Maubere Pedagogy: The construction of a people’s sovereignty through popular education

Article remembers the referendum on the independence of East Timor, held on August 30, 1999, and the importance of literacy
Declaration of independence ceremony in Dili on November 28. Photo: Reproduction

By Iris Pacheco
From the MST webpage

August 30 marked the 21st anniversary of the referendum that allowed the Lusophone “neighbors” in Southeast Asia to end the Indonesian occupation and pave the way for independence. On the same day, in 1999, almost 80% of East Timor’s voters voted for separation from Indonesia, whose military occupation lasted 24 years and was extremely violent, killing more than 25% of the population. In other words, as the history of the struggle against colonization teaches us, the price the Timorese had to pay for it was high. Even after the YES to independence in the popular consultation, terror continued and the Indonesian security forces, aided by militias, started a wave of violence that caused the death of 1,400 people and the exile of hundreds of thousands of people.

However, the Timorese people also promoted an intense process of struggle and combat against hunger and destruction, in the construction of resistance inside and outside the country. And above all, in the consolidation of an emancipatory educational process that was able to contribute to national liberation.

Timor-Leste is a small country in Southeast Asia that occupies the eastern portion of Timor Island and has a population that presents a high ethno-cultural diversity: there are more than 30 languages, being the official languages Portuguese and Tetum. Its architectural diversity of the capital, Dili, tells of the country’s struggles for independence from Portugal in 1975 and later from Indonesia in a consolidated form in 2002.

It is in the midst of this emergence of the struggle of a people against oppression that Maubere Pedagogy is built, even in the period when Timor was under Indonesian rule and constituted based, above all, on Paulo Freire, in his perspective of Popular Education, with great influence of Marxist authors such as Lenin, Mao Zedong and Amilcar Cabral. Among the actors involved in the construction of this pedagogical proposal are the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (FRETLIN), the group entitled House of Timores and the National Union of Timorese Students (UNETIM).

A process under construction

In 2004, the MST was invited to contribute to a process of training trainers in the popular education method for a literacy process in the country. Rubneuza Leandro de Souza, an educator and activist from the MST’s Education Sector in Pernambuco, recalls what the objective of this initiative was.

“The idea was to work with the popular education method because they had a very strong reference to Paulo Freire. One of the leaders was exiled to Portugal and there he got to know Paulo Freire’s method, and when he returned to Timor, he started to teach people to read and write in the fields, even using the ground as a blackboard, sticks as chalk, and taught people to read and write in the fields with elements of resistance. And that was fundamental to the resistance process.

The leadership cited by Rubneuza is Vicente Reis’Sahe’, who studied in Portugal, was one of the founders of FRETILIN and one of the creators of Maubere Pedagogy. A word with origins in the local language called Mombar, of the Mambai people, one of the largest communities in western Timor-Leste, but also one of the poorest and most oppressed by Portuguese colonial rule, Maubere was used by these as a synonym for illiterate and uneducated. However, FRETILIN in the struggle for independence sought to decolonize the subconscious and defend the memory of a people also from their linguistic traditions. In this way, Maubere is resignified as a term that represents, according to the Political Program of the FRETILIN of 1974, “to constitute a truly free and independent Timor, it is necessary that everyone, men, women, old, young, children, everyone knows how to read and write.”

Marcos Gehrke, a professor at the State University of the Midwest (UNICENTRO) in Paraná, was also involved in the construction of literacy programs in 2004 and 2005 with the MST and recalls the experience.

“The work took place from a bilingualism perspective. We went to do literacy training in Portuguese language with farmers from East Timor, inspired by Paulo Freire’s conception of education. They spoke the languages of their ethnic groups, but were retaking the Portuguese language, since they had been invaded again after the Portuguese withdrawal by Indonesia. It is a country that had to give up its language several times”.

Therefore, education was the possible political weapon for the Timorese to defend their rights with dignity. These rights go through, above all, the struggle for Agrarian Reform and the democratization of land. With 1.3 million inhabitants today, whose economy depends on the exportation of coffee and oil extracted from the ocean, but that about 90% of the population at the beginning of this century lived from agriculture, the country continues the challenge of overcoming the high rate of illiteracy, at least 50% of the adult population and 25% of children and young people between six and 16 years do not attend school.

The experience of internationalist solidarity in the field of education consisted of a one-year work, with a training course for trainers developed in four stages. This was because the people would then go to their communities to develop the process with local educators.

Photo: MST archive

Rubneuza recalls that the first (stage) lasted a month with two trainings in two different locations, Bucoli and Dare, each of 15 days, which had some challenges in its materialization. “A limiter we had there was the language, in the first training had around five languages, among them, the Portuguese of Portugal, so we used the symbologies for the staff to understand the work.”

The history of oppression and violence leaves sociocultural traces as oppressive as physical. At the time of the exchange of experiences between movements, a banking method of education was visible, whose challenge was presented and being built: a method of Timorese education that would allow the people to be the subject of their own history.

“When we were going to work the popular education method, we brought questions of an emancipating education, starting from a process of life history, of what they suffered with the oppression of Portugal, then Indonesia, so that they could abstract the elements from there and relate them to education: how can we build something that breaks with these elements?”, reports Rubneuza.

Marcos remembers that it was always the process of doing an analysis of the situation, of explaining popular education to them, because they had suffered a strong banking and authoritarian education.

“We adopted the methodology of generating words, coding and decoding words, always doing this critical analysis with these subjects, working with words from the world and their culture. We worked a lot with life stories, creating timelines, building maps of the territories that were also in dispute, because the Portuguese, after leaving Portugal, returned to take back these territories and generated agrarian conflicts.

Photo: MST archive

Solidarity among peoples

Education is one of the ways to build internationalist solidarity. However, the MST, throughout its 37 years of existence, has built an internationalist policy of solidarity that includes several principles that ensure respect for culture and for the knowledge that enables the emancipation of a people. In this sense, Rubneuza’s words show how important these internationalist actions are and also the need to care for the values and emancipating method in building it.

“The importance of the movement in contributing to this process, such as what we are doing on the African continent, is great. First, it is a two-way growth; we contribute to the processes in these countries and learn a lot by leaving our reality behind. Secondly, by working with the popular education method and having Paulo Freire as a reference, we cannot get there in a banking way, depositing it in people’s heads. The richness of popular education is to build people’s autonomy by taking their own path. The process of building with the other is very enriching”.

Parade on March 30 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the referendum that decided for the country’s independence from Indonesia. Photo: ANSA

After this return to history, it is possible to affirm that education remains a basic principle for a people to achieve emancipation. This is Paulo Freire’s centennial, and his legacy has crossed borders, oceans, languages, and the different realities of various peoples around the world. Even so, with so many differences, in a scenario of wars and geopolitical disputes, all of them cultivate the longing for freedom, sovereignty and popular autonomy.

It is exactly about an education of courage, an education that contributes to the people’s insertion in the social political process of their country, that Paulo Freire made a profound speech on April 2, 1963, when he closed the adult literacy course in Angicos, Rio Grande do Norte. Perhaps at that moment, he did not know that his legacy for an emancipating education would reach the hot fields of East Timor and there he would find fertile soil for the Maubere Pedagogy to flourish.


MST internal documents

Popular education in Timor-Leste

Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance (AMRT)

*Edited by Fernanda Alcântara