Published on 4th February 2014
Dili’s Xanana Gusmao Reading Room is housed in a beautiful old Portuguese building just a block away from the waterfront, a relic of Timor-Leste’s pre-independence days. But what it houses now celebrates the country’s rebirth.
The Reading Room was established in 2000 by Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the wife of Timor-Leste’s first post-independence President (and its current Prime Minister) Xanana Gusmao. As founder and patron, Mrs Gusmao has been involved in its operation ever since, until closing it for the first time last year in order to build a new library and UNESCO office as part of the Sentru Kulturál Xanana (Xanana Cultural Centre).
VSA volunteer Del Bovill arrived in Dili in August, and immediately set to work unpacking dozens of boxes of books that had been in storage for over a year, recruiting temporary staff to assist, sourcing furniture and rebuilding equipment.
Working alongside Margarida Mesquita, the Library and Museum Coordinator, Del will spend the next two years of her assignment cementing the Reading Room as a locally run facility, setting up a new library management system, administration and financial systems, and looking for other sources of income. The new centre also includes a community internet centre, children's activity centre, and a museum with a collection of the Prime Minister’s official gifts, a photo collection, UNESCO offices and a youth cultural performance space.
It was a VSA family affair, with many Dili-based volunteers getting in on the act. Del’s predecessor, Ina Fautuai, project-managed the build of the Uma Mahon (storytelling house), which was put up in a record 13 days.
Christina Linwood, volunteering for the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO, “mobilised the local IT students”, Del says, “and they have resurrected all of the old computers, which were ridden with viruses”. Chris Manson, volunteering as a mentor for micro-finance company Morris Rasik, also pitched in with “ten Dili Institute of Technology students, who have gained some valuable practical experience”.
Rob Wait, a furniture designer volunteering with the Bamboo Centre, assisted in the design and supply of the new library shelving, which takes into account the Timor climate, Del says, “and allows for excellent air flow. The humidity can play havoc with the book collections in Timor.”
Dorothy Culloty and her husband Kees Sprengers ended their time in Timor-Leste creating photo boards for a permanent exhibition of Australian press photographs taken during the transition to independence from 1998 – 2000.
Even volunteers’ accompanying partners weren’t left out: “In the lead up to the opening of the Centre I called on a couple of ‘trailing spouses’, Pip Desmond and Tony [Del’s husband] to assist with some sign boards and landscaping.”
The Reading Room’s namesake, Prime Minister Gusmao, was guest of honour at the reopening; and Del and Ina both say the highlight was his reading of a Timorese creation story, “The Boy and His Crocodile” in the brand new Uma Mahon.
Just a few months into her assignment, Del says it has plenty going for it: “This assignment brings me into contact with the Dili community, international visitors to Dili and the many NGOs working in Dili. I get to work in a lovely old Portuguese building which houses the museum and bookshop and also a brand new building which houses the library, all within a block of the Dili waterfront and around the corner from the VSA office.”