The first showers of the wet have changed the hills of Timor to a vibrant green after months of dry season. They also raise hopes – in 2005 the potato crop here failed due to a fungus, with reported deaths from starvation in our area. This year most farmers in the valley have planted their fields full of a supposed fungus-resistant strain of potatoes handed out by the government. The results have been mixed.
After a few bad wet seasons, many people here still receive World Food Program aid to supplement the vegetables, corn, beans (and occasional meat at festas). Cases of severe malnutrition amongst children under five still regularly present at the clinic, contributing to the high rates of infant mortality in the area.
Hunger is not a new experience. Many of the 250,000+ Timorese deaths during the Indonesian occupation of 1976-1999 were caused by famine, as people were denied access to their farms or held in internment camps for long periods. Their stories are full on, and we have to constantly remind ourselves of how far these people have come, and just how resilient they are.
This is the first time most people here have had regular access to a nurse who has benefited from a good medical education, and clinical practice in organisations that take professional development seriously. A world away from the health care system he now finds himself in which, frankly, has some large components completely missing. So no surprises, there’s a backlog of medical issues. And we have a lot to learn about how and why Timorese access (or choose not to access) care.
The nearest referral hospital is two hours (35 km!) down a bad road in a valley where access to a vehicle is difficult. The ambulance is unreliable and irregular. Despite this, we have had some positive outcomes from referring patients to the hospital, but sometimes people just don’t believe it’s worth taking their sick baby or relative out of the valley, where they may die away from family. It is hard to accept the decisions people make sometimes.
Unsurprisingly, the mental gymnastics of ‘thinking and planning ahead’ does at times feel like an irrelevant pursuit here – not yet really part of how things are done. A contributing factor to this may be the ‘loss of agency’ we sense that some people feel – which could come from 400 years of Portuguese colonialism and a brutal 25 years of Indonesian occupation.
We take solace from Palms’ philosophy to take time – learn the language and build relationships – to better understand the very different culture in which we now operate in, before rushing in.
Try and appreciate that if ‘improvements’ were easily made they would probably have been achieved already –maybe other factors are at play. Observe the community’s strengths and seek to work-in with the positive things that are already happening.
People here teach us a lot about deriving simple enjoyment from just being together. It’s rare to hear kids arguing, they roam the valley, free range playing, giggling and laughing. People, in general, appear to have an amazing capacity to accept what life’s circumstances bring.
Damian Rake and Mim Buchhorn, a nurse and environmental engineer respectively, are volunteering in Hatubuilico with the support of Palms Australia and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). A longer version of this story is available here.
Our most recent update from Fr Adriano:
“The community is happy to work with Mana Mim and Maun Damian and really appreciate their work.
Sometimes I see they live so simply, even more than me – a priest. They are a hidden witness and a great blessing for Palms.”