them – wearing green t-shirts with the words Ksolok, Justu, Respeitu - meaning fun, fairness and respect. It is in the hands of the coaches that Dr Callery hopes to entrust the future of the program.

That program is Future in Youth – which has been teaching leadership, health, and life skills to children and young people through soccer since 2010.

Exercise science students at ACU can apply to volunteer for the program – run over three weeks in June/July - and are selected on the basis of individual skills, attributes and experience.

In just two years of operation, the program has reached out to more than 2,000 young people in Baucau, and set up structured coaching and training programs which will hopefully be sustained by the community in the long term.

The second largest city in Timor–Leste, Baucau has an almost 100 per cent youth unemployment rate and lack of infrastructure, and consequently a high number of disengaged youth.

“Sport is a positive thing because it can make better community connections and help with health outcomes as well,” said Beth. “We train the coaches who are Timorese to come and help coach the junior team. By doing this we try to give them the confidence and skills to keep running the program themselves after we’ve gone.”

The program is run across two areas of Baucau; New Town and Old Town. Divided by an invisible demarcation line, the two areas have their difficulties. As a result, Future in Youth alternates between the two areas and two stadiums.

“We had between 800 and 1,200 students turn up at the two stadiums just over the first five days,” said student Gemma Minuz.

“And it doesn’t happen without a huge amount of preparation. It requires a lot of team work to organise such a big bunch of people. We work in teams and spend time every morning planning our sessions.”

One of the biggest challenges is the language barrier. While Tetum and Portuguese are the official languages of Timor-Leste, in a region like Baucau there are several Indigenous languages that are also spoken. A single conversation can involve the use of four or even five languages.

“Because of the language barrier there is a lot more demonstrating and moving kids and showing them where to stand,” said Gemma. “Through enthusiasm we try and engage them, we get up and get all excited and hope that they follow suit.”

Fellow student Pat Nichol said when it comes to teaching soccer drills, actions speak louder than words. “It’s a definite challenge,” he said. “I think you just have to jump in there. We weren’t afraid to make mistakes because no one is going to do it perfectly, you just have to get your hands dirty and give it a go. Sport breaks down a lot of barriers.”

Despite fundraising efforts back in Australia, resources are lean and pose a significant challenge. However the Melbourne Catholic Education Office collected more than 650 pairs of soccer boots for the program, and Toll sponsored the transportation of all the sporting equipment. The program would not be possible without the generosity of these organisations and individuals.

“In terms of soccer pitches they have more rocks than grass, and most of the kids are barefoot or sharing a pair of shoes with their sibling, but it works,” said Gemma. Spending three weeks in East Timor has also reinforced for the ACU students what a privileged position they are in.

“I heard about the Future in Youth program during my first year of uni… and ever since then I had been looking forward to applying,” said third-year student Lauren Shiel. “The other day we were driving home and we saw kids with no coach making up their own drills and copying what we were doing which was really great to see.”

Beth said experiencing that many excited, keen kids in one place at one time was a definite high and something that she wouldn’t forget in a hurry. “This is my third visit now, once you’ve been touched by the people it’s hard not to come back and feel at home when you are here.”

Pat said he was impressed to see an eight year-old  girl walk her four-year-old brother the three kilometres from home just to participate for an afternoon.

“Timor is just on our doorstep, less than an hour’s flight from Darwin and yet so many people have never been here before and hardly know anything about the history which is so recent and so painful. To me it seems a forgotten nation, and our forgotten neighbour.”