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FRETILIN’s literacy program an excerpt from ‘Stirrings of Nationalism in East Timor:

FRETILIN 1974-78’ by Helen M. Hill, Otford Press, Otford, NSW, 2002.

One of the most important aspects of FRETILIN’s work in the early months of 1975 was the anti-
illiteracy campaign which it launched in several villages. The program had taken some months to prepare. Since
May 1974 Timorese students in Lisbon who had some familiarity with the ideas of Brazilian educator, Paulo
Freire, had been working on materials which could be used in the campaign. They did not use Portuguese but
Tetum, the most widely spoken of the local languages. This was in keeping with FRETILIN’s policy of
encouraging the use of the local languages, particularly Tetum as a lingua franca, despite the fact that they had
adopted Portuguese as a national language.
It was also based on the findings of educational research that students are better prepared to learn other
languages, such as Portuguese or English if they have first learned to read and write in their mother tongue, a
finding which has been shown to be correct in relation to other groups, such as Australian aborigines, but which
was ignored by the Portuguese. The Paulo Freire method of literacy teaching is based on the assumption that
illiterates already have a good command of the spoken language and also a considerable body of experience which
they can discussi.
It is therefore mainly directed at adult literacy although some of the participants in the FRETILIN
program were as young as 11 years old.
The fundamental distinction to be made in Paulo Freire’s approach to teaching is that there is no such
thing as a neutral education; all education is either education for “domestication” or education for “liberation”. It
can be either an instrument to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the existing
system or the means whereby men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to transform it ii. It
was not difficult for Timorese to identify the first of these two alternatives with the education system provided by
the Portuguese in the rural areas. The second was the one which FRETILIN identified as the aim for its literacy
The attitudes which FRETILIN wanted to overcome in Timor were the same ones which Paulo Freire and his
colleagues in the Northeast of Brazil had found among the peasants they worked with, namely that they had
accepted the officials’ definition of themselves as lazy, ignorant, and uncultured, and held what Freire calls “a
naive view of the world”, ie they tend to superstition and believe that their poverty and powerlessness was a given
and could not be changed.
The first areas in which FRETILIN experimented with its literacy program were specially selected. They
had to be areas in which Tetum was spoken as the initial reading books were prepared in Tetum. They also needed
to be areas in which a relatively high level of political consciousness had already been achieved, for basic to the
method’s use was that the learners be highly motivated to communicate, not simply to want to learn to read and
write because they believed it would lead to better job opportunities. There needed to be local people who could
be trained as teachers in addition to the people coming from Dili. One such village was the village of Namuleco,
three hours horse ride from the nearest made road at Aileu, location of FRETILIN’s first literacy project iii.
In this village the inhabitants were so keen to get the FRETILIN literacy team to establish a school that
they built a building especially for it, on the pattern of the local houses with a number of seats and desks. The
program got under way in that village in January 1975 with classes every afternoon.
A major problem was how to select those who should be allowed to take part in the literacy programme
as the numbers in this village wishing to take part far outnumbered the resources available.
The practical application of Freire’s method of literacy training depends on the isolation of “generative
words” and “generative themes”. The critical capacity of the participants grows out of dialogue on these words
and themes. Freire believed that he could isolate a minimal core vocabulary (generative words) touching on the
life situations of illiterates (generative themes). A considerable knowledge of the community, its way of life, its
aspirations and its culture are needed before the selection of generative words and themes can be made.
The generative words should fulfil three criteria, they should be words with great significance for the
illiterates, their level of difficulty should be such that the learners can proceed from more simple sounds and letters
to more difficult ones and should cover all the basic sounds of the language and have the possibility of being
divided into syllables so that learners can experiment within various syllabic combinations, even at first sight of
the word.
Portuguese lends itself to the last condition more than Tetum, having much longer words. Tetum words
are generally short, of two syllables at the most, and spelt phoneticallyiv.
The compilers of the FRETILIN literacy handbook Rai Timur Rai Ita Niang (Timor is our country)
departed somewhat from the practice of Paulo Freire in their selection of generative words.
As the book was to be used throughout East Timor some 50 words were chosen which represented
everyday vocabulary of Timorese in villages, they were illustrated and written down in Tetum and then the words
divided up into syllables, it was the responsibility of the teachers in each area to select words for special emphasis
and more intensive classroom discussion.
Having chosen the generative words the next step in Freire’s method is to codify existential situations
familiar to the learners. While Freire assumes that themes of national importance play an important role in the
development of a critical mentality he also says that the presentation of them should be linked to the personal,
local problems of the people.v
In the presentation of this situation, FRETILIN practice again departed somewhat from that used by
Paulo Freire and his colleagues in Brazil. While Freire and his colleagues produced slides or filmstrips illustrating
these situations and presented them to the participants for discussion without any written commentary, FRETILIN
published drawings in a book with a written text alongside it.
A major part of Freire’s work with pictures was aimed at engaging the peasants in discussions which
would lead them to the realization of the difference between nature and culture, and then on to the discovery that
they are makers of culture as much as literate people are. In the words of Paulo Freire
We felt that even before teaching the illiterate to read we could help him to overcome his major or naïve
understanding and to develop an increasingly critical understanding. Toward this end, the first dimension
of our new program content would be an anthropological concept of culture – that is, the distinction
between the world of nature and the world of culture; the active role of men in and with their reality; the
role of mediation which nature plays in relationships and communications among men.
Culture as the addition made by men to a world they did not make; culture as the result of men’s labour,
of their efforts to create and recreate . . .
From that point of departure the illiterate would begin to effect a change in his former attitudes, by
discovering himself to be a maker of the world of culture, by discovering that he, as well as the literate
person, has a creative and re-creative impulse. He would discover that culture is just as much a clay doll
made by artists who are his peers as it is the work of a great sculptor, a great painter, a great mystic, or a
great philosopher; that culture is the poetry of lettered poets and also the poetry of his own popular songs
– that culture is all human
FRETILIN also spoke of a major aim of the literacy program as “learning to be a new citizen, free from
obscurantism and superstition and prepared to understand the historical and political phenomenon of human
exploitation and superstition”. vii
The teachers in the FRETILIN literacy schools encouraged the participants to discuss various familiar
situations without necessarily having pictures or filmstrips to show them, and then to move on from familiar to
the unfamiliar. An example from Jose Ramos Horta;
In the process of learning how to read and write the word “car” he is discussing with the FRETILIN
cadre political issues that are linked with the making of a car. Who makes the car? Where does it come
from? From Japan, from Germany? Who works on this car? The working class (of Japan, Germany).
Who gets the profits? The cars arrive in East Timor. Who imported these cars? Who drives these cars?
Where do the care circulate? On the road. Who builds the roads? Of course, the people build the roads
– with little or no pay.viii
The FRETILIN reading primer, Rai Timur Rai Ita Niang also serves as an introduction to Timorese
nationalist ideas. The first few pages inform the reader “Timor is our land.
A long time ago Colonialism came to our land because our ancestors were fighting each other. All
Timorese will unite together to govern their own land”. The pictures accompanying the text stress the need for
national unity.
Later pictures show Timorese working for Portuguese, building brick houses for them, building roads,
toiling under heavy loads while Portuguese drive in cars, Timorese paying taxes, being offered to grow coffee
instead of food, being prevented from speaking their own languages in schools and being treated by a colonial
doctor so they can survive and work for the Portuguese.
The use of such a book would probably be regarded by some of Paulo Freire’s followers as excessively
propagandistic on the grounds that reading primers discourage people from expressing and writing their own ideas
and words. Because the ideas are those of the teachers and not the opinions of the participants it becomes an
instrument of propaganda in telling them what they should believe. ix
The FRETILIN Committee on Education and Culture was very aware of these problems. One of the
restrictions placed upon them was the lack of trained people to carry out the progra; another was the lack of
financial resources to prepare materials, and thirdly a general feeling of urgency due to the uncertain political
situation. The main aim seemed to be to get the literacy campaign going as quickly as possible and spreading as
far as possible in a short time. This was particularly so after February 1975 when the possibility of an Indonesian
invasion was raised in the press in Australia.
FRETILIN also had practical reasons for wanting to teach people to read and write quickly, in addition
to wanting them to experience the conscientização involved in the Freire method.x FRETILIN wanted people
who could read and write to become FRETILIN secretaries in the villages, to organize co-operatives, learn and
teach elementary hygiene etc.
They also believed that Timorese culture had suffered very much by being a non-literate culture
and as as a result of this much of it could be lost, particularly if dominated by another culture. Also FRETILIN
believed it would be easier for them to organize and inform the people of new developments if there was a higher
level of literacy within the community.
The literacy program involved a large amount of time in preparation, which had started in June 1974
Abilio Araujo and Francisco Borja da Costa, Vicente Reis (Sa’he) and Antonio Carvarino (Mau Lear) were
involved while still in Lisbon. On returning to Timor Mau Lear was the main central committee member involved
in the literacy program through his involvement with the FRETILIN Committee for Education and Culture. The
recruitment and training of teachers took several months, and it was not until January 1975 that the first project
started operating.
Nevertheless, there were some fairly dramatic successes, not only with people learning to read in three
months but also in encouraging people to write short stories, and generally write of their experiences. This was
an aspect which appealed particularly to the Timorese who had been in Lisbon. They in particular felt the need
to preserve Timorese culture and to get people to write down local stories before they were forgotten.

i For a summary of Freire’s basic assumptions relating to education in third world societies see Helen Hill, “An
Explosion in the Culture of Silence”, Nation Review, 16-22 March 1973, p. 673.
ii See Paulo Freire, Cultural Action for Freedom, pp. 5-12 for a discussion of the meanings of these terms.
iii Although Namuleco is in a Mambai speaking area, Tetum was sufficiently widely and well understood to use it in
the literacy programme. FRETILIN leaders seemed keen to broaden the use of Tetum as a lingua franca. For a description
of a visit to a FRETILIN literacy project at Mamuleco see Michael Richardson, “Timor Voice Raised”, The Age, March
1974 and Bruce Stanndard, “Timor has long knives and will fight”, The Australian, 17 March 1974.
iv For a discussion of generative words see Carol and Lars Berggren, The Literacy Process, p. 41.
v For a description of Paulo Freire’s methods in Brazil and the practice of “codification”, see Cynthia Brown,
Literacy in 30 Hours: Paulo Freire’s Process in North East Brazil, pp. 7-23.
vi Paulo Freire, Education: The Practice of Freedom, pp. 46-47.
vii Jose Ramos Horta, “FRETILIN’s Literacy Program in Timor”, Alternate News Service, 46, 1975. P. 17.
viii Speech by Jose Ramos Horta quoted in Richard Franke, East Timor: The Hidden Wa, p. 11.
ix For arguments against using reading primers see Cynthia Brown, Literacy in 30 Hours, p. 24.
x Conscientização, a word closely associated with the work of Paulo Freire, is difficult to translate into an English
equivalent. See Paulo Freire, “A few Notions about the Word ‘concientization’” in roger Dale, et. al. (eds) Schooling and
Capitalism, pp. 224-227.