The mangoes are ripening in Timor-Leste. However, we rarely see here the bright hues of yellow and orange that adorn the fruit-&-veg section of your supermarket: most mango species here remain a deep green even when they’re ripe. This is disorientating to a novice such as myself.
The locals are quite content to eat the fruit before it has ripened anyway – they prefer not to take the risk of leaving it on the tree too long. A mango left is all too often a mango poached. Children make sport of throwing stones at mangoes in the trees in hope of dislodging one to their advantage. This can be problematic if you host such trees in your yard as your home will be subject to artillery fire both day and night. We recently had to withdraw our Maluk Timor medical volunteers from one such house afflicted not only by a hailstorm of rocks peppering their corrugated roof, but also the heavy footfalls of mango harvesters atop the house at all hours.
I’ve learned instead to appreciate the humble papaya, which grows to enormous size here and is sought somewhat less competitively. The papaya trees spring up to great heights in what seems like only weeks and are soon laden with clusters of mighty fruit pendulously hanging like sumptuous breasts.
If the ripe fruit is not to your taste I suggest you try your papaya in a sorbet spruced with lime. Or, if you must, strap on a helmet and go chasing mangoes among the local kids…
Such lessons of local culture are emanating from Bethany and I at this particular moment as we welcome an extraordinary colony of new volunteers. We went five months without any new faces arriving, watching our international team being slowly whittled down from almost twenty to less than five. With travel and border restrictions still very much in force it looked doubtful that we would replenish our numbers any time soon.
I would like to claim the credit for subsequently pulling off the best recruiting coup since the Washington Wizards brought Michael Jordan out of retirement, but I’m not sure it was much of my doing at all. We have been most abundantly and unexpectedly blessed.
In August we had two new doctors arrive, and in September our team grew by eight more. October added yet another two and suddenly our team was back up to full size, with volunteers having arrived from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Spain, India, Singapore and Australia.
It’s difficult to explain just how miraculous that feels when only months ago Bethany and I were genuinely discussing how we might manage if we were left as the last two internationals remaining.
To focus only on international volunteers is of course to detract from our seventy Timorese staff who enjoy no such luxury of fleeing to other countries when things get difficult. They remain the backbone of our operations whether the internationals come or go. However, they would not mind me saying that their confidence and output would be very greatly diminished by the total loss of international counterparts at their side.
Our new international team are now settling in well, learning Tetun and trying to make sense of what it is that we’re trying to do here. And that last point is not as easy to explain as you might think.
Part of the difficulty of explaining what we do is that any sense of clarity we once had has been somehow lost or obscured by the constant need to articulate it in terms of a vision, mission or set of objectives. Worse still, we have had to develop it into many sets of outputs, outcomes and indicators. After almost five years of having to learn this language of development and grant writing I have begun to utterly lose my grip of normal human communication.
I sat in a videoconference this week and heard a senior colleague explain their nutrition work in two incredibly ornate and technical sentences. I was initially impressed by her grasp of both the breadth and complexity of their work, and her ability to synthesise it so fluently into such a short and compelling pitch. And then it dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what she meant by any of it.
Frustratingly much of the language of international development has evolved with the express purpose of obfuscation rather than revelation. The artistry in this should not be underestimated – many a glittering career has been propelled skyward purely on linguistic agility. Ultimately your project is not judged on what you really achieved so much as how spectacularly you wax lyrical about your success in harmonising, mainstreaming and integrating the sustainable cross-sectoral capacity-building of key stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Disappointingly I’m finding it less than straightforward to unlearn this Orwellian nonsense and to once again communicate in lay terms. When someone asks me, as they did this past week, what it is we’re actually trying to achieve I am momentarily stumped. What are we doing… exactly… I wonder?
When I jettison the jargon and try to explain it in plain terms I find myself grasping for clarity. Surely it must be about helping people. Yes, that’s it. Ahh… better than that, we’re helping people to help people. Working to build up and improve local health services… it must be something of that kind. Once I get started I can begin to make sense of it and the words start to flow more easily.
But then a deeper question arises… a darker, niggling question that is really best ignored most days because such whispers can drag you into places of madness and deafening self-doubt. This harrowing existential question can be phrased in many ways but goes something like, “But are you actually making any difference?”
What?! Of course we are! We have outputs and outcomes and indicators that show that we are! We must be!
How can we really know?
During the recent school holidays we were still very busy with work (our new volunteers hadn’t yet arrived), so we afforded ourselves only a little time for respite. As a discipline we exiled ourselves from Dili for at least a few days to ensure we spent something approximating quality time with our kids. We headed into the mountains hoping to reach a town called Same (SAH-meh) situated not far from the south coast.
Tourism in Timor-Leste has always been a fledgling industry and COVID-19 has not been kind to it. Our first designated stop where we had intended to stay the night was all but abandoned. There remained the vestiges of a fine venture that had once blended tourism, agriculture and education (with a sparkling website to prove it) but the reality we witnessed was little more than a husk of forgotten glory. We moved on and tried our luck at a better known establishment, and at least found staff on site this time. I don’t like to be overly critical when one can very easily appreciate just how difficult running a tourism operation in Timor-Leste must be, but this second attempt proved to be yet another disappointment. Absurdly overpriced, it too looked neglected and withered. Mould and flaking paint and a dreadful silence. We were of course the only guests.
First there was no water. When the water came on, the entire shower assembly fell off the wall when we used it. Then the power went off altogether and we found that the generator we recalled from two years previous had been more recently replaced by a handful of candles.
We’ve learned not to be too bothered in such situations and we enjoyed the night all the same, playing hide-and-seek by the moonlight in the labyrinthine though now somewhat diminished gardens, and finding planets in the bright night sky.
But we couldn’t entirely shake our sense of melancholy. Someone had worked extremely hard to get both establishments into tight working order, but having since moved on, both seemed to be slipping slowly toward oblivion. Had those people made a difference? They would surely have believed so at the time.
I expect that tourism in Timor-Leste is almost certainly a more perplexing development challenge than health care, even before the ravages of COVID-19 border control. In terms of tourism, Timor-Leste really is almost entirely unspoilt.
By that I don’t just mean that you won’t see a Travelex and a Starbucks on every corner, nor do I mean that you’ll still find empty beaches with perfect turquoise waters, though both are true. Timor-Leste is a virgin land for tourists in which you don’t even feel like a tourist here, at least not in the manner to which we are accustomed. As tourists we expect someone to offer to change our money, serve us the drink of our preference, and ensure we have enough towels to feel dry and comfortable. The more established tourist hotspots go even further, lavishing their international guests with such pleasures that they begin to feel like royalty. This falsified and confected nonsense that we’ve come to think of as normal is not at all the tourist experience in Timor-Leste, where you are generally not treated as anything more than what you are: an obtrusive foreigner who is woefully out of place. That’s not to say you won’t be smiled at and welcomed in – Timorese hospitality is indeed very warm – but the trappings of commercial tourism that we’ve learned to expect are almost entirely absent. It is tourism in its most unadulterated form, for better and for worse.
In Bali I could instruct the barman to fetch me a champagne from the cellars of Château Pape Clément, and to serve it in a hollowed-out monkey skull: he’d telephone a friend and fifteen minutes later there’d be something in my hand that looked very plausibly like that which I had asked for. In Timor-Leste you might ask if they have anything other than Sprite, Coke or Bintang in the fridge (milk or water, perhaps?) and you will very likely get a blank expression and a polite ‘la iha’ (don’t have it), with no further endeavour. It’s not that they’re being lazy or disagreeable, it’s just that they legitimately don’t have what you wanted and furthermore can’t imagine why they should try to do anything to remedy that fact.
There are tourism projects in Timor-Leste trying to teach the skills and mannerisms that we have come to expect internationally from customer service, but so many of the essential components have to be learned as entirely new concepts. It’s a long road. As long as you don’t let that bother you the tourism experience is really something very special. The key is to throw out your expectations, avoid comparisons to other places you’ve been, and to enjoy the difference.
We continued our trip to the south through spectacular mountain passes and clusters of roadside Timorese dwellings. As usual the winding journey was seasoned with vomiting, but the road was generally far better than expected. We reached the municipality of Manufahi, which in my Tetun translates as “chicken-pig”. We kept our eyes peeled for any sight of the legendary chicken-pig but were alas disappointed.
We traversed the district’s capital, Same, and arrived at our accommodation which this time proved unexpectedly good. The following day we undertook the prime activity and reason of having chosen this particular destination: to visit the family of our long-time ‘home help’, Estela.
I was feeling very uneasy about the whole matter and wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. As a very white man with a very white family I am sometimes painfully cognisant of the apparent neo-colonialism of our very presence in Timor-Leste. Going to visit the humble home of our domestic help seemed to me almost the pinnacle of clichéd do-goodism, and I could envisage incredibly awkward scenes of being carried on a litter in procession through the village: the great white benefactors blessing the lowly natives with their awe-inspiring grandeur and munificence.
We made arrangements with Estela for a low-key morning tea, and I headed back into Same to pick up some provisions. Undoubtedly the only white man in the town I was hopeful of remaining inconspicuous. I began by causing a traffic obstruction, trying to drive my hulking white Prado (the preferred conveyance of all colonial oppressors) the wrong way up the market street. I’m sure they hardly noticed me.
I then wandered among the street vendors, all of whom seemed to be peddling exactly the same fare, while I ruminated on the likely trouble I would face for having brought only a few coins with me… I would need to break a $20 note at some point and that might not go well. I needn’t have worried – there is always a Chinese hypermarket and Same was no exception. Having broken my $20 I was able to buy some local fruit and get away without further incident.
As a family we drove further out of town from our accommodation, winding south toward a confluence of dry riverbeds. I wondered if we would find the place but Estela was at the roadside with a crowd of local children flagging us down. We loaded as many people into the car as we could and followed her directions down a meandering corrugated dirt track.
Shouts of ‘Malae!’ were heard from all sides, which is nothing unusual in Timor-Leste. This is what many Timorese children (and indeed adults) exclaim when they see a foreigner and it is rarely meant with any offense. However, in these remote parts the tone of exclamation carries the added urgency and astonishment of that which might come from your own mouth were you to indeed see a chicken-pig both flapping and charging toward you. Malae are rare creatures in these neighbourhoods.
We slipped into the village almost undetected, I think, our gleaming Prado crunching the stones of the village’s only avenue under its immense tyres. At their home we were warmly greeted by the family and neighbours, and ushered to sit under the eave of their bebak hut.
One of our former kittens, now a hefty cat which appeared better fed than any of its owners, was presented back to us for affirmation. Its name had evolved from Milky to Milkis but it was nonetheless recognisable.
We were informed that the local children had mostly refused to go to school for the morning for fear of missing the spectacle of the visiting malae. They sat clustered tightly together, staring at us and our otherworldly blonde children, too nervous and polite to partake in the morning tea until they were eventually urged.
After some broken conversation in mixtures of Tetun and English we tried to engage the kids in a game of handball on the neatly swept dirt of their front yard. The children watched with interest but scarcely any of them plucked up the courage to join in.
Things relaxed a little as we went for a walk, exploring the water source that trickles out of a rockface up behind their house, and wandering down to the wide stony riverbed nearby.
To our surprise they took us to see their other house, under construction.
We didn’t realise but the hut they lived in was not their own, and with funds we’d been sending they had begun constructing an impressive block-and-tile house on their own land a little further down the road.
This same family, growing slowly more prosperous, had also expanded their clan of seven children by three more, informally adopted, including a young toddler distressed by a very nasty discharging abscess on his neck. They eventually took our advice to seek medical attention for the boy, and he later recovered.
That afternoon we welcomed them back to our hotel, where the management very kindly allowed us to host them for dinner and a swim. It was the first time any of them had been in a swimming pool, and the squeals of delight emanating from an unrelenting game of tag could doubtless be heard for miles around.
I realised once it was all over that I needn’t have been so preoccupied with the optics of our visit to the village. I suspect we worry more about the apparent neocolonialism than they do. Our hosts seemed genuinely delighted to have us, and our kids rose to the occasion superbly. They rarely let us down.
We eventually made it to the south coast, a town called Betano. The black sand of the windswept beach, the azure waters and the swaying coconut palms were the reward, but with many warnings of crocodiles in these parts we didn’t stay long to enjoy it.
The tiny beachside restaurants were all closed except one which could offer only rice and greens, with an unspecified preparation time. We moved on.
On the journey homeward we reflected upon what we’d seen. We can’t really know what kind of impact we’ve had on Estela’s family, for better or for worse. Are we making any difference? I’d like to believe that we are: that her family now has the means to send she and her six siblings for further education, to build a sturdy house they can call their own, and to aid some of their own neighbours in their village.
Returning to my niggling question, ‘are we making any difference?’, I surmise that we are but not perhaps in the way we most often assume. We mostly think in terms of programs and projects, training and ‘capacity-building’, health system strengthening and in some instances saving lives. And yet I suspect that years from now the fruits of that work will be somewhat like the worn-down tourist establishments that disappointed us on our holiday: what remains will be in shadow – mouldy, cracked or simply forgotten – just a faded impression of better times.
But I think we do make a difference to certain people in certain instances in small and indiscernible ways. Maybe it’s Estela and her family. Maybe it’s a boy with an abscess on his neck, which untreated could have led to meningitis. Maybe it’s some of our seventy staff at Maluk Timor, who have watched us and worked alongside us these past years. We’ll never know for sure.
Maybe life is not about programs. We’re so often reminded here that the result of our work is not really in our hands anyway. We play our part and have to trust that the rest will be whatever it will be. Perhaps the only change that really matters is the unseen effect we have on the people around us – just doing what we can to reduce the suffering in their lives, even just a little, and helping them take one more step toward whatever it is they hope to find. Maybe that’s all anyone can do. I’m not sure that will read very well in my next Monitoring and Evaluation report, but it’s enough for me.