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he attention span at the powhiri for Timor-Lestes former First Lady, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, is on the

of the Kohanga Reo the amazing way in which the community, the elders and family can be brought into the education of young children and just how affirming and respectful that is of childrens home environment, she comments after her morning spent with Kohanga Reo Trust staff and her visit to the Otara kohanga.

education, going from the known to the unknown. Unfortunately what were doing in Timor is throwing children into the unknown. There is at best lip service to the childrens own culture. In Timor-Leste the language in education policy grants a role to the two official languages Tetum and Portuguese to the exclusion of the 30 other languages. They run the very real risk of becoming

short side. The scenes a bit reminiscent of Parliament really. Theres one chappie slumped over his chair while another bangs vigorously on a table top. However the scene is not Parliament but Te Reo Rangatira Ki Whaiora kohanga reo in Otara, where a number of the tangata whenua are in high chairs. The clatter comes to an abrupt halt when the pretty lady in the woven tais skirt starts singing. Its a childrens song in Tetum the most commonly used of the 30 plus indigenous languages in Timor. Australian-born Kirsty accompanied her husband, former jailed guerrilla leader, first President, and now Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, Xanana Gusmao, to Auckland for the South Pacific Forum in September. She made good use of her time. As a passionate advocate of first language teaching at pre-school and early primary levels she was keen to establish connections with the Kohanga Reo movement. And while Kirsty revels in the titles of Goodwill Ambassador for Education and Co-chair of the National Education Commission for her adopted country, her chief motivation, she smiles, is because of her roles as a mother of three boys and as a teacher. I was very inspired by the example

As a passionate advocate of first language teaching at pre-school and early primary levels she was keen to establish connections with the Kohanga Reo movement

extinct, she says. Currently official school instruction is in Portuguese; other languages are used but clandestinely. For the vast majority of children the mother tongue is not Portuguese or even Tetum. But if kids are allowed to learn in their mother tongue they will learn. The idea is that they gradually transition from mother tongue to Tetum and then to Portuguese later in their schooling. Despite the obvious differences between the situation in Aotearoa and Timor-Leste, Kirsty feels the basic principles underlying kohanga reo are

Thats pretty much what Im campaigning for in Timor at the moment encouraging a role for our mother tongues in the early years of education. Here in New Zealand you take that so much further with the obvious links between the role of language and the culture giving kids a strong sense of where they come from culturally and building on that as a basic principle of

potentially transferable. I think the number one task is to make people aware of why language is important. Not only to culture and to national identity, but to education and being able to help children learn to read and write efficiently. Its quite a contentious stand shes taking as there is sensitivity about the role of the Portuguese language in the former


Strong women, strong nation is the guiding principle of Timor-Lestes Alola Foundation started a decade ago by then First Lady of the emerging nation, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, who remains as its Chair today. Originally the focus was on gender-based violence, explains Kirsty. Her autobiography, A Woman of Independence, outlines the tragic circumstances which led to setting up the Foundation. She tells the story of Juliana, nicknamed Alola, who was kidnapped
Te Kohanga Reo Trusts Kaupapa Kaimahi Charlotte Gibson and Kirsty Sword Gusmao.

as a 15-year-old by a militia leader in 1999 and taken across the border into West Timor. The foundation was set up to keep Julianas case in the public eye and to highlight sexual violence against women in Timor. Over the past decade it has tackled a wider set of issues. Timor has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world. The foundation encourages breast feeding to reduce infant deaths. Mixing up breast milk substitute in unhygienic conditions is a bit of a cocktail for disease, Kirsty says, especially in areas where water may be contaminated. We also work in economic empowerment encouraging women producers of handicrafts to get some training, and helping them with outlets for their goods as well. Other areas are advocacy looking at issues of the day any issue that affects women and education. About a third of our national parliament are women but Timor-Leste is a traditionally patriarchal society so we have to keep working at it, she concludes. The Alola Foundation welcomes donations. You can find out more from the website

Portuguese colony, taken over by Indonesia until its bloody struggle for independence from that country ended in 2002. There is some thought that English should be the major language in this era. Kirsty, who is fluent in Portuguese, Tetum and Indonesian, stresses that hers is not an anti-Portuguese stance. Like it or not Portuguese resonates with Timorese culturally, historically and socially in a way that English doesnt, but we havent managed yet to get our leaders to recognise language as an important part of nation building. We dont have a national language policy yet. I find that when you talk with village people, politicians and national leaders about why its important for children to learn in their first language people get it because it does actually make a lot of sense. Currently Timor-Leste has a policy of nine years free access to education for children, but there is a huge amount of poverty. We have the highest birth rate in the world, an average 7.8 children per family, so you can appreciate the difficulties of getting those children into school and staying in school. Theres an extremely high drop-out rate. The next step for this woman of action is to demonstrate just how sensible the idea of indigenous language learning is in the early years and shed welcome Maori help and exchange of ideas. The idea is that we start doing what we say is best and people come in and see it for themselves. Obviously it takes a number of years to do any study to prove scientifically that its working but I think we can demonstrate in the short term that there are greater levels of enjoyment of learning for teachers as well as pupils and greater levels of school attendance.

Kirsty has a weaving lesson at the kohanga, scrutinised carefully by a small but perhaps discerning onlooker.