We wonder what used to grow in the deep, cavernous gullies before the Portuguese colonised 400 years ago to exploit sandalwood. We’re told burning the land indiscriminantly has slowed in recent years, but what remains after who-knowshow- many years of burning is less than 10 species of tree, including familiar eucalypts (often well-coppiced because they are used for firewood for cooking) and blackwattles.
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.
This makes the scholarships offered by the Blue Mountains Friendship Group for school fees an important contribution. It’s been good to see Jude Finch, their volunteer here, working with Padre Adriano to improve the accountability around how scholarships are distributed. Not a straightforward process in a place where extended family loyalties are strong, and relationships involve complex, longstanding and ongoing of balancing the give and take of ‘favours’.
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 0-5 yrs 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.
And they are tough mountain people: our favourite Katuas (wise old man), Philisberto, broke his arm last year in 3 places, an open fracture exposing the bone. He didn’t look for or receive western medical assistance: “just doesn’t work as well as it used to. Can’t lift heavy things” he tells us, in his matter of fact way.
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 2 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.
In addition to this ‘cross cultural orientation and sense making’, the basic activities of fetching provisions, fetching and boiling water for drinking, handwashing the clay out our clothes, fixing our water system (which is remarkably good at finding new ways to leak or block up) all in a new language takes time and effort.
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.
Those who lived through the independence struggle have interrupted education. People are amazingly gifted multilinguists however literacy rates are very low and numeracy is not great.
We take solace from Palms’ philosophy to take time – learn language and build relationships – to better understand the very different culture in which we now operate, 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. They know about contentment.
Roland Bunch wrote in his fantastic book ‘Two ears of Corn’ about how enthusiasm is the essential ingredient to small development projects in traditional rural settings. His experience has led him to the conclusion that if people are truly enthusiastic about trying something new, you are much safer from the paternalism of doing things ‘for’ rather than ‘with’ your host community. Trying to play a role in changing fatalism to enthusiasm is not easy – but we look for this enthusiasm to help direct us. Then the momentum for change in other areas might kick in.