FROM Timor Leste TO Pittwater
Small in stature but commanding in her presence, Sister Lourdes (affectionately known as Mana Lou) brought her story all the way to the Northern Beaches recently, speaking in broken English at a special Rotary Club of Pittwater meeting held at the Royal Motor Yacht Club.
She begins her moving talk with a heartfelt song about Timor Leste, captivating the packed room of Rotary members. She is a lady who clearly loves her country and is proud of the small nation's efforts to grow, yet deeply worried about its future. Sister Lourdes speaks of her desire for her fellow country- people to go forward with confidence and make a strong future for themselves. With an average age of just 17 years old - a legacy of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, which resulted in the loss of 200,000 East Timorese lives - Sister Lourdes sees the future of the country as lying in the hands of its children.
The Mother Teresa of East Timor is especially happy with the work Rotary is doing to assist Timor Leste's youth. One project Rotary has extended to East Timorese youth is the Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) program, which is a week-long residential program for 100 youth between 18 and 26 years of age, aimed at encouraging and developing leadership, personal development and social skills.
East Timorese youth were initially invited to Sydney to take part in the RYLA program, before being trained by Rotary to reproduce the program in Timor Leste.
Rotary also runs a version of the program for school leavers called the Rotary Youth Program of Encouragement (RYPEN) at Mana Lou's place among other sites in Timor Leste.
It’s this kind of project with the country‘s young people that Mana Lou feels will help the proud nation develop strong leaders. Mana Lou also speaks of her passionate belief that Timor Leste needs more than education - it also needs its people to be prepared to do the hard work and take Initiative. She wants the country's youth to feel in control of their own lives and capable of driving the country forward.
Today, Mana Lou runs her own religious order, which she calls Brothers and Sisters in Christ. She sees her mission as "preparing the ground for a new Timor". Her focus is on empowering the poor to become independent by developing cottage industries, handicrafts, agriculture, and spiritual growth.
Mana Lou's efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 1997, she was a recipient of Pax Christi's International Peace Prize and in December 2009, President Jose Ramos-Horta awarded her the Sergio Vieira De Mello Human Rights Award for promoting social, economic and cultural rights.
Mana Lou's visit to Pittwater was arranged thanks to Tamara Sloper Harding, chairperson of Pittwater Friends of Soibada Timor Leste, who first met Mana Lou in 1999. She describes Mana Lou as "instrumental in coordinating reconciliation between pro Indonesia militia groups and pro Independence East Timorese", and also as "an invaluable source of advice" in the development of Pittwater Friends of Soibada Timor Leste's relationship with the village of Soibada.
As Mana Lou says, "Open hearts, open minds, open house" - Timor Leste is repairing itself thanks to the hearts, minds and care of strong leaders such as Sister Lourdes and the help of organisations such as Rotary and Pittwater Friends of Soibada Timor Leste.