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Alumna Beth Gilfillan: Changing Lives in East Timor Through Literacy



12 January 2012

Beth Gilfillan thought she had found her dream job as Principal Social Planner for Blue Mountains City Council back in 2006. Today, as co-founder of a progressive public library service in East Timor's Ermera district, she realises how quickly dreams can change.

Mrs Gilfillan, a University of Sydney alumna who completed her PhD in Government Studies, helped to establish the Biblioteka Ermera with husband Dan in 2009, following an invitation from the Ermera District Administrator.

The library celebrated its official opening on 22 July 2011, and is widely recognised as a positive force in raising literacy levels in the region, which sit at below 50%.

Gilfillan had spent time living in East Timor as a community development worker in 2003 for Union Aid Abroad. She worked in Dili at that time, but had to be medi-vacced to Darwin with Dengue fever.

Convinced she would never return to East Timor despite a brief stint to finish up her placement, she then fell in love with her now-husband Dan, which ultimately led her back to East Timor in 2007. It was on this latter trip that she recognised the opportunity to enliven local culture through a focus on education and literacy.

"During my spare time in my first two years in Timor, I started running reading programs with kids in our neighbourhood," Gilfillan says. "I saw a huge change in the children's reading ability over a period of three or four months. My experiences with the reading programs prompted Dan and I to wonder whether a public library would be a useful service in the town, and we thought we would be able to help the community get the project off the ground."

In Gilfillan's opinion, "community" is the operative word for the Biblioteka Ermera, as it was not the establishing and building of the library itself which drew her to the project, but rather the reshaping and revitalising of Ermera culture through reading and learning.

"The library's main work is not really focused in the library building. We've been training teachers on how to use books in the classroom, working with women's groups to assist mothers in reading to their children at home, and broadcasting books over community radio." The library then provides as much a cultural shift as an educative one: "People didn't grow up being read to here, and so getting used to reading a book to a baby or child is a really new thing for many parents."

Encouraging parents to read to their children is also a very literal initiative by the Biblioteka Ermera. Due to overcrowded hospitals, women are usually discharged from maternity wards within four hours of giving birth, and are presented with a book by library staff to take home with them. The staff then visit the new mothers within a week to give advice on the best approaches to reading to babies and small children.

The library staff themselves have been greatly influenced by Gilfillan's work with the Biblioteka Ermera, with many adopting its initiatives and teaching methods within their own households.

As Sandra Oliveira, librarian and mother of four, reflects: "Before I began work at the library, I thought my job as a parent was to make sure my children had enough food and rest. But now I've realised that I can participate in their education, and I'm reading to them every night."

Gilfillan also relates the experience of Lucinda Gomes, a librarian and single mother of two, upon the library's opening: "When Lucinda took home a picture book from the library to read to her children for the first time, she was very surprised that her children enjoyed the book. In fact, they made her repeat it three times on the spot."

Beth herself is not immune to the impact of the library on the local children. "I get a lot of joy from seeing the library full of people and abuzz with noise as children read aloud, and students chatter quietly while studying over their books. There's a real energy about the place."

The Biblioteka Ermera's focus on community literacy levels is also reflected in the extensive translating of fiction, and increasingly non-fiction books into such local Ermera mother tongues as Tetun, Mambae and Kemak.

The library also published its first book in Tetun in early July, signalling Beth and the library staff's agency in uniting the community through reading. The organisation has since published another three Tetun books in November and December of 2011 and has plans to expand this focus on local publishing into 2012.

"People need to be able to read good books," she says. "We are therefore working to translate good books into Tetun, as well as running writing and illustration workshops, so that we can also publish books produced by local authors and illustrators."

The library stands as a symbol of education and progress in Ermera, and East Timor as a whole, capitalising on its high profile through extensive fundraising. In September, Dan Gilfillan raised $4500 for the Biblioteka Ermera by completing the 607km Tour de Timor, which also contributed to the installation of solar power into the facility in early November.

While Beth Gilfillan is clearly a model for independent initiative, she still looks back on her days at the University as ones where she was able to develop her skills and appreciation for critical thinking.

"My studies at the University of Sydney helped me to think more critically and more deeply about things," she says. "The doctoral program that I undertook at the School of Government was brilliant, and the support provided by the academic staff was excellent. The courses they provided on research philosophy and methods were central to developing our discipline's foundations in the first year of the library program."

The Biblioteka Ermera continues to expand - a new branch of the library was opened at the official inauguration in July. When asked how she has managed to bring such a sense of enthusiasm and efficiency to the project, Beth replies that is simply a case of "being able to consider arguments from all sides, and to see the greys, not just the black and whites."

Despite the encroaching wet season, it seems the skies are far from grey in East Timor's Ermera district.

The official website of the Biblioteka Ermera can be accessed here.

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Contact: Kate Mayor

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