August 30 marks an important date for Timor-Leste. And like most things here, it won't pass without a celebration.
The island, shaped like a crocodile, rises steeply between the Wetar Strait and the Banda Sea. Mountainous, tropical, hot and humid, with coffee, cinnamon and cocoa key crops. You'll find bananas growing beside the traffic lights in the city.
People say they bump into Kiwis everywhere, and there's a good handful of them in Timor-Leste. This year, VSA has 17 people here on a range of assignments including working in womens' employment and gender equity, early childhood education, business development, tourism and agriculture, principally supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There's also NZ Police, NZ Defence and a variety of other folk to share a tune with during waiata practice at the New Zealand Embassy.
You can guarantee there will be traffic congestion, parades, a formal Catholic Mass, guests of honour, singing, dancing and fireworks throughout the night. It will be loud and likely chaotic.
Interestingly, the Timorese lay claim to a version of Pokarekare Ana, which they will swear black and blue was "their" song first.
Non-government organisations abound; there appears to be much work to do. Currently dependent on its oil and gas (and a multitude of difficult conversations with Australia) Timor-Leste feels on the verge of something new. If only.
A focus on tourism, for example, brings up issues about infrastructure (the roads out in the municipalities can be dire); about resources (the water remains undrinkable); about accommodation and guiding options (few Timorese speak English); and an airport that is currently not quite fit for purpose.
Reconcile that against a country that has everything your usual Pacific Island holiday destination has in spades ... amazing scenery, great temperatures, turquoise seas with some of the best diving in the world and an emerging coffee culture that puts Wellington to shame. Fresh fruit and vegetables (six avocados for a dollar!) and people who are genuinely excited at seeing visitors.
It's a place full of chaotic energy. More than 62 per cent of the population of 1.5 million are under 25 (compare this to New Zealand, which is about 36 per cent). Children attend school for a half day because of limited teachers and classrooms. There are several schools in our neighbourhood and each day one group wearing blue and white uniforms leave, and another wearing green and yellow uniforms arrive.
Overall education levels are low, with a latest report citing figures as high as 78 per cent of primary pupils being unable to read.
And while it appears green and fecund with 75 per cent living in rural areas, a reliance on subsistence farming means large numbers of children face malnutrition and stunting. There is a high prevalence of childhood illnesses with under-nutrition contributing to 33 per cent of child mortality.
And there's an extremely high infant and maternal mortality rate, a demographic explosion with average fertility rates of 7.8 (one of the highest in the world) and 40 per cent of the population living below the national poverty line (55 cents per person per day each year).
Life expectancy is short. Our age group, the 50-plus boomers, is noticeably absent.
If the population is young and the issues complex, you need look no further than recent history for clues. After nearly 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and a brief civil war, Timor-Leste declared independence on the November 28, 1975. Nine days later, it was invaded by Indonesian forces and incorporated in 1976 as the province of Timor Timur.
The next 24 years saw a campaign against resistance fighters during which the occupiers killed between 104,000 to 183,000 Timorese citizens (from a population of around 800,000).
In 1999 talks began at the United Nations to hold a referendum to decide on Indonesia's offer of an autonomous status within its territory. Ninety-eight per cent of registered voters went to the polls and voted by a margin of more than 78 per cent to reject that proposal.
Between August and September pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. Killing approximately 2000 Timorese, they displaced over two thirds of the population and destroyed the bulk of the country's infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100 per cent of the country's electrical grid. This provides little comfort but at least a reason why the power is off a couple of hours, four days a week. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared overnight.
Finally on May 20, 2002, after three years of United Nations administration, Timor-Leste was formally recognised as an independent state.
Which brings us to the celebrations. On August 30 it will be 20 years since the referendum rejected Indonesia's offer to be an autonomous state.
The flags are up, the parties are planned. You can guarantee there will be traffic congestion, parades, a formal Catholic Mass, guests of honour, singing, dancing and fireworks throughout the night. It will be loud and likely chaotic. Youthfully enthusiastic, this young country will be making a statement about its past, and about its journey to independence.
• Ruth Mackenzie is a VSA volunteer based in Dili, Timor-Leste