Friends grow life skills in Dili’s Canberra garden 

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Canberra Friends of Dili worked with Ego Lemos to create the garden at Bidau Masau school. Photo: Friends of Dili

A PERMACULTURE garden has been established at a school in Dili, with support from fundraising by the Canberra Friends of Dili (CFD) group and an ACT government grant. 

Dr Stephen Utick, president of CFD, says the garden, located in the poor eastern suburb of Bidau Masau, is more than a vegetable patch – it’s a “living classroom”, where the kids can learn biology, maths, horticulture, cooking, nutrition, sustainability and traditional culture.

Permaculture is included in all school curriculums in Timor-Leste, thanks to permaculturist and Timorese singer-songwriter Ego Lemos. Photo: Friends of Dili

“These are core living skills in a country where food security will be vital to its future,” he says.

“An extraordinary amount of the population in Timor-Leste are children, and our aim is that they learn to feed themselves and their families as part of an educational program.”

The garden was established to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Australian intervention in Timor-Leste as part of Interfet in 1999.

“This is such a wonderful benefit to the schoolchildren of Bidau Masau,” says Stephen. 

“We see it as a portal for connections and a focus for the community. It’s Canberra’s garden in Dili, our Friendship City, and our commitment to people-to-people connection.”

Permaculture is included in all school curriculums in Timor-Leste, thanks to permaculturist and Timorese singer-songwriter Ego Lemos, who founded the NGO Permaculture Timor-Leste (Permatil). 

Permatil has taken programs such as this to around 200 schools in Timor-Leste, and CFD worked with the group to make this garden happen.

Stephen says CFD visited the school in August, met with Ego Lemos, principal José Gusenão, and schoolchildren who are using the garden.

Already thriving are crops of beans, lettuce, parsley, onions, chili, bok choy, water spinach (or kangkung), hummingbird tree (with edible flowers) and amaranth.

Principal José Gusenão, and schoolchildren. Photo: Friends of Dili

He says they began raising money for the project in 2018, with support from Rotary, Kingston Baptist Church and the Horticultural Society of Canberra. 

More than half the funds were raised within nine months, and the rest was made up by a one-off grant through Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

Stephen says the school has 200 students, as well as a network of three other schools in the vicinity with access to the garden. 

“It’s our hope that the garden will inspire collaborative critical thinking and problem solving toward real outcomes, with better relationships between teachers and students,” he says.

A fundraising cocktail party for the garden and other CFD projects in Timor-Leste will be held at the Embassy of Timor-Leste at 7 Beale Crescent, Deakin, on Friday, November 1. For more information, please contact CFD Secretary Robert Altamore on 

Students at Bidau Masau school. Photo: Friends of Dili

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Kathryn Vukovljak
Kathryn Vukovljak is a "CityNews" journalist with a particular interest in homes and gardens.

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