Many children in Timor Leste are experiencing formal schooling for the very first time, as schools are established in this young country.

UNICEF works in the village of Darabay, running the Uato-Lari alternative early childhood education centre. The closest government funded pre-school is 30 minutes away and has seventy students per teacher.

UNICEF’s centre is right in the village, with much smaller class sizes. We spoke to four of its children.

Nevia, 4 years old

Nevia’s mum Amelia is very proud of the progress her daughter has made. “Now she sings at home, can do drawings and knows the alphabets.”

Nevia’s father travels nine hours away to sell fish in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili. It's a low paid job but he has managed to buy plastic chairs and a television for the family.

The family raises chickens, who run around on the floor of their home, which Nevia proudly holds up to show us.

Febiana, 4 years old

Febiana is a shy and serious girl. When she grows up, she wants to become a nurse at the health care centre.

Febiana’s parents work on the fields in the mornings. When her mother Juleta returns home, she starts weaving traditional Timorese tais garments to make some extra income. Usually, parents begin to teach weaving to their daughters around the age of 10.

Febiana's grandfather Manuel says the family put her in the early childhood education centre because it was nearby “We didn’t have any expectations about the school but now we are very happy.”

Even though Febiana comes from a humble family, her parents feel it's important that she dresses nicely for school.

Brizita, 3 years old

Brizita’s father teaches in the local high school and her mother volunteers at the pre-school. The family has only one book at home, which they read over and over.

Most children in the village don’t have toys or books of their own, so pre-school gives them a much needed opportunity to learn and play.

As paper is scarce at the pre-school the children use a basket of soil to learn to draw the alphabets.

Anizio, 4 years old

Anizio is learning Tetum, the official language of Timor-Leste. Despite the country's small size, the people of Timor-Leste speak more than 35 different languages. Even a village as small as Darabay is divided between two major languages.

“I want to become a pastor. And a footballer," says Anizio. It's a bit hard for him to practice though, since he doesn’t own a football. He plays in the pre-school and sometimes the bigger boys of the village let him play with them in evenings.

Most kids in Darabay go barefoot. For a running race, Anizio borrows sandals from his friend so he can run faster over the rocks on the road. Racing keeps the boys occupied although they really want to have a ball to kick around, like the older kids.
While living conditions in Timor-Leste are improving, it still has a long way to go. Timor-Leste is grappling with many challenges – one of the most pressing of which is the education of its children.
All photography © Antti Helen

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UNICEF is supporting pre-schools in isolated villages of Timor-Leste where children would otherwise miss out on their right to learn. But this is only part of UNICEF's critical work for children.

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Antti Helen