East Timor: Suai Media Space Challenges the Digital Divide

Nine years after East Timor was connected to the Internet for the first time, the country still faces a deep digital divide. Physical access to technology, resources and tools is difficult; one hour surfing the Internet is as expensive as the basic daily salary, and digital citizen participation or e-commerce is virtually non-existent. In the smallest communities, such as Suai, in the south of East Timor, connectivity through the Internet remains a dream.

Jen HughesAmong those fighting to minimize this digital divide is Australian documentary-maker Jen Hughes, the founder of Suai Media Space – a social media project connecting the people of Suai with the world community. Putting culture and creativity at the centre of friendship, the project's main aim is “for the voices of the youth of Suai to be heard all over the world”.

Q: How did you get involved with East Timor?

A: I began following the story of friendship between Port Phillip (my neighbourhood) and Suai in December 1999. The friendship was begun to help Suai recover. I was interested in what role this kind of cross-border cross-cultural friendship would play in the recovery of the Timorese people from trauma and devastation, and what the Timorese would be doing to recover themselves.

The result is the Suai Media Space website where there is content written and made by youth and others from Suai as well as myself and a documentary in the form of a series of video Letters to Suai and Port Phillip (that I will be uploading this year). I shot the footage over nine years as I followed and participated in the friendship between people from these two extremely different places. Viewed together the ‘letters’ reveal a rich and beautiful Timorese traditional culture that serves the Timorese well in their healing process.

They also reveal a culture in transition to modernity, indeed to post-modernity and the digital age, as the young are keen to embrace digital tools and the Internet to express their music and their stories.

Friend Rock

Photo: Friends of Suai Rock

Q: Which are the communities you work with?

A: There are two communities I work with. Port Phillip in Melbourne and Suai a rural town in Southwest East Timor. Getting them involved actually on the website is difficult and it is still emerging. From 1999 to now my ‘project’ has evolved in response to what the Friends of Suai has been doing, what is going on in Port Phillip and East Timor, particularly Suai, my resources and technological changes. I began by collecting stories and forming relationships in Port Phillip and Suai as well as Dili and Darwin the bridging cities. Within those places the people who relate to my project are mostly Australians, Timorese and Timorese Australians living in Timor and Australia.

Q: How does the community get involved with the project?

A: There are so many ways the community can get involved it is really up to their imagination. But just becoming a friend of Suai by viewing and reading the stories, commenting, linking through your blogs or websites or joining the friendship through the various avenues is a great start. Another very important contribution is translation of course. The more languages we have the more diverse our community can become.

It may be, that community involvement on the website grows this year, it may not come in the ten year period I have committed to the project or at all. At present people from both communities can request to become an author, in which case they can do everything themselves because the website is built with blog software to enable this. Anyone can join the Facebook group, subscribe to our YouTube page and link to it, send a story and photos or a short video by email, CD, DVD, and I'll upload them on their behalf.

I have created a Ning social network site too. I haven't promoted the social network sites yet. I'm waiting for Broadband to arrive in Suai and for them to have some more workshops. Then they can show each other the site and teach each other. If people wish to help me or just talk to me because they have particular skills they would like to offer, they can contact me and start the conversation.

There have been many activities with various people in the Community in Suai which has led to the development of content. This year a young man by the name of Chamot from Kamenassa Suai, heard about Suai Media Space through a mutual friend, and sent me his poems by email requesting that I upload them to Suai Media Space. I have invited people who visit the site to translate those. We are looking for an English and a Portuguese translator for these if anyone would like to volunteer?

Q: How do people access the Internet from East Timor, and particularly from Suai?

A: The Internet did not come to the Suai community until about 2004. In 1999 in Port Phillip we had dial-up access in our homes businesses and libraries. In East Timor all communication infrastructure was destroyed by Indonesian backed militia as they left the country after the vote. By the time I went to Suai in July 2000 Telstra Australia was providing expensive mobile telephone communication that was unreliable in the districts and landline connections in Dili. I think the connection was going from Timor via Darwin and back into Timor. I heard calls were billed at international rates.

In the emergency phase the UN had a satellite in Suai which some of the NGO's could use but in the main we relied on mobiles. Occasionally when a friend from the UN helped we could use their email access. The UN took the satellite with them when they pulled out! At this time access for Timorese was extremely difficult. UN people and UN police often didn't know who were militia and who were not and so often foreigners could get access to special privileges like access to the Internet and helicopters to Dili, that locals could not.

The Timor Telecom Internet access in Suai is a dial-up connection. The office provides one computer terminal for the whole Covalima area, plus one can plug in a laptop simultaneously. So for the few who have a laptop they can usually jump on quite quickly while others are using the Timor Telecom computer. The cost is exorbitant for the majority of people at $US2 per hour. The Timorese people I know who used the Internet were waged with jobs in NGO's.

I was giving story writing for the Internet workshops which were accompanied by photographs that had been reduced in size to under 30 KB in Photoshop. We were able upload the text but we were unable to upload the photographs or send them by email to Australia for uploading whilst using the Timor Telecom terminal and an Apple McIntosh laptop. Several times we tried to get help over the counter locally and to contact Timor Telecom in Dili to get help with this but in the end gave up in disgust. I am a very experienced Internet user and my colleague, who is also Australian, but who has worked and lived in East Timor and Indonesia for several years, is very experienced user of email and Timor Telecom. She speaks Tetun but not Portuguese. Together we were unable to get help. The local terminal gives frequent warnings about viruses, but when we asked local office staff how to respond to it we were advised to ignore it.

When free broadband access is available in Suai the social network software linked to the site should make the connection between the two communities and the rest of the world more real on a broader front. Then all we will have left as an inhibitor will be the language barrier! To overcome this we will need some volunteer translators and some good community cultural development concepts to grease the wheels of the relationships. Then we shall see if we can truly have a friendship between two communities that helps the people of Suai rebuild.

Q: How did the YoMaTre, the Youth Media Centre start? How has the project developed?

A: I began working directly with the coordinator of the Covalima youth Centre, Ergilio Vicente in 2006, when I partnered with the Friends of Suai. I met Ergilio before that, in 2000 when we first discussed the project and I also knew Josh Trinidade who set up the youth centre in 2000. The rest of that story is on the website.

My first ‘community involvement’ was in the form of an attempt at a friendship with Sergio da Costa, who is a Suai artist. He was about 18 when we started, now he is 27. Sergio and I began exchanging things such as art materials, tape recorders, tapes, CD’s letters and paintings, by asking people to carry them for us. And this is how most of our content in the form of movies, letters and photographs have exchanged hands over the first eight or nine years. Sergio’s work and other artistic works from Suai can be seen here.

My first ‘community involvement’ was in the form of an attempt at a friendship with Sergio da Costa, who is a Suai artist.

Sergio da Costa's self portrait

Photo: Self-Portrait by Sergio da Costa. Pencil on Paper 2000.

Initially Sergio gave me and sent me a lot of his drawings. Some of them were intensely sad self-portraits. So in 2003 I returned to Suai with them and Sergio and I made a video about his work with him providing the narrative for it. I edited it and checked it with him when I returned in 2006. That video is still to be uploaded this year. He has a copy of it on DVD and I have some more material to add to it. All of the films I make are sent to Suai or I take them and they are screened there in a variety of contexts – public and private. The Circle of Stones is the most popular.

In 2006 we delivered media tools funded by the Friends of Suai in Port Phillip, and I ran the first video production workshops. Since then YoMaTre a youth media training organisation has been formed and a range of Internet and video production workshops have been held.

In June last year we held workshops to teach the YoMaTre members how to write for the Internet, take digital photographs and how to manipulate and downsize them for the web and we made some imovies. As well as this we showed them how to upload the stories in to Suai Media Space. Their stories can be read in Tetun (the local language) and English. Here you will also see stories and photographs written by YoMaTre members about their Peace activities late last year.

I stay with the Timorese market people and sleep on the floor in Suai. I shop in the local market, and I have been doing this for nine years. As I drove past the market in June 2008 I heard a voice yell out “Jen Hughes” – that was a bright moment for me.

Photo: Ergilio Grassi. Lin and others unpack video equipment February, 2006

Q: Despite difficulties in access to the Internet, the Port Phillip and Suai communities seem to love interacting between themselves. Can you tell us about the Exchanging Rock Messages project?

A: In 2001 I made a film calling for justice that was based on footage shot on the occasion of the first anniversary of the massacre in Suai. It was called the Circle of Stones.

At that first Anniversary the people of Suai had placed a rock or a simply inscribed rock in a circle outside the Church where the massacre took place.

Photo: Circle of Stones, Suai, First Anniversary, Suai Church Massacre, September 6, 2000.

The following year I initiated a screening of the Circle of Stones and a remembrance event in Port Phillip at the St Kilda Town Hall. Since hi-tech solutions for connection and involvement were not available I thought it would be great to use the communication medium used by the people of Suai to remember their loved ones. So we invited the people of Port Phillip to bring a rock inscribed with a message to the people of Suai and form a circle of stones to remember those who died on the Second Anniversary of the Suai Church Massacre, September 9, 2001.

About 200 people attended that, viewed the film, listened to music and stories and placed a rock and flowers in a circle outside the Town Hall. These rocks and the circles of stones now link the two communities and before the 10th Anniversary in September all those rocks will be on Suai Media Space in a special place. In September this year also, we hope this story will be projected at the 10th Anniversary of the Massacre in Suai.

Circle of Stones, a 2001 Video

Q: And what about the self-portrait exchange?

A: A youth worker in Port Phillip initiated a self-portrait exhibition for youth in Port Phillip and asked the Friends of Suai to invite some artists from Suai to send some paintings to include in it. Sergio’s prolific portrait painting practice means he knows all the other artists in Suai, so Sergio was called upon to introduce them to the Friends of Suai.

One was a very talented young man in a wheel chair from Suai Loro named Atoy…

… the others were young boys whose work could be seen all over the walls of Suai.

Almeida's wall

First fhoto: Portrait of a Boy by Atoy; second photo: Art on Walls of Suai by Almeida (Both in June 2008)

They were paid and given art materials to produce self-portraits for the portrait exhibition in Port Phillip. This in turn led to the broadening of an exchange of self-portraits between schools. The schools haven’t given permission for uploading these yet but it is expected we will do this in the coming months.

Q: What are the main challenges you have found during the last 10 years?

A: One of the major challenges of the project has been getting people to understand it. That has been a learning curve for all of us, including me as technology kept changing over time (and still is). Practical people often said food in the mouths was more important. My answer to that was that not everybody could work in the same field and the young people were unemployed and bored. This never convinced anyone. I was just lucky that the two co-ordinators of the Friends of Suai in Port Phillip who held office the longest both appreciate the power and importance of media and could see my point about the media arts and their role in the future of young people in Suai. One of the challenges was I had to learn about community development processes. One important thing was that the request for assistance for particular projects had to come from Suai. Their priorities were different from mine naturally, and Ergilio didn’t request the media tools until he saw their usefulness for educational videos in his community, after Oxfam held a media workshop within their HIV program and it was this request that led to the media project I had envisioned getting funding.

I didn’t realise until last year (2008), that Ergilio hadn’t really understood the project we initially discussed in 2000. (I don’t think I exactly knew what it was then either!) I was warned many times in 2000 not to make promises I couldn’t keep, so I took his instruction to “go away and get started” seriously. The irony is, that discussion with Ergilio in 2000 led to me dedicating the next ten years to working to keeping my promise! There is a line in an Australian Paul Kelly song that says “be careful what you dream of, you just might get it!” Well I did get it! ] Over the past nine years, I’ve found the project has reached goals in very different ways than I had originally envisaged, and at very different times. It was Ergilio’s request in 2005 that eventually led to the setting up of the media group in Suai and it is their needs in concert with the actions of the Friends of Suai and others, that are really shaping the media group. Now the International Journalists Federation are involved too, so that is adding another dimension to their skills training. The website and the media project we have now fit my original vision on some levels, but not all. The fact of their existence and their positive impacts, are very satisfying.

The challenges have been enormous, both personally and professionally. Some of them come through the stories above about community involvement. Personally, I have needed tremendous patience and grit that has armed me with the determination to keep going and keep on learning about community development processes and the technical skills as technology kept changing and just keep on going as the project was never predictable. I often recall Australian activist Lee Kirk introducing me to the mantra “neineik neineik” or “slowly slowly step by step” when she was working in Suai. I learned to listen carefully to Ergilio and to stay flexible letting it evolve and not giving into the expectations of others.

Until recently we didn’t even have regular dial-up Internet contact. Many times sms was the best way to communicate. Just today Ergilio has requested my Skype name! The whole thing would have been impossible without the personal patience and tolerance of Ergilio Vicente and Simao Barretto in Suai. Not to mention the work of the Friends of Suai in both places.

Q: It is the dream of Suai Media Space for their voices to be heard all over the world. How can people get involved and help this dream come true?

A: I know the young people of Suai would be very happy when people actually respond to them in the comments or email them. It may sound too simple but by giving them an audience you are providing them with a great gift. That's the first thing. The second is for the audience to tell them who they are and what they are interested in.

What's also needed are Indonesian or Tetun speaking tutors for training programs. Anything like this needs to be well planned in advance. Any training programs need to meet the needs of the youth in Suai and they usually identify what they want. The Friends of Suai are currently moving through a consultation process to identify a more structured and even program of training and when this is in place a call for trainers can be made. However that group have other demands on their financial resources too and at this point they have not committed funds for training for the next two year period. Covalima Youth Centre is pretty well managed and capable of planning implementing their media training, financial support for that would be wonderful.

Another contribution by community could be translation of menus and handbooks or purchase of Indonesian hand books. Or, I've always thought it would be great to have ‘how to’ instructions in Tetun or Indonesian on line for them. There may already be Indonesian sites like this. If there are I'm not aware of them and providing those links would be great.


Also check Suai Media Space on YouTube, and friends of YoMaTre facebook group.

This interview is part of a series of posts to celebrate the 9th anniversary of the arrival of the Internet in East Timor. The first article explained the huge digital divide in the country. In the next post, you will find out more about the difficulties that bloggers from East Timor face when uploading content to the Internet and the “Tele Schools“, a solution that the Government has decided to adopt as a way to provide local education without a need to access the Internet.


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