An inglorious ending

A gloomy deluge on Maluk Timor’s headquarters

If our time in Timor was to be conceptualised as a long-distance race then this final lap would be one in which the seemingly triumphant runner was unexpectedly mauled by a bear. Bruised and bloodied, we are staggering to the line.

Perhaps that’s a little melodramatic. It certainly hasn’t been all bad. Two days ago Bethany and I officially passed the baton of Maluk Timor’s leadership over to our successors, Drs Raj and Lois. They’ve already been with us a full six months and couldn’t be better prepared for the task at hand. It’s hard to describe how wonderfully miraculous it feels to have two such capable and genuine servants ready to take over. Succession planning has always been a troubling question mark: having built up an NGO that punches above its weight, finding someone who would faithfully continue punching was no sure thing particularly when the meagre salary was taken into consideration. The arrival of Raj and Lois has been an extraordinary provision that allowed us to plan our departure with few regrets.

But little else has gone to plan these past four months.

I note that my last entry was back in December – has it been so long? December seems like an age ago, and looking back over photos it looks like we had a lot of fun. I can scarcely remember it.

It was our first Christmas in Dili and we did everything we could to soften the hard reality that our children would not be seeing the family, and that their presents had been held up by the interruption to freight services. It would be a different kind of Christmas.

But we turned that narrative on its head, trying to combine some classic Christmas traditions with some Timorese points of difference. We hosted a Carols Karaoke Night with mulled wine, we made gingerbread houses with friends, and the kids joined the church Nativity Play.

But we also adopted a Timorese teenage student from a disadvantaged home for three weeks as part of a cultural exchange: she lived with us, holidayed with us, and most assuredly now thinks that malae (foreigners) live a completely alien existence. The kids were momentarily downcast when they heard we would be sharing Christmas with a relative stranger. We weren’t entirely sure how well it would work out ourselves: some friends of ours also participated and their guest spent most the three weeks holed up in a bedroom refusing to speak to anyone. There was no guarantee it was going to go well. But when we shared a little of her backstory with our children they immediately responded and welcomed her wholeheartedly into the family. The tears flowed freely when the three weeks was up, with our children perhaps having learned something different this year about the spirit of Christmas.

So we made the best of the Christmas break, with a trip west to Balibo and then all the way to the farthest eastern tip of the country to Lakumorre, near Jaco Island.

Annika at Balibo

We stopped in with friends in Parlamentu (Lautem) again and explored a little more of the surrounds, including a local football semi-final between neighbouring towns and the ruins of a World War II Japanese bunker.

The adventures were definitely distinctive, though it’s easy to forget now (months later) the many irritations along the way. As highlighted in an earlier post, holidaying in Timor-Leste (particularly with children in tow) is still largely an exercise in endurance and I had the distinct sense this time that some of the idiosyncrasies have definitely lost whatever charm they once held for us. We’re ready for a holiday with running water and bath towels.

Returning to work in early January we were focussed on the mission at hand: we had projects to progress, and a succession plan to execute. It didn’t take long before our equilibrium was disturbed by a series of shocks within our organisation: fault-lines opened, trust was broken, old friendships were tested, and what ensued was deeply painful to us all. There is little of it that can be published on the open internet but we are pleased now to be re-emerging with our organisation intact, and hopefully the stronger for having endured it.

Play is interrupted by a rogue chicken – life is full of surprises

But as one apparent disaster began to recede into history another quickly followed to take its place. The miracle of Timor-Leste’s COVID-19 resistance was about to crumble.

Worldometer (www.worldometers.info) tells the story…

It began in January and February with increasingly high numbers of positives among quarantined Timorese returning from West Timor. It was clear that the virus had taken hold of the Indonesian side of the border, and with so much traffic across that long and scarcely-defended line it felt that the dam would surely break soon. The first positive cases in communities in East Timor were found in a remote cross-border area of Covalima, far from Dili. Then in early March there were cases found in neighbourhoods on Dili’s western fringe, and within a few weeks this had spread to almost fifty clusters in the densely populated capital. COVID-19 had finally arrived.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of Timor-Leste having been sitting naively and impotently like a disabled warship waiting for its final torpedo. From the very beginning the Timorese government has been on the front foot, with support from the Australian Government, WHO and many health partners (including Maluk Timor), and they’ve adjusted their strategy accordingly at every point. The 12-month delay between the first case and the onset of these clusters was not a matter of good fortune. Even now the government continues to execute a clear and sensible strategy: it’s been impressive to watch. Just as impressive has been the tireless work of the Ministry of Health – particularly their laboratory and their surveillance teams – which have served as the major bulwark preventing disaster. A year ago Timor-Leste didn’t have capacity to test for COVID-19, and was sending samples to Australia. That was quickly remedied, and the lab have sustained their testing uninterrupted ever since. Timor-Leste was as prepared for the arrival of cases as any of us could have hoped.

Lockdown was declared. We’d been through lockdown before – at this time last year – but it hadn’t felt very scary then as we were confident that COVID-19 hadn’t yet penetrated the communities of Dili. This time we knew it was different. Colleagues in the National Hospital had tested positive. Our own neighbourhood, Bebonuk quickly became the largest and most threatening cluster. The Bebonuk Plague was all around us. The government advice was home confinement which was achievable for us, but home confinement was always going to be a challenge in a country where ten people commonly share a two-roomed shack… which backs immediately on to another equally congested hut… how do you stop the spread of disease amidst that?

Moreover, I can’t even begin to guess at how local Timorese perceive their risk. They’re used to living with worse in their recent history: tuberculosis, malaria, dengue and the ravages of malnutrition, to say nothing of violent conflict. Some people believe the virus is a political invention to advance the interests of the elite. Others believe that Timorese people cannot be harmed by it. Their mighty wartime hero Xanana Gusmao shows no sign of being cowed by the threat of contagion. In any case, if SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that mostly leaves the young unscathed does this country of young people have much to be afraid of? One can certainly imagine why a young Timorese person might ask exactly that.

While some live in denial, fatalism or complacency, others are wracked by anxiety. Fear and superstition abound and these manifest themselves in a thousand different ways. Any collective understanding of germ theory is tenuous at best, so talking about microbes and infection control is as foreign as any language we can speak here. Facebook is among the leading sources of health information, and the conspiracy theories and scaremongering that spread faster than truth are having their own impact. Even among health workers many are expressing doubts as to whether they’ll accept a COVID-19 vaccine. So how will people respond to the arrival of the pandemic? There is clearly no single answer.

We’ve tried to play our part by following government advice. We closed down as much of Maluk Timor as we could, limiting access to the office, and posting people to ‘work-from-home’ duties. At the same time we deployed our COVID Team to support the government in the national roll out of COVID vaccine training.

Maluk Timor’s Dra Sofia (in blue, at the table) in Bobonaro, near the Indonesian border.

Disastrously the Family Medicine Program (FMP), which has been Bethany’s major project for the past three years, was again suspended.

To put this in context, we had planned our departure from Dili around the scheduled conclusion of this diploma. The 24 registrars are more than two years into their course, and have five weeks of rotations remaining before their final exam. That was all scheduled to happen in April, so we planned to leave in May. Suddenly it was all on hold – so near the finish line – with no certainty whatsoever about when it could recommence. Our team of FMP international clinical supervisors weren’t going to be able to sit and wait for an unscheduled restart, and the registrars themselves were told they were being recalled to the workforce. We were going to be denied our finish.

Practical (OSCE) examination in the Family Medicine Program

Bethany pulled out all stops in negotiations, and thankfully found willing allies on all sides. I put this down to the quality of relationships she’s built here over these past years, because when she went knocking she found the doors opening almost everywhere. Our counterpart at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons was equally adaptable, and the new program was launched with less than two weeks lost to the lockdown interruption. Almost overnight the FMP training was reprogrammed as an online course, to be delivered over Zoom videoconferencing. I’ll never be able to articulate how complex a transition this was, moving from 16 unique clinical placements to an online teaching platform in a country with appallingly unreliable internet. Timorese clinical educators who had never used Zoom before were suddenly hosting their own videoconferences. It was extraordinary, and has propelled the medical education sector here into the digital era in an unexpected but potentially profound way.

So the exams are still scheduled for April, and we still expect to leave in May.

Lockdown meant closure of schools, so our four kids were back to online learning in our kitchen. At least this time we were at home with them, which was better… and worse. Trying to get our own work done (including the transition to this new FMP model) whilst undertaking craft projects and teaching handwriting skills was not a balance anyone would want to keep up for long. To break up the monotony of being confined to home, we invented all kinds of new games and sports. Old gym mats were deployed on the back lawn for cartwheels, forward somersaults and Ninja Warrior sessions.

A litter of five new bunnies came at just the right time too.

Just as we were finding our rhythm we hit the next bump in the road, just a week before our expected handover of leadership: positive COVID-19 cases among Maluk Timor staff. With almost a hundred staff, some of whom lived among the fifty clusters in Dili, this was not totally unexpected. However, it did trigger a new level of fear and anxiety among our staff, and interrupted our already curtailed activities even further. Many of us had to be tested as contacts, and to auto-isolate.

The scheduled handover – planned for almost nine months – was beginning to look suspiciously like rats deserting a sinking ship. Our organisation had been through the wringer in January and February, and we were still finalising a major management restructure and a full salary review. We now had COVID-19 cases, our activities partially suspended, and our staff feeling terrorised. The COVID-19 vaccine, the first doses of which are arriving on Monday, would surely help dampen people’s anxieties (if they agreed to have it), but that could still be months away for our staff. How does one pass the baton confidently in such circumstances?

We did it the only way that anything gets done in Timor – using Whats App.

We sent messages to notify staff, and introduced the new Executive Director and Clinical Director as best we could. The new management structure was socialised the same way. It lacked any of the pomp and ceremony, nor even the simple warmth and practicality, of a face-to-face event. There would be no farewell speeches, no parties, possibly no further meeting with anyone at all.

This is our inglorious ending. If we had hopes of a victory lap they have been soundly laid to rest. We still have a last surge in front of us to complete our work in April and early May, and then a scramble to pack up five years of our life and head on home, via quarantine in Darwin.

Sometimes you do your best and things just don’t quite work out how you expect. On our holiday we went fishing a few times, without much success. My designated job was to dive in with the mask and snorkel to free our hooks from the many rocky snags, sometimes up to a dozen times in a single trip. Levi got snagged when fishing off the beach at Lakumorre and the locals laughed as the foolish white man swam back in again to fetch it. I held my breath and followed the line down to the bottom, finding that it tracked back under a coral ledge. There was a degree of resistance but I eventually pulled it free only to find a sea-snake on the end of it. Levi reeled it in… it wasn’t the catch we were after, but it was memorable.

I don’t like to suggest that our finish will be akin to catching a sea-snake but however this story ends, we can be confident it won’t be quickly forgotten.

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Plugging the leaks

I remember growing up in arid Western Australia and hearing a good deal about El Niño as the mysterious cause of searing drought, but the Little Boy’s sister received comparatively little attention. La Niña, as she is known, is the same phenomenon in reverse. This weather pattern blows warm surface water and the accompanying atmospheric moisture west across the Pacific where it falls unceremoniously and in prodigious volume upon the rusted iron or thatched roofs of Timor-Leste.

Late yesterday afternoon we witnessed a fine example of this seasonal mischief. I found myself atop a rickety ladder in monsoonal rain clearing the heavily laden gutters, and uneasily watching the water rising in our backyard. 

By evening we found out that the roof in one of our volunteers’ houses had proven less than a match for La Niña, and that our very own bedroom ceiling had also permitted a minor inundation that thankfully was mostly soaked up by a spare pillow. It was time to plug the leaks. 

Micah and Miriam building a dam in Aileu

The nice thing about all this rain is that it turns the dusty brown mountain-scapes of Timor-Leste green.

It’s always a pleasure to get out of coastal Dili and up into the countryside, where the spectacular ‘mother trees’ shade the coffee growing beneath.

But the rain brings its troubles too, with leaks and floods all too often a problem. There is the temptation to look for quick solutions to patch things up: covering a hole or repainting a water-damaged ceiling without really addressing the problem.

We all face this temptation, metaphorically speaking. Here in Dili this opportunity presents itself daily: this week it was a hospital asking us to provide soap for basic hand-washing. How could such a request come from a major hospital, the second largest in the country? Sure, we could provide soap. For a week, or perhaps even a few months. But that would be a pathetic cover-up of a much more concerning problem.

However, whilst we all pontificate superciliously on the importance of sustainability in development, there are definitely times when a simple patch-up job is needed.

Explaining to a pregnant woman in a remote area that what is needed is robust and strategic investment in health systems, capacity building and community engagement will only get you so far. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and help. Through the COVID-19 State of Emergency period we’ve been in a fortunate position to distribute vast quantities of basic medical equipment and infection control supplies (mostly funded by the Australian Government), and whilst this is only addressing the tip of the iceberg with respect to the far greater needs of the health system, you only have to crash into that tip to sink your ocean-liner. Tips of icebergs should not be dismissed so presumptively.

On the road to Same, Manufahi

Last month I took a road trip back to Same for the midterm review of the Ministry of Health’s 20 year strategic plan. All of the top brass of the Ministry were there, and I was astonished to be clapped on the shoulder during a coffee break and hauled over to join an elite table of senior dignitaries. Seated with the Minister, Vice-Minister, Director General and other key advisors I was very pleased to be wearing shoes.

It had taken me the entire three-hour journey to Same to realise that I had only packed my sneakers for the three-day event. Thankfully my colleague was able to lend me a pair of his own (which fitted rather well), while he sacrificially went about in slippers that we agreed could plausibly pass as haute couture. It was a rather crude but relievingly effective patch-up of a serious problem. Never underestimate the patch-up.

But of course all of us have experienced a patch that failed, only to wish we’d taken a more conscientious approach to solving the underlying problem. As the water was rising in my yard yesterday I went to the boundary wall to see if our drain hole remained patent. This hole, crudely hewn through the rendered cinder-block wall at ground level, allows excess water to flow in a mighty torrent into the lane-way next door, preventing flooding on our property. It is often blocked up: sometimes by garden debris, but perhaps more often because the neighbours seemingly don’t appreciate our excess water turning their driveway into a Venetian canal. Taking a crowbar, I recanalised the blocked hole as best I could, trying to dislodge whatever obstruction the neighbours had used to occlude it. Water began to flow, but not as quickly as I had hoped. As the deluge continued I contemplated wandering into the laneway to resolve the issue from their side of the wall, but recalling that these same neighbours keep an eight-foot saltwater crocodile on their premises I relented.

Sometimes our solutions to problems really only pass the problem on to someone else, or kick the can a little further down the road. I’m currently mired in a power struggle with a Timorese training institution over our planned COVID-19 refresher training, planned to run in a district hospital next week. The problem is that certain government counterparts are insisting that all participants be paid (in addition to receiving the training and a free lunch) a further five dollars ‘for transport’, for each day of the training. This is not at all unusual in that participants often have to travel from nearby health centres to attend training of this kind, but in this case the participants will all be receiving the training in their usual place of work, during usual work hours. Hence my refusal to pay additional money ‘for transport’. It’s very likely the whole week of training will be cancelled over this impasse.

It’s not that I object to paying the Timorese health staff more money. They can hardly be described as being overpaid, with a doctor’s salary fixed at $610/month. What I object to is the perpetuation of an unstated message that reads “you are doing us a favour by turning up to this training, and we’re prepared to pay you for that kindness.” We are battling hard to promote a contrasting ethos in which clinicians value excellence and pursue their own professional development as an end in itself, rather than only doing so because someone paid them a gratuity to attend. And yet we are a long way from achieving that – one might sensibly argue that we should just give in and pay the $5 – at least then we’ll have full attendance.

Who wouldn’t want to come along to Maluk Timor’s COVID-19 training?

Yet to give in to this only drains the water into someone else’s driveway. Timorese people tell me of the days after independence when citizens would be paid $3 each on a Friday afternoon to clean up the litter and debris in their own communities. What a great initiative… apparently the streets looked great… until it stopped. The same people tell me that after the incentive was wound back, community leaders couldn’t get anyone to pick up anything unless they were paid their $3. These kind of misguided initiatives have flooded the driveway that we’re now wading through.

We make plenty of mistakes of our own, but our team is trying to lay the groundwork for a better future.

The folk in green shirts above are PSFs (community health volunteers) who are being trained and supported as health focal points in their communities on Atauro Island. We hope that empowering them, using non-financial levers that drive behaviour and motivation, will bring about more lasting results.

Human behaviour is a strange and bothersome thing. I remember not wanting to learn how to ride a bike when I was six years old – presumably something about fear of failure or not wanting to face the awkward trial-and-error phase of mastering a new skill. Looking for ways to motivate people toward doing something that will ultimately be profitable and personally satisfying is so much harder than we logically imagine it to be, yet who among us lives up to even our own beliefs about how we ought to live?

We spend a lot of time with our fantastic team of international volunteers musing about such things. The photo below was taken during an evening when we discussed success and failure, contemplating what success might look like in our roles as mentors, where such success is generally a function of the performance of others.

Ultimately we recognise that the only success that counts for us is the vicarious success we experience through our Timorese team and colleagues. But that’s not such an easy thing to come to grips with in real practice, with our own egos and psychological needs to be considered.

In November our teams gave us great satisfaction as they presented their programs to their partners and colleagues. It’s extraordinary how far Maluk Timor has come in just three years, and we are very proud of all that they’ve achieved.

The kind of achievement we’re looking for is not the patch-up, nor the shifting of problems into the neighbour’s driveway, but the true resolution of a root cause. And that is something experienced only very occasionally. The truth remains that the problems in Timor-Leste run deep, and that three years is only enough to make a start.

I attended two funerals in November, only a week apart. They were very different, involving both extremes of human life expectancy: an infant and an elderly man. Timorese funerals are colourful and melodious, and generally very well attended. Remarkably they are usually held the day after the bereavement, leaving the family only hours (amidst their raw grief) to throw together an event that can involve hundreds or even thousands of mourners. I marvelled at how efficiently yet elaborately those funerals were composed, in such a very short time. And then it occurred to me: the Timorese have just had far too much practice.

Having endured centuries of colonialism then more recent violent subjugation the Timorese people haven’t yet completely awoken from their nightmare. Twenty years after independence, in spite of peace and the steady march of human progress and prosperity, most people of Timor-Leste scarcely get through any given year without the premature death of a member of their family. Somehow this is normal and yet it absolutely shouldn’t be. It isn’t normal to have one of your siblings die before adulthood, to have one of your children (or nieces or nephews) die in infancy, or to have one of your parents die in their forties or fifties. That shouldn’t be normal, yet it is certainly typical.

I was describing this to Gordon Peake, author of Beloved Land (mandatory reading for those of us living here), in a recent webinar – explaining how we build our programs to work toward longer partnerships and genuine lasting gains. We don’t always achieve everything we strive for but we definitely wrestle with these questions as we go. I described to him the outstanding progress of our HIV team (some of whom are pictured below, with a Ministry of Health colleague) who have set a new standard for what HIV care looks like in Timor-Leste, with full participation of the Ministry of Health as partners.

We hope this brand of commitment is not lost on our Timorese colleagues. It may be coincidental that we just had our MoU renewed (an MoU that took us two long years to win) for an additional three years without us having even asked for the extension, but I like to think it’s a measure of the trust that is developing in this partnership.

And so the adventures continue. Our children share with us in this tumultuous ride through the colour, mystery, tragedy and delight of living in Timor-Leste. Meanwhile Bethany and I celebrated 20 years of marriage – surely a journey of equal wonder.

And now we await our first Christmas in Dili, and the beginning of another year.

We don’t know what Christmas will look or feel like here but there are bound to be surprises. Surprises like finding your backyard looking even more disorderly than usual and discovering that the implausible excuse that “it was a monkey” turns out to be true… with photographic evidence to prove it.

Making a difference

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.

Dr Eleanor farewells Karolina after two years of work with our HIV Team

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. 

The growth of our Maluk Timor team since 2017

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. 

Bethany chatting with the Dr Odete Freitas Belo, the Minister for Health.

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!

Mustn’t we? 

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.  

Dawn or dusk?

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I can recall moments in my past when, caught in a mood of whimsical distraction, I’ve wondered whether I could tell dawn from dusk purely by observation. I assume the mathematics of the solar movement and light must be close to identical, so how is it that we feel we somehow know the twilight of morning to be so different from that of the evening?

Back in Australia there are many telltale signs that betray the answer. The stillness of the crisp morning air with its blanket of glistening dew is quite unmistakable. Yet in the tropics the differences can be far less pronounced: there is no dew at this time of year and certainly no chill of morning. The evening can be just as still as the dawn.

It is a disorientation of this nature that accompanies me now. In these strange days it feels like time is measured primarily by the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic and the many restrictions that stalk in its shadow. In Timor-Leste we have thus far been spared: just 24 confirmed cases, and none for several months. From March to June we skittered furiously like flies in a bottle, yet now there is relative calm and our fatigue has caught up with us. It feels like the release at the end of a pressured day. Surely it is dusk.

Yet we brace ourselves for worse: with hundreds now entering from Indonesia, where the virus has a solid foothold, it feels inevitable that the real trouble lies yet ahead of us. Perhaps this stillness we’re experiencing is actually the quiet of dawn.

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Returning to an earlier unfinished story, you may recall my car accident of April: A motorcyclist and his female passenger flew headlong over my bonnet and landed dreadfully on the road in front of me. The young man clearly fractured his femur (thigh bone) but I was most concerned about the young woman who at first appeared to have suffered a critical head injury.

It took some weeks for this whole matter to be resolved. A visit to the family of the injured parties was arranged to settle the matter of reparations. It was a typically Timorese affair and I felt very much out of my depth. Several of my colleagues agreed to attend the house with me, and I felt every bit as useless as a colonist being led to meet the village chieftain.

Street addresses aren’t yet a functional concept in Dili, so we arranged a rendezvous on a main road in town, and trailed a silver hatchback to a distant part of town that I’d never visited. We pulled the car into their driveway which served several modestly prosperous homes. A young woman was jigging an infant in her arms, watching us arrive with a curious scowl. Was she a family member? Did she know who I was? That I was the one?

Stepping hesitantly forward with my two colleagues we were greeted warmly by several muscular men in their thirties and forties. I didn’t recognise anyone yet from the accident. Pulling plastic chairs around a low table set at the front of the house, they gestured for us to sit and barked orders to someone in the house to hurry out with refreshments.

We sat in a loose circle. The plastic chair was heavily reclined and I was unsure of the most fitting posture for this occasion. To sit forward might look overly anxious, but to recline right back would be disrespectful. Forwards it was. I was trying my best to look friendly yet solemn, sympathetic yet not necessarily ashamed or guilty. After all, by my reckoning the fault of the accident lay far more with the distracted speeding motorcyclist, but I assumed they weren’t going to see it that way. I can only imagine that in trying to exhibit all of those conflicting feelings simultaneously my face probably came off looking just pained and twisted, like a man who has inadvertently sat on a very wet chair and is torn between the discomfort of wallowing in it and the humiliation of standing up with a thoroughly soaked posterior.

Thankfully my Timorese friends did most of the talking. First it was the salutations and introductions, followed by the all-important fishing for mutual relatives or contacts. This hunt never takes long in Timor-Leste: there were three or four close connections or mutual acquaintances rapidly identified, and soon there was slightly-exaggerated laughter and the exchange of smirks and anecdotes. This is standard business practice in Timor: first find out who you’re dealing with, and who they’re connected to.

I asked about the wellbeing of the two riders – a mystery that had bothered me for weeks. Not long after the accident I had heard that the young woman ‘was fine’, but I found that very hard to believe. To my great reassurance they insisted that she had not suffered any lasting effects, and she featured no further in the conversation. The focus was on the young man with the broken femur. The X-rays were displayed for me to view and I served up my finest salad of furrowed brow, nods of concern and knowing looks.

Our hosts regaled us with an anthology of stories detailing their previous motorcycle mishaps. They shared one tale of a family member who, after an accident, had insisted that the other party purchase him a brand new motorbike. That motorbike was then involved in another crash several days later and the family judged this to mean that the young man had been greedy and brought the bad luck upon himself. The stories went on and I was forced to utterly discard any thought of applying a no-claim bonus to this family of recurrent motor-vehicle victimhood.

I was waiting for the crucial negotiation on payment: how much was I going to have to pay? Evidently such a sensitive topic is very difficult to raise, and neither party was prepared to break the deadlock. I had long finished my drink and sun was getting low. We adjourned into the house to meet the young man, who sat miserably on a mattress on the floor, legs outstretched in front of him. The operation appeared to have gone well, but it would still be sometime before he was back up and walking again. Again, I mustered my best looks of sympathy and concern, trying not to appear pathetic.

Eventually we were able to leave but still without clarity on reparations. The mood had been warm throughout but the sting was in the tail: their eventual demand, received later that evening, was far higher than any of our party had expected. I was advised to pay it nonetheless, and I relented. Another meeting followed at the police station the following day, a hefty wad of cash exchanged hands and the matter was settled.

However frustrating it was to have carried the fault for something that was (at worst) a shared responsibility I reminded myself very often throughout the experience that I could have been visiting a cemetery with the family rather than merely a grumpy lad on a mattress. That thought was enough to soften any bruising sense of loss.

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If you spend time wallowing in self-pity here you’ve either been here far too long or you’re simply blind to your surroundings. There’s not a Timorese family spared from the ravages of history, poverty, violence or illness. Though the number of COVID-19 cases here has remained low the impact of the State of Emergency – the loss of livelihoods and the interruption of essential services – has been predictably acute.

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Our ceremony of thanks, acknowledging the many health staff who volunteered to work in the frontline

That’s to say nothing of the fear of the unknown. Mythological beliefs about the virus abound, in spite of our best efforts through training and social media. Increasingly people seem to believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is either a hoax, or that it doesn’t affect Timorese people: they’re impervious. I hope that’s true – it remains an untested hypothesis. If this is only the dawn then we’ll surely find out.

It has proven challenging to maintain momentum in our COVID-19 projects as the pressing sense of urgency from March and April has clearly dissipated. The upside of this lull is that it has allowed us to resume a lot of our regular program work: our TB team launched a new project on multidrug-resistant TB this week, the Family Medicine Program has resumed, and most of our staff are back on regular duties.

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Our Psychological First Aid training team

Meanwhile I’ve been undertaking a series of interviews with senior health figures to help determine our Maluk Timor strategy for the coming years. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with a former Prime Minister, as well as almost every Health Minister that Timor-Leste has ever had. It’s been like the realisation of a dream to meet one on one with some of the best minds in the country, to hear of their hopes and fears for the future of health, and to explore with each of them the role that Maluk Timor may have to play in that future.

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It all feels unfamiliar. I remember very clearly, not so long ago, sitting in the main hall at the National Institute of Health feeling bitterly frustrated, watching all the people that mattered laughing and backslapping while Maluk Timor remained relatively shunned. It could take us many months to find our way into a single meeting with even one of those people. We were doing everything we knew how to but someone it wasn’t enough. Well, those days are long gone.

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Now our kids are taking joyrides in Sr José Ramos Horta’s Mini Moke.

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Or checking out his collection of vintage motors.

IMG_2952 (1)Or we’re being profiled by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) on their Facebook page. But if one ever gets a little too big for one’s boots there is always homeschooling to deliver a crushing fall back to earth.

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COVID-19 has spawned innumerable tales of homeschooling troubles and has doubtless elevated the status of teachers more spectacularly than any event in human history. Our stories will be familiar to many: travails of technology failures, realisations of how much schooling has moved on in the last thirty years, and epiphanies about our own children that might have otherwise gone undiscovered for years to come. It wasn’t all bad, but the need to push so much of our own work into the evenings took a heavy toll, particularly on Bethany who carried more than her share of the homeschooling load. Daddy’s Homeschool involved a greater-than-usual inclusion of Nerf Gun-related activities in the curriculum.

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Perhaps what differentiates dawn from dusk is more experiential. My foggy-headed stupor of an early morning feels very little like the bone-weary fatigue of the late afternoon. By the end of the June it was that fatigue that was upon us. After months of sustained and relentless tempo – at work and at home – we collapsed into school holidays and took some dedicated time off. Well, almost: the laptops and smartphones went with us and we didn’t quite disconnect, but it was definitely a release.

3163c78b-6984-4daa-bbf5-33c3c9a72903First it was our usual haven of Atauro Island with a few other families whose children were also socially-starved and ready to explode. The ferry trip over was somewhat confronting: it felt more like a refugee boat as social distancing gave way to a crowded deck of seasick voyagers, many of whom paraded their semi-digested breakfasts in spectacular displays of iridescent colour.

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“Do we have to go on the Vomit Boat again, Dad?”

But once we were there, we basked in the ocean breeze, took afternoon naps, and snorkelled offshore… we even had time to complete a 997-piece jigsaw puzzle.

It’s funny how much those last three pieces can mean to you when you don’t have them.

We were treated to our own episode of Blue Planet as a huge school of juvenile dolphins cruised right in front of our snorkelling boat.Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 10.06.32 pm

A few days later we ventured to the farthest eastern tip of Timor-Leste, the legendary Jaco Island. Staying with friends in Lautem, we undertook the customary day-trip to Jaco. After almost two hours on the road, our journey was interrupted:

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It had happened only minutes earlier, and thankfully no one was injured. But the gathering crowd were excited to see our Prado arrive with the winch readily visible. I’d never used the winch before but I couldn’t let my hesitancy deny the expectations of the onlookers. Bethany seemed to have some idea of what was involved, so we gave it a shot.

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Easy does it…

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Good as new. 

Feeling cheerful after our success we soon arrived at the beach and took the short boat-trip across the strait to the uninhabited sanctuary that is Jaco Island. Having heard so much about it since our arrival in Timor four years ago I was wary of being disappointed… but it was everything they said it was.

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Miriam

Lautem, Timor’s eastern-most municipality, was a surprising change from Dili and well worth the many hours of winding roads.

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Near Parlamentu we swam in the crystal clear waters of a natural spring, and we enjoyed some peaceful days away from the pressures of Dili. But the break was short-lived (and much interrupted by intrusions from work), and we were soon back at our posts at Maluk Timor with our team.

Whilst we’ve continued to build our excellent crew of local staff – now almost 70 in number – we’ve continued to draw heavily on the generosity of international volunteers.

IMG_3120Through the frantic months gone by we had retained most of that team, but their other life commitments were now drawing them away and with little opportunity to recruit new people our team of mentors was shrinking.

We recently farewelled our dear friends Drs Dianne and Lindsay who served so faithfully with us for two years.

Today we farewelled two more of our brightest and best, Drs Chris and Rosie:

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One last game of Monopoly Deal with our kids…

And there are others who have either just left or very soon will. Dawn or dusk? It certainly feels like nightfall in this respect with so many of our trusted colleagues moving on.

But perhaps we should view this as a dawn instead. We’re definitely experiencing a new beginning in Maluk Timor, with so many excellent and capable new Timorese staff joining our ranks in recent months. We’re less reliant on internationals than ever we were.

We’ve got new projects launching all around us: just this week we launched our smartphone app called Haroman. The word (ha-ROH-man) means to bring light or enlighten, and we’ve chosen to use it instead of ASTEROID. I was proud of the ASTEROID acronym but it is a word that means nothing in Timor, and most inconveniently it appears to have no direct translation. The new Minister of Health just shook her head ruefully, “Such a strange name…”. We had to run a competition to muster up a new name, and with Tetun having such a limited vocabulary it’s rather more difficult than you might imagine. The word for ‘light bulb’ also means ‘pustule’ (pimple), which makes perfect sense when you think about it, so you have to be careful what you choose.

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Haroman was the winner, and we were delighted to kick things off with a rocking ceremony on Monday featuring the Australian Ambassador (ASTEROID is funded by the Australian Government, and the app developed by Catalpa International), senior figures from the Ministry of Health, and local band The Kraken.

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And we ended up on TV again…

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This app is part of our three-year infectious diseases training project (ASTEROID) that will deliver core training to all 13 municipalities, helping to identify and resist infectious threats. The international situation on COVID-19 only underscores the importance of this work, so ASTEROID is getting all the support it needs.

Without our usual winter trip back to Australia this year is already beginning to feel like an endurance event, but we mustn’t be overcome. There are new beginnings all around us and, though we’re sad to see some of our best people leaving us, we have many more coming in to join us soon. There will be renewal, and the trajectory is most definitely sharply upward.

IMG_2113A few months ago Bethany had a significant birthday and we had what seemed a fairly typical afternoon tea at work. But actually there was nothing typical about it. I was really moved to read the emotion on the faces of our staff who sung with such affection to celebrate the occasion. Sometimes you suffer niggling doubts in your mind, as directors, as to the allegiance of your staff. Any such doubts were dispelled that afternoon and it was a great encouragement to us that what we’re doing here does seem to matter – to our staff if no one else.

 

The remnant (part 2)

(Continued from part 1)

It’s fair to say that we’ve struggled at times, since launching Maluk Timor in the wake of our inglorious departure from Bairo Pite Clinic, to restore our credibility and elevate our rebranded organisation into the collective consciousness of our Timorese health partners. There are many other better-funded health NGOs in town and we’ve often felt like the new kid battling to make his mark on the world.

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Yep, this looks like our new HIV centre… bit of a fixer-upper but we’ll make it work.

It wasn’t self-doubt: we always had confidence in the quality and sincerity of what we were doing and forged on ahead trusting that some day someone might notice us and see the value in what we do. The long and winding campaign to secure our MoU with the Ministry of Health was the defining story of 2018 and 2019 for us, so we began 2020 with fresh optimism that finally we could move forward. Maybe we’d be allowed to eat at the grown-ups’ table.

477320e9-85f9-416b-96d5-69a9f22cd3deThen there was COVID-19 and the hurried exodus of internationals, with the result being that Maluk Timor became almost an overnight sensation, the new darling of the health sector. It was a recapitulation of the Steven Bradbury story to some extent: as all the other speed-skaters slipped and fell it was the last man standing who carried off the gold medal. But we mustn’t forget that he still had to be good enough to be in that race, and so did we.

As I recounted in part 1, we had retained a strong, highly skilled and committed team in the country when others had been forced to retreat. Somewhat fortuitously, we had been preparing and drilling that team in precisely the skills that were needed for this crisis, so we were ready to respond when the call came.

Suddenly we were headlining the Australian Government’s aid response in Timor-Leste, and we were ‘besties’ with the senior directors of the government’s health response. I think my recognition of our new standing really struck home during one of many lengthy meetings with the Ministry of Health. I have attended my share of these and, as sometimes happens, on this occasion I had been summoned forward to sit at the main Boardroom table amidst the various national directors. During this five-hour-meeting news filtered through that the State of Emergency had been declared and that we would no longer be able to drive in Dili without a freshly laminated ID card from the Ministry of Health. We were shut down.

Impossible! We had a full training schedule underway!

The Whats App feed was going crazy as everyone scrambled to send their staff to the appropriate government department in a nearby building to compete for these ID cards which were evidently in very short supply. We tried to sustain our attention on the heavy discussions at the table but all of this was proving very distracting.

1F3AE79E-7550-4DAF-8050-A44CE68A8423 (2)To my astonishment a senior government official – a man who had arm-wrestled me for two years as part of our MoU process – messaged me from across the room to ask how many ID cards I wanted. Trying not to be greedy, I responded with a request for twenty. Minutes later he very conspicuously manoeuvred himself through the formally-assembled meeting and deposited a pile of lanyards on the Board table right in front of me. Some of my friends from other health organisations looked on in horrified envy, while all I could manage was a sheepish smile, like the pimply nerd who had just been kissed by the belle of the ball. We had never been on the end of such privileged treatment.

Maluk Timor was now being referenced daily by political figures in the press, on social media, and at every meeting we attended. Having thrown our team into the field at a time when so many others had been forced to recall theirs our collective expertise and enthusiasm for this work began to speak very loudly for us. This was aided by a newly-formed but very active Communications team who were lighting up Facebook in Timor-Leste on our behalf.

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Designing the COVID-19 isolation facility

The tempo behind the scenes was absolutely furious. We were thrashing out new training programs, brokering new deals and partnerships, advising on all manner of emergency preparations, and trying to sequester and protect a group of recently-returned cardiac surgery patients from Australia. We doubled down on training, clinical and non-clinical, including taking the lead on a Psychological First Aid package that was in heavy demand.

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Perhaps our best (or most ambitious) idea was to equip 43 Timorese doctors – the registrars from the Family Medicine Program whom we’d been training these past years – as educators who could take the COVID-19 training materials we had freshly developed to every health centre in the country. That’s the thing about Timor-Leste – almost everything we do as expats revolves around Dili, yet three quarters of the population live in small villages scattered throughout the rugged and forested mountains, with very difficult road access. Reaching the seventy or so government health centres outside of Dili is an enormous challenge, especially during a State of Emergency when travel is restricted.

We didn’t realise when we first dreamt up this scheme how critical this work was going to become. Our team worked day and night to create and translate a curriculum of COVID-19 training materials that were tailored to suit remote Timorese health centres. Our logistics team trawled the shops of Dili, many of which were closed down, to find buckets and taps, tarpaulins, gazebos, plastic twine, rolls of tape, and all manner of other oddities that we thought might be useful in spawning pop-up triage booths all over the country.

Four days of training, a few days of prep (including a factory-line of printing and laminating of posters, flow diagrams and signs), and some maddening last minute phone-calls as one of our partners withdrew their offer of nine 4WD vehicles, and the government announced another surprise public holiday… we were ready to launch.

Pulling together half a dozen partner organisations and manufacturing 17 teams to fan out across all 13 municipalities to reach literally every hospital and community health centre in the country in the space of ten days… it was a coordination nightmare yet a monumental achievement for everyone involved.

Our intrepid Timorese doctors braved the horrific roads of the wet season, the police checkpoints, and the frustrations of trying to run trainings in hospitals and health centres with either no power, no projector, no wall upon which to project, or no people to train. They were extraordinary: armed with their basic supplies they threw up triage booths and handwash stations wherever they went, in blazing sunshine or pouring rain.

We almost couldn’t believe it worked. Of course it was only a beginning, and it only raised the expectations of what we might do next.

Tempering those expectations were the growing challenges at home. With the school closed and school holidays over we were facing the same sense of dread afflicting working parents across the world: home-schooling.

We love being with our kids, but we’re really very happy not being their school teachers. And this particular point in our lives didn’t seem to be crying out for a lack of purpose, nor for want of something significant to do. My stomach churned as I flicked through the correspondence from the school which mapped out the 26 new profiles, log ins and passwords we needed to get our four children connected to this new reality. I felt like I was going to scream. This was clearly not going to just take care of itself.

Bethany, in her usual pragmatic way, got stuck in and created a homeschool corner. Levi, our self-appointed computer nerd, delighted himself with these new opportunities to download, install, sign up and log in to each of the 26 platforms on behalf of his siblings. Actually we’d have been a bit lost without him. Gradually, inspite of painfully slow internet and a general inability to watch anything that the teachers sent through in video format, Bethany gained a kind of functional ascendancy over the situation, admittedly with a bit more cussing than the children were accustomed to hearing. They’re learning all kinds of new things at home.

Worryingly though, their imaginative play has changed. Now the toys sit around Boardroom tables and have crisis meetings.

On the weekends we would try, when we could, to get out and about. Taking a few of our Maluk Timor volunteers with us, we went for hike up a river valley to a freshwater weir. Micah counted his falls along the way and registered double figures. On the way home we were intercepted by an afternoon storm which soaked us and every possession we carried, and made the car smell like ‘wet dog’ for a week, but it made the excursion all the more memorable.

We narrowly missed out on the ultimate memory-making experience of being either cut off or swamped in the river-crossing on the way home. That would have made for a more compelling tale.

Notwithstanding the sense of impending tragedy that troubled us night and day, these weeks were perhaps the most rewarding that Maluk Timor had ever enjoyed.

However, the uneasiness was unrelenting. The case numbers of COVID-19 slowly climbed in Timor-Leste – ten, then twenty – as returned Timorese students from Indonesia brought the infection home with them. The government’s quarantine and surveillance processes largely held back the tide but the likelihood of leaks seem to increase each day. I braced myself for what was coming, but was utterly unprepared for what was about to unfold.

On a Tuesday morning, swinging my Kluger around in a U-turn exactly as I’d done hundreds of times before, I saw some oncoming motorbikes coming up the dual carriageway toward me. This was hardly unusual and, at the typical low speed of Dili traffic, one generally just nudges the car forward slowly and everyone else makes way. However, with fewer vehicles on the road than usual, one of the motorbikes was eating up the open road between us at great speed, closing in on me. I aborted my U-turn and halted, leaving an avenue a-lane-and-a-half wide in front of me, through which he could easily pass by adjusting his course just a few degrees. However, his head was turned to share a joke over his shoulder with his female passenger. He didn’t even see me until the impact was unavoidable.

His motorcycle thundered into the left side of my now stationary car, forward of the front wheel. The motorcycle went virtually no further, other than lifting its rear end to catapult its two riders over the handlebars and on to the road. The laws of physics dictated that the greatest leverage was applied to the rear passenger who, after being propelled high through the air, landing grievously on her unhelmeted head.

If you prefer to avoid grisly descriptions of road trauma I would suggest skipping down to the next photo.

I leapt out of the car and ran to the woman, finding her convulsing on the road, her face covered in blood-soaked hair. ‘She’s caved in her skull’, I thought, ‘and she’s going to die in front of me.’ I swept the hair from her face and positioned her to breathe, for what good it would do her. But then her seizure subsided, and she lay still, eyes open, breathing haltingly. It didn’t look good.

I attended the other passenger and found him conscious on his back, his helmet on the road nearby, and his right thigh swollen and shortened. That was a broken femur for sure, but he appeared otherwise intact.

The next thirty minutes were utter chaos. This particular road is the major artery of Dili and this tragic scene now occluded it entirely. It was around 8:30am and traffic was building up on all sides, and so was the crowd. The practice in Timor-Leste is to stop at an accident and, rather than rendering assistance, compete to capture the most horrific footage available to post on Facebook. In spite of my many attempts to stop people from recording the action, I knew I was being immortalised for the nightly news.

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It felt like an age before either police or ambulance arrived, though some of my staff arrived at the scene to support me long before then. A Good Samaritan in the form of an unknown Timorese nurse was my strongest ally, phoning emergency services, providing basic care, and keeping the crowd at bay. These scenes can become combative here, but thankfully there was no hostility on this occasion. To my relief the young woman’s condition continued to steadily improve, and she began moaning and trying to get up. Soon afterward she was carried into the back of a ute and hurried to hospital. Then the ambulance, police and military all arrived in force, and order was quickly restored.

My car was impounded, I drafted my statement for police, and then I received the surprising news that the woman was apparently in good condition, with only a minor graze to the forehead. She was being discharged from hospital. I was stunned and relieved. My kids took it as an answer to their prayers which they had been faithfully sending heavenward since the minute they had heard about her. The young man would need time to recover from his broken femur but could also be considered to have cheated death on this occasion.

Rattled and distracted, I left work early and returned home. For four years I had safely endured the chaos of Dili roads… until now. I felt a range of emotions but mostly I feared for the wellbeing of the two riders. I would be made to pay – irrespective of fault there was only one party with any means to make reparations – but that could not have concerned me less. I just hoped everything would turn out all right.

Meanwhile, through the afternoon we began receiving hundreds of photos from our teams in the field. The photos detailed unheralded success in running trainings and setting up COVID-19 preparations simultaneously all over the country, some of them almost 12 hours drive away.

That evening I cobbled a few photos together into a Facebook post and shared it with every senior health figure I could think of. Maluk Timor was on the main stage now and I was inexpressibly proud of what was going on in our name.

Having posted my news and begun answering some early responders something else broke through into my social media feed. It started as a whisper, just a rumour… but within minutes Facebook and Whats App exploded with the revelation that Timor-Leste’s ultimate warrior-physician, Dr Daniel Murphy, had died unexpectedly in his home, in his mid-70’s.

If you know us, or you know this blog, then you know something about Dr Dan already. I won’t attempt to eulogise him here as there are others who will do that far better, but suffice it to say that Dr Dan was an American physician with a lifelong track record of serving the underdog who had given the last 21 years of his life to the people of Timor-Leste. He is a national hero, having done more for the health of the Timorese people than anyone else in their history. In the midst of the conflict in 1999 he threw together an impromptu clinic in Bairo Pite, a crowded and lowly suburb of Dili, and it grew to become one of the busiest hospitals in the country. It was where Bethany and I began our work in Dili in 2016.

Right up until his death Dr Dan toiled relentlessly for his patients and was revered as a saviour of the Timorese people, particularly the most vulnerable. His death was met with an overwhelming outpouring of grief from all quarters, just as the crowd at his cremation and funeral violated all of the country’s social distancing rules.

Many of you know that our own relationship with Dr Dan was complex. Having worked as his Medical Director in 2016 and 2017, I would say that he was a man much easier to admire from afar. However, in spite of a troubled working partnership there was never any lack of good reasons to respect him and his extraordinary work, and I can honestly say that he deserves his place within the highest echelon of Timorese heroes.

84d3c6d4-8122-4338-8a03-2eef07ce9b32The death of this towering figure has brought a deep and pervasive sadness to the country and comes at a time when heroes are in short supply. What will become of our old stomping ground, Bairo Pite Clinic, without him? Where will the people of Timor-Leste turn when all other hope is lost? Their champion is gone, though he will surely never be forgotten.

It rounded out a very strange day for me personally. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find a way to unpack the swirling maelstrom of emotions that I experienced through that period of 24 hours.

That was only a week ago, yet it feels like it all happened in a distant age. The inconsistency of our perception of time has never been more apparent to me than in these past months during which some days have felt like they’ve contained a month’s worth of action, yet a week can slip through my fingers with such rapidity that I can scarcely tell you what it contained.

This week the focus has been about launching our new smartphone app, called ASTEROID. This app was supposed to be deployed in September or October as part of a project to strengthen Timorese health centres in detecting and mitigating infectious threats. This was long before we knew about COVID-19. Then suddenly, when we needed a way of providing clinical training to clinicians all over the country with no time to lose, the app was on hand.

IMG_2860Our partners, Catalpa International, had powered into action and launched the app a full six months early. Now I’ve got a whole team working on uploading content in English and in Tetun, and we’ve got hundreds of Timorese health workers from the remotest corners of the country signed up and connected. This tool is going to overcome the expected obstacles of tightened restrictions for travel and meeting in groups. It gives us a conduit through which we can reach clinicians everywhere with the most up-to-date information as the pandemic changes.

But I’m a little weary, and my back is sore from the constant muscle tension that comes from perpetual urgency. I can only hope that all the nervous energy will amount to something and that Timor-Leste can withstand the coming storm.

 

 

The remnant (part 1)

The beginning of this story goes back to when life was normal, or at least relatively so. Late January.

Like all of you, we had made plans for the year that now seem laughable. I was closely watching a poorly-understand epidemic gathering speed in China, but I had absolutely no idea of how dramatically the world was about to change.

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Normal things were still happening. Babies were being born and people thought nothing of cuddling them. Interminable meetings were carrying on in crowded airless rooms without a face-mask in sight.

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Even visas were being approved: after almost four years after arriving here we finally became the proud owners of the elusive Special Stay Visa.

To be perfectly honest, it becomes hard to remember precisely what we were doing back before all this, but I’m sure it must have been dreadfully important.

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We’d been able to continue strengthening our team in Dili, including the welcome addition of two friends from Geraldton joining us. Nathalie, who had come to us as a teenager shortly after Levi was born to be our very first au pair, is now an accomplished social worker and arrived to undertake her thesis; and Dr Nikee, a longtime medical colleague of ours, surprised us with a late change of plans. Neither of them could have imagined they might find themselves marooned with us indefinitely.

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I follow a number of infectious diseases experts on Twitter so was getting more frequent reminders about the trouble in Wuhan than most. I was absorbed by this macabre, other-worldly story that was unfolding. I sent our staff shopping for PPE, sensing that something unprecedented might be on the horizon. I sent messages to family members and warned them that this one could be big but to be honest I had no unique wisdom about all this that wasn’t commonly reported in the media.

As we ran deeper into February the heaving swollen wave heading toward us became more easily seen and could no longer be ignored by even the most foolhardy denialist. Trouble was coming, and we had to act.

As you’ll see below (and in part 2) we are very fortunate to find ourselves in rare and peculiar circumstances.

We were enormously fortunate that Timor-Leste’s relatively inconsequential international air-traffic spared the nation from being an early casualty. The government responded rapidly by closing down some of the highest risk routes, stemming the flow of potentially infected entrants.

We were enormously fortunate that as an independent organisation we were able to nimbly adjust all of our programming and throw virtually every resource we had into COVID-19 preparations.

We were enormously fortunate that we had won a major grant late last year to provide training and support in the rapid detection and mitigation of infectious diseases, and that the approval to commence finally came through to us on 2nd March. We had funding, we had a mandate, we had a team on the ground, and we were ready to move.

Almost instantaneously we went live with a flurry of trainings, social media campaigns and infrastructure projects. Some health centres in Dili had as many as 20 hand basins out of order, and we were able to jump straight in and repair them all. Our nursing team, with two years of recent experience of setting up triage systems in Dili health centres, were able to immediately fly into action and throw up COVID-19 triage tents all over Dili. We deployed doctors to write guidelines and training materials, to oversee construction of the first COVID-19 isolation centre, and to train other NGOs in COVID-19 prevention. We were absolutely everywhere.

Dili was abuzz with COVID-19 preparations too, but all of this was stunningly interrupted by a catastrophic deluge late on a Friday afternoon in mid-March. The sudden heavy rain on the hills above Dili took advantage of some drainage imperfections to produce a flood unlike any in living memory. All across the eastern end of Dili homes and offices were inundated or washed away. School children were rescued from atop their desks, perched above swirling silty waters, and carried to safety through a furious torrent of muddy water. The video footage is quite terrifying with streets transformed into cascading rivers, and the rivers themselves running like overfilled speed-slides at a waterpark that you would never want the misfortune of visiting.

Massive floods hit capital Dili, destroying nearly 200 homes and ...

Our HIV Centre was inundated with mud and silt, along with 200 homes. COVID-19 would have to wait, as half the city was under a foot of thick mud and someone had to clean it up.

The government declared two days for clean-up and our team did their bit.

After the flood came the fire…

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…and after the fire came the plague.

There was great tension in Dili as the first suspected case was announced. Madness ensued when the nationality of the man was publicly announced, after which he simply became known as ‘The Italian’. There was such a furore about where this man was to be isolated while awaiting his results (no testing was available in-country, and specimens were sent to Australia) that a riot broke out in a neighbouring town when locals discovered that the Ministry of Health intended to move him to a secluded facility there. The fear was palpable, and people were twitchy. Random foreigners were being accused by locals of being carriers of the virus – perhaps not unreasonably. Where else was it going to come from?

The Italian tested negative, and so it proved to be nothing more than a very useful dry run for what would follow.

Several days after the flood Bethany and I received a surprising message from a person whom we knew only distantly. Knowing us to be doctors, this person contacted us to  report respiratory symptoms having recently returned to Dili from abroad. The story sounded very concerning, and every bit like COVID-19. What to do? If we turned this person in for testing they would almost certainly become the next ‘Italian’, risking a possible lynching or harm to friends and family. There was simply no guarantee of anonymity, and the mood on the streets was that an infected person was someone to run out of town, not someone to be cared for or supported.

The person involved had been extraordinarily careful, taking every precaution to protect others. There was a very strong likelihood of complete containment and no immediate risk to the public. The symptoms were relatively mild, and the person was low risk of serious illness. Was it better just to keep it all under our hats to protect them?

Of course that was never really an option. To conceal what was likely to be the first COVID-19 case would have been an indefensible breach of the public interest, even for the sake of protecting the patient. We had to proceed, and we all knew it. A secretive visit  from the National Health Laboratory followed and the diagnosis was confirmed. Timor-Leste had its first COVID-19 case.

The result was announced in the media and the town promptly went mad. Rumours swirled and accusations flew, with speculation about the nationality of this person rife at every level of society. Within hours it was clear that at least some confidential information can been leaked and we were bracing ourselves for a full exposé on Facebook. But it never came. A series of heroic interventions by some of our friends and colleagues preserved the relative anonymity of the patient and provided for their every need. There was no lynching, and pleasingly, there was no spread. Timor-Leste stayed stalled at one case for a number of weeks.

There’s a much more detailed version of this episode that I would love to reveal to you all one day, but it’s a little too soon to give away so many clues. Suffice it to say that we felt as though we were part of a Hollywood blockbuster: a witness-protection-scheme-gone-wrong cliffhanger that ended with a remarkable twist… but that story will have to wait.

The announcement of this first case was great, in many ways, because the country flew into action. Plans that had been discussed ineffectually for weeks were suddenly actioned and the people of Timor-Leste strengthened their preparations and defences. Many stocked up on basic foods and took to the hills – not such a bad thing when social distancing is a major public health strategy.

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Social distancing in Timor-Leste

But then the internationals departed too like a spectacular flock of migratory birds sensing the imminent arrival of winter. Businesses and cafes closed, projects stopped, and the international school hurriedly closed its doors. There was scrambling and panic as new travel bans and flight cancellations were announced daily. People felt like all the exits were being cut off so they dropped everything and boarded whatever planes they could. In their defence, many of them really didn’t want to go but were compelled by employers, insurers or advisors to do so. It was a remarkable exodus, all over in a matter of a couple of weeks. We felt as though a net was closing in around us, and that if we didn’t go soon we could be caught for months… years… who could know?

The final Airnorth flight (or so it seemed at the time) departed, and door slammed shut. No more flights to Darwin. No flights to Bali. No flights to Singapore. Marooned.

We were again enormously fortunate. We were able to stay and we retained almost our entire team of internationals: fourteen of them! Against all odds, we had somehow kept the band together. We had to walk everyone through the worst case scenarios: what would their insurance cover, what would they do if severely unwell with COVID-19, what contingency plans did they have? We went through all the scenarios but not a single one of my clinical staff left when they had the chance. Nine doctors (seven Australian, two British) and two nurses (Australian and British) chose to stay on and stand with the Timorese against this threat. I was immensely proud, if not a little concerned. And again, I don’t mean to disparage the migratory birds, many of whom would have stayed if they’d been given the choice.

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“Hey, where’d everybody go?”

Why did we stay, when so many others went? I don’t have a single answer to that. I think partly we felt that all the circumstances of the past four years have in some strange way built to this terrible crescendo. I think that we felt a responsibility to stand with our sixty Timorese staff, and the thousands of other health staff who we’ve been urging to stay in their posts, though the historic practice in Timor-Leste is to run to the mountains in times of disaster. “What would we say if the army ran away in a war,” we asked them, “or the firefighters ran away from the fire? This is a health crisis, and if health staff don’t stand and fight it, who will?”

Additionally, we had just won a grant to help Timor-Leste prepare for and resist infectious threats… should we take the money and run away? Of the thirty or so recipients of major Australian grants for health security in the Asia-Pacific we appear to be among only two who have boots on the ground, ready to respond to this crisis. That gives us a very particular opportunity that many others wish they had.

But we’re not here as mavericks, or as COVID-19 vigilantes. I don’t want you to imagine us conducting some kind of rogue operation, off the grid, risking our children’s lives against the advice of our government. That would make for a better blog entry but it simply isn’t true. We’re here very much with the blessing of the Australian government who have taken active steps to ensure that members of our team are able to stay.

Even so, our ongoing presence has been noted. A couple of weeks ago Sr José Ramos Horta messaged us personally to thank us for staying and even referenced us in a Facebook post as following in the footsteps of Mother Teresa! You don’t become an international keynote speaker without a bit of flair for rhetoric and hyperbole.

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(To be continued…)

Reverse culture shock

9e3c535c-27ef-43b5-9f66-e1ba363ca0d4In early December I received an unexpected message from a friend alerting me that I was going to be on Channel Nine News in the subsequent moments, ‘after the ad break’. This timely advice was very much appreciated, not that we have TV at our home in Dili, nor a live feed of Australian news channels. Over the following minutes more messages came in from other well-wishers, friends and family from across a number of different timezones.

This was followed by a familiar feeling of slight queasiness and dysphoria. Knowing that my family had been profiled on national television without having seen the piece myself was disconcerting. Though my anxiety was almost certainly groundless – it was unlikely to be “a shocking exposé of a conniving Australian family exploiting the impoverished people of Timor-Leste, keeping alive a proud Australian tradition dating back to the 1970’s” – it was still an uneasy feeling knowing that so many people had seen what I hadn’t.

I was eventually able to view the news piece myself online – I’m hoping you’ll be able to view it https://web.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fweb.facebook.com%2Fjeremy.beckett.10%2Fvideos%2F543219156459221%2F&show_text=0&width=560“>here.

Unsurprisingly it was utterly benign and the glare of the Timor sun even gave my thinning grey-blonde hair an almost angelic halo.IMG_1458 I needn’t have worried. The footage had been filmed months earlier when a news crew (and Prime Minister Scott Morrison) visited for the 20th Anniversary celebrations but we’d heard nothing further as to when it might be aired, if ever. I’d forgotten about it entirely and was initially confused when the alert first arrived. The truth was that my mind had been rather occupied with other matters.

The signing of the historic Maluk Timor MoU with the Ministry of Health along with the simultaneous expansion of a couple of key programs had triggered an avalanche of activity for Bethany and I. Our days were long and filled with meetings and foul scheming of all kinds, and our evenings even longer as we ploughed through administration, budget proposals and project design documents.

We hosted our international Maluk team for a Focus Weekend and farewelled our much-esteemed Chair of the Board, Ross Taylor, celebrating his ten years at the helm of a ship that experienced the full range of maritime calamities: being tossed about in wild storms, being becalmed in the sweaty doldrums of tropical bureaucracy, and even a shipwreck in 2017. He was always a steady hand and we thank him for steering us through to much better waters.

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Ross Taylor (right) and Dr Chris Fenton (centre) present a gift of medical equipment to our friends at Gleno Community Health Centre

Amongst all this we managed to escape for two nights to the small city of Baucau, Timor-Leste’s second largest metropolitan centre.

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Life on the edge – perched above the ocean on route to Baucau

Baucau was a verdant oasis even though much of the nation was still awaiting the first rains of the summer. Elevated in the hills, it is much cooler and quieter than the noise and dust of Dili. It’s hard to call it a city at all as one has the sense that there are only a few winding streets converging at a single intersection. The hills and lush tropical foliage ensure that only see a handful of buildings can be seen from any single vantage point. A short walk from the Pousada is the public swimming pool which is being constantly refreshed by a flowing spring – no chlorine required.

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Returning from Baucau we plunged back into a final frenzy of labours, such as leading our intrepid gang of international volunteers… IMG_1760

…training and supporting our Timorese colleagues…

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…and making Christmas play-dough. I’m not even going to attempt to explain that.

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And then it was time to hurry back to Australia for Christmas.

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Christmas is both the best and the worst time to return to Australia. Obviously our children love being in Australia for Christmas and it’s a rare and treasured opportunity to see (almost) all their extended family in a single day. But it’s also a time when reverse culture shock can be most pronounced.

If culture shock is what happens to you when you go to live in a radically different culture with four small children in tow, reverse culture shock is what happens when you come home again. You know the experience yourself: when you walk into an excessively air-conditioned room it can feel like a blast of arctic wind at first, yet within minutes your body adjusts and it feels altogether normal. In fact it feels like all is as it should be. And then you step outside of that room again and what had felt a totally comfortable ambient temperature before now feels like a Saharan summer. Reverse culture shock is somehow similar.

When we return to Australia it is exhilarating but also confronting. The extent of our acclimatisation to life in Dili is only truly revealed upon re-entry to Australia.

Our first encounter this time was the QANTAS lounge. We happened to be travelling with eminent dignitaries of far higher standing than our own, and by a quirk of good fortune we found ourselves being invited into the uncharted realm of the Darwin QANTAS lounge for our four-hour connection. Our children were overcome. Micah dove headlong into the fridge of eternal fruit juice. Annika ravaged the fruit-bowl of perpetual harvest. Levi dispatched 14 slices of champagne ham. It was a kind of wonderland that belonged in an Enid Blyton fantasy story. I don’t think any of us were bothered about reverse culture shock at that particular moment.

But the supermarket was quite a different proposition. In Dili it’s essentially a binary matter whether Weetbix can be found at better than A$15/kg, in which case it should be purchased in vast quantities. In Australia we stand overwhelmed in the breakfast cereal aisle wondering just how many different superfoods a breakfast cereal should really contain. Is it safe to have so many? Don’t the quinoa and açai eventually come to blows in their bid for nutritional supremacy?

My complete lack of mastery of how to place my purchased items into the automated check-out bagging area is also a source of much infuriation.

Choosing a wine is equally perplexing. In Timor it is fairly simple: stay away from anything you can’t read the label of, and try not to buy yellow wines. (The white wines don’t perform so well after a few months in ambient temperatures of almost 30 degrees, and often look more like a specimen than a beverage.) In Australia it is altogether more complicated.

At Christmas time it is the sheer volume of everything that is overwhelming. To give a point of comparison, the blurred photo below was taken in the home of our dear friend Estela in the distant town of Same. This is one of the two rooms of a house that accommodates eight family members, and in this photo it boasts the first Christmas tree they have ever erected. They would have far fewer possessions in their entire home than I have in one of my children’s wardrobes.

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Then there are the road rules to contend with. It’s not that the rules are difficult to comprehend, no, it’s their very existence that feels unfamiliar: in Timor the highways and byways are as ungoverned as the prairies of the 18th-Century Midwest.

The roads in Western Australia are as smooth as the mirror-like surface of the Dili shallows on a still morning – it’s enough to put a driver to sleep – yet even the smoothest of Australian roads are inexplicably torn up and replaced. Never mind that the road at our front gate in Bebonuk is steadily subsiding into a drain – no one is going to come and fix that.

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Then there are birthday cards. It’s simple enough in Dili: they don’t exist, or at least not in a form that any of us recognise. In Australia there are thousands of them to choose from. However, I’ve realised now that they only come in three distinct varieties. There are feminine cards with flowing script and the gratuitous adornment of floral emblems, there are cards without words that bear only pictures of animals wearing anthropomorphic facial expressions, and then there are cards about ageing that feature a fart joke. One store had what seemed like an entire wall of cards about farts. Is it any wonder that people’s far-fetched tales of alien abductions so often feature instances of rectal probing? The aliens are trying to work out what all the birthday cards are on about.

And lastly, there are the changing styles of the day. When I’m on holidays I quite often sport a salt-and-pepper beard that speaks more of homelessness than it does of fashion, but on this particular foray home I found myself to be thoroughly outbearded. Beards are rarely seen in Timor-Leste so I was surprised to find that in Australia there was scarcely a bare male chin to be found, and that the beards were of a terrifyingly impressive nature. Again, extraterrestrials comparing footage of our species from even five years ago would be very concerned about the possibility of either a malignant fungal pandemic or else the rising of a small but superior marsupial that has rather suddenly overthrown the dominion of men by clinging to their faces and domesticating them as beasts of burden.

But even the new overlords of mankind didn’t stop us enjoying our summer in Australia. Our children are developmentally delayed when it comes to riding bikes, with no flat territories upon which to practice, so the footpaths of the Geraldton foreshore were a fine opportunity to broaden the types of injuries they could sustain.

We visited the beach often, sometimes feeding expensive frozen seafood to the local marine life using our fishing rods. On one memorable morning I took all four kids with me and swam out to one of the floating pontoons gettyimages-545881731-256x256only to find that a large banded sweep had claimed the ladder as his own territory. We named him Big Toby, and though his unexpected appearance immediately in front of Levi’s face had initially scared the boy half to death, we subsequently delighted in his company. He was strangely unperturbed by the presence of four enthralled children swimming close enough to very easily reach out and touch him. When he eventually became fed up with our capers and began swimming away I managed to swim after him and entreat him to return, promising not to be so intrusive thereafter. He reluctantly conceded and made his way serenely back to the ladder whereupon he resumed reside

Then Annika drew our attention to some newcomers behind us, as a couple of docile sea lions surfaced just a couple of metres away. They stayed and played for a while too – it was altogether idyllic. We enjoyed a number of fine days in the turquoise waters of our coast and I was at pains to remind the children that many people travel for hours to reach a crowded stony beach not half as impressive, and that they should not take such a pleasure for granted. 

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Thankfully our children are not generally in the habit of taking much for granted. It is the great paradox of their lives in Dili: what they miss out upon are the very same deprivations that makes them richer. They seem to view life through a different lens, highlighted by the travails of a beloved friend of theirs in Dili.

Almost a year ago I wrote of a young girl afflicted by encephalitis – a classmate of my daughter Miriam. It’s hard to describe how unwell she was: weeks of uncontrolled and relentless seizures (status epilepticus) that didn’t respond to therapy, and a subsequent coma. Remarkably she began to slowly wake but when we were visiting her in hospital it appeared that her prospects of any significant neurological recovery were close to zero. Several Australian paediatricians had reviewed her in hospital and agreed that her outlook was extremely poor. She was down to less than 14kg, a tragic and emaciated skeleton of a girl, and her only responses to our company were noted to be shrieking and drooling. Our kids prayed so earnestly for her that it almost broke our hearts, as we felt that what they were asking of God was simply too much to hope for. But on a subsequent visit she offered a faint smile of recognition when Miriam sung her a song that she recognised from school. At the next visit they had her up and out of bed, bearing some weight unsteadily on her misshapen legs of skin and bone. Then she walked. Then she was discharged from hospital to her family’s care. Sometime after that she returned to school.

The next time I can recall seeing her was the morning of the school family concert in December. She greeted me in the schoolyard with a warm smile that day, and though I returned the smile I couldn’t initially recall who she was. A moment after I had walked past it dawned on me who she was and I found it suddenly difficult to breathe. The same evening I watched her perform on stage with her classmates – she sang and danced with such spunk and timing that her complete recovery was fully on display. How could this be? As I remembered the face of her mother, smiling bravely at her daughter’s bedside for months… and remembered the family’s decision to re-enrol their severely impaired daughter into the same expensive international school in-spite of it costing the family’s entire earnings… to realise that they had never given up on her… and then to see that hope realised… people must have wondered why tears were streaming down my face at the school concert.

 

My kids have been part of her journey for this past year. They know how good they’ve got it and they don’t take it for granted.

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A new year sprawls out before us and we approach it with a determination to hold some balance in our lives. Maluk Timor continues to grow and the future is bright, but it won’t do anyone any good for us to work ourselves into the ground. The challenge in front of us is to share the load more effectively by strengthening the team around us and ensuring that Maluk Timor well and truly outlives us.

It means a lot to us that people like you still follow our journey and read this blog, especially given the saturation of social media that all of us face. We hope that somewhere in these tales you find reasons for smiles, grimaces, misty eyes or perhaps even reflections on the beauty, comedy and tragedy of life – not just in Timor-Leste but everywhere on this earth.

Happy New Year.

 

Darkness before the dawn

There are some things in Timor-Leste that are so easy.

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Yep, so easy.

Catching mosquitoes is easy. You just leave your car window down about four inches overnight and by morning you’ve caught two hundred of them. Buying phone credit, or ‘pulsa’, is also really easy. Every supermarket entrance is heavily fortified by a ring of hyper-vigilant sentries, lying in wait, ready to spring their ambush of pulsa vouchers as soon as you’re within range.

Finding the correct luggage carousel at the airport is really easy. There’s only one of them and it bears the unlikely distinction of being the only thing in the entire country that moves faster than it ought to: bags come flying off at the corners like toy race-cars from a vintage electric racetrack.

There are a few other easy things. It’s easy to park in the street because it’s generally considered acceptable to double-park and obstruct an entire lane of traffic. It’s easy to tell when it’s been raining because the ocean is stained with brown silt. And it’s easy to fall into a street drain or open sewer, if you’re not paying attention.

But most things in Timor-Leste are really not very easy at all.

 

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Even getting through doors can be problematic.

On the World Index of ‘Ease of Doing Business’, Timor-Leste ranks a lowly 178 out of 190. It sits in esteemed company amongst other entrepreneurial wonderlands like Syria and Congo.

 

That feels like an horrific exaggeration of Timor-Leste’s difficulties to be perfectly honest, but I would concede that it is generally not easy to get things done around here.

 

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Ease of Doing Business: “What can I get for ya?”

If you’ve been following this blog at all you know that I’ve been more than a little fixated upon the unfinished and rather troublesome matter of our MoU, or Memorandum of Understanding, with the Ministry of Health. And that has most definitely not been easy. As the CEO of a health NGO whose entire raison d’être is to work in partnership with government-run health services, I have been more than a little concerned by the delay in achieving the government’s formal agreement to work with us. Without an MoU we’re a bridegroom left standing alone at the altar. It makes for an awkward wedding ceremony.

In the previous post I described my somewhat harrowing experience of presenting to the Health Minister’s Council of Directors. It really didn’t go well for us, despite indications before the meeting that it would be a very positive and collaborative final step before the MoU signing. I came away from that meeting in genuine doubt as to whether our MoU would ever be signed, and that line of thinking precipitated a particularly dark night of the soul.

Perhaps we have come all this way for nothing. Perhaps we won’t ever break through. Through deep and uncomfortable introspection that night I arrived at a possible conclusion: perhaps we’re not meant to succeed. As a Christian I have a sense that God offers His hand to me – to us – to share in His work on earth, but I don’t believe for a moment that success is ever promised to us in this partnership. Sometimes all that is asked of us is to fail well, to bear up faithfully under frustration and defeat and not let that change who we are nor the motivations that drive us. Defeat doesn’t have to bring bitterness nor despair. There is such a thing as failing well.

Those were my thoughts that night and though they sound morose and depressing they carried no such weight of melancholy for me. I was lifted by these realisations. Yes, I can fail well.

ScoMo came to Dili. Even Australia and Timor-Leste – so often uneasy bedfellows – had managed a signed agreement, but there was still no news on our MoU.

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In 1650 a man named Thomas Fuller wrote prosaically that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. It’s almost certainly nonsense, scientifically speaking, but it’s a fine description of human experience which was how he intended it. For us it seemed to be a night that might never end… but then dawn did break. And it was glorious.

It started as a rumour. The MoU would be signed next week. We’d heard that before and knew not to assume anything yet. Then more rumours from different sources, each confirming a similar story. It would be signed on Wednesday. We were advised to make preparations: a lavish afternoon tea would surely be required for the occasion. Then written confirmation arrived and we knew we were in good shape. We began planning the party for the Friday night too, but held the invitations back. It’s no good having an MoU party with no MoU as my kids reminded me, singing an adapted version of Dorothy the Dinosaur’s song about tea parties:

“To have an MoU party (an MoU party), you’re gonna need an MoU (you’re gonna need an MoU)…”

Late on the Tuesday afternoon we were interrupted by a peculiar omen. Maun Bo’ot (literally ‘Big Man’) was wandering up our street. Maun Bo’ot is Xanana Gusmao, Timor-Leste’s most famous freedom fighter, leader of the resistance, former President and de facto master of the current government. He was wandering down our street, mingling among the people in one of Dili’s most troubled neighbourhoods. We’d never seen him here before. On Bethany’s prompting we hustled our unwashed kids down the street and joined the throng and were quickly ushered through the pack as rather conspicuous outsiders. He was all too happy to pose for photos and reciprocate Micah’s crisp high fives.

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What did it all mean? A visitation by Maun Bo’ot on the eve of the MoU signing? Surely a portentous sign? The next morning we received a call of confirmation. It was really happening. “Bring afternoon tea and two blue pens.”

I was very nervous. Going back there meant I would have to give another speech, in the same room and to virtually the exact same audience as my disastrous stuttering oration only weeks earlier. At least this time it seemed that the stakes were reduced. The MoU would be signed however miserable my speech might be.

Our delegation arrived early and waited. We all looked happy and relaxed. Well, almost all of us.

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Our catered afternoon tea was an impressive spread. We had blue pens. All was in order. As the dignitaries gradually filed in my heart was racing faster. I really just want to get this speech done.

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The speech came and went. It was not good, but neither was it the twelve-car-pile-up that I delivered last time around. I got through it with minor scratches and a broken headlight, metaphorically speaking.

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Then there was much initialling and signing to do. Documents in English and Tetun were thrust in front of me and I signed each page as quickly as I could, trying to keep pace with the Acting-Minister. I’m pretty sure I beat him. Gotta take a win where you can get one.

Then there were hand shakes and photos, backslaps and that peculiar strained laughter that comes with the relief of prolonged suspense. Unbeknownst to us, one of our team had a mole at the ceremony, through a family connection. Someone was spying on us – taking photos and sending them through to our staff back at Maluk Timor headquarters as events unfolded in real time. While I was signing our staff were cheering.

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Sweet relief. Invitations went out and we threw a tremendous party at our home for staff and supporters.

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The staff are happy.

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The family are happy.

Even these kids are happy! All though I think that’s more because we let them in every Saturday morning to play in our pool and on our trampoline. They’re kids from the local neighbourhood and we sometimes have as many as forty of them in the yard throughout the morning. It gets pretty frenetic at times but it’s hard to resent kids for their enthusiasm and delight. I guess we’ll continue to grow our crowd of Saturday morning visitors.

Speaking of visitors, Bethany’s parents returned to Dili in late September with eleven friends from CWA (Country Women’s Association) to fix floors, build benches and paint murals for Dili’s various health centres and clinics. It’s great to see their work but I think my favourite part is watching my own kids take a genuine and sustained interest in helping out with these projects – a very constructive use of school holidays.

Back at Maluk Timor, we considered our months of imaginings that the signing of the MoU would be like the uncorking of a bottle, allowing Maluk Timor’s activities to really flow. Would it turn out to be true? We didn’t have to wait long to know the answer. In the ensuing weeks we’ve seen a number of our projects rapidly expand and we’re now enjoying something of a Golden Age.

The Family Medicine Program (FMP), which we deliver under the umbrella of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, has increased from ten trainees to twenty-four, necessitating a major expansion in the number of clinical placements and the size of our team of clinical supervisors. It’s a terrific opportunity for us to intensively train a group of this size: one of the biggest cohorts of Family Medicine trainees in the Asia-Pacific.

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24 Timorese doctors squeeze into our training room for orientation

Our TB program is launching out on three new projects after a long period of treading water. Timor-Leste has the highest tuberculosis mortality rate in the Asia-Pacific, and the highest rate of catastrophic cost anywhere in the world. Catastrophic cost refers to the situation in which a person who becomes ill with a particular condition (in this instance tuberculosis) is forced to either give up their job, sell their goods or go into serious debt to pay for the treatment and its associated costs. In Timor-Leste the rate of catastrophic cost for tuberculosis is quoted as 83%: five out of six people diagnosed with TB will also be afflicted by life-altering financial hardship or even ruin. There is no shortage of motivation for us to work toward better quality diagnosis and care, and better support to those who are undergoing treatment. We’re delighted to finally have our TB projects up and going.

Then we received extraordinary news that our proposal to the Australian Government-funded PIDP grant was successful. We named it ASTEROID, or Advancing Surveillance & Training to Enhance Recognition Of Infectious Disease, and it’s the biggest project our organisation has ever been funded to deliver. For the next three years we will be rolling out infectious diseases training to more than 400 health staff right across Timor-Leste – all thirteen districts – and also equipping them with a fantastic new smartphone app to further their ongoing learning and help them maintain up-to-date clinical practice. We’ll be expanding our team yet again, and we find ourselves in previously uncharted territory with respect to our partnership with Australian Aid. Actually it feels a bit like we’re a minor division football team that just got promoted to the English Premier League.

That’s all well and good but as far as the kids are concerned the big news is the hatching of our 20 chicks. There had been a long build-up, with plenty of time spent scrutinising the incubator and ‘candling’ the eggs to see what was growing inside. When they finally hatched it was a festival event, and as they’ve continued to grow they’ve become the favoured pets of one and all.

Amidst the flurry of activity at Maluk Timor our kids remain a (mostly) soothing and levelling presence in our lives. They keep us grounded. They have a way of making incisive observations and drawing us back to what really matters, and they unwittingly hold a mirror up to each of us that reveals both the best and worst of who we are.

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Our hope is that Timor-Leste infuses into them a different sense of what life is all about, as we share the ups and downs of the Timor Seesaw. And we’re very thankful to those of you who also share this journey with us, inspiring and encouraging us as we go.

 

Almost

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It was the cheese crisis of 2019. It was not the first crisis of its kind in Dili, where the sudden unavailability of a vital commodity can drag the expatriate community into a downward spiral of acute withdrawal.

In 2014 it was the milk crisis: apparently almost two months with no milk. In 2016 there was the tonic water crisis. Gin and tonic – that crisp and refreshing salve of the tropical colonialist – is the dam wall that holds back the waters of pent-up and thinly-veiled insanity among some of the under-employed international inhabitants of Dili. When the tonic water runs out what follows is an indescribable torrent of madness engulfing the city.

There have been less severe but no less inconvenient crises. The onion hiatus of 2017. The bacon crash of 2018. This time it was a cheese famine.

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Taking it to the streets: the people cry out for cheese

As a parent of four Australian children living in a country with frustratingly limited culinary options the end of cheese is no laughing matter. Of course some would dispute that this crisis occurred at all because there was technically still small amounts of cheese to be found. There were rubbery slices of processed yellow plasticine from Indonesia. There were tiny packets of imported cheeses fetching per-kilogram prices normally reserved for rare minerals and illicit drugs. Those options only tantalise you and remind you of how much you miss being able to buy a one kilogram slab of the good stuff for under ten bucks.

 

It was a relief this week to finally receive a cooler bag from Darwin containing two kilograms of yellow contraband, and the resulting nourishment of body and soul has lifted me at last to make another attempt at updating this blog.

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Warning: consuming excessive cheese can lead to obesity

It’s been quite some time since I wrote. I would make the weak claim that the delay is due to busyness but in fact it has been more a case of not knowing quite what to write. Thinking on it now, the best way I can explain these past few months is through the analogy of motorsport.

I never watch motorsport, which is saying something because I’ll watch just about anything else. I would watch two toddlers fighting over a broken plastic mallet if only there were expert commentary, insightful statistical analysis and an occasional super-slow-motion replay. But motorsport remains incomprehensible to me. Those cars and motorbikes go round and round, make a huge amount of noise whilst doing it, and yet to the untrained eye of a distant observer it looks like nothing very much is changing from one lap to the next.

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However, I imagine if you’re within or atop one of those vehicles that it must be a rather different affair. Clutching the wheel and pumping the pedals, soaked in sweat and experiencing the extremes of acceleration through both your body and your vehicle – I’m sure each lap must feel uniquely different and that a driver could easily spend hours describing every little detail of what transpired in any given race.Image result for jamie whincup

It’s a fairly long stretch to make comparisons between my life and professional motorsport, especially as my life unfolds at a somewhat less spectacular speed.

Even so, I feel like I’ve been sweating at the wheel, hurtling around the track as fast as I can handle, swerving to miss potentially fatal obstacles and trying desperately to get the upper hand. Disappointingly, to the distant observer it must look like I’ve just been cruising around – rather noisily and pointlessly – in circles. For me to explain otherwise without inducing unbearable boredom would require a much more incisive literary mind than my own.

I can at least explain the basic lap pattern, I suppose. You all know I’ve been relentlessly pursuing the signing of Maluk Timor’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Health as the quintessential step in formalising our partnership with them. Our whole mission is about working shoulder-to-shoulder with government health staff in government health facilities so it is very difficult to for us to achieve our objectives without this agreement in place. This MoU has been the obsession of my last 18 months. It is the chequered flag that I’m racing for and it has led me round and round in laps ever since the race began.

Each lap begins with news that the MoU is very close but that we need to launch one final push to the line. Feeling that victory is within reach we accelerate down the straight and into the first corner. Around this corner comes a slow-down with the drafting of another new document, and around the next bend there is some slippery track with the need to arrange a crucial meeting. We always seem to hit the next hairpin bend a little too fast, as it turns out to be a lot tighter and narrower than expected. The meeting is generally cancelled or postponed, or the crucial person doesn’t attend and sends a representative in their place.  Regathering ourselves, we accelerate again. There are more twists and turns: documents, meetings, rumours, false hope, and then ultimately as we round the final corner and approach the line we discover that it wasn’t actually the last lap. We need to go around again.

I could write pages on each one of these little details which have been endlessly fascinating, thrilling, devastating and character-forming to me personally but it would make for some very tedious reading. So you’re going to have to accept your lot as the distant observer with the untrained eye who finds it hard to appreciate why we’re still driving furiously in circles around the same old track.

IMG_0895Needless to say, as I write this we are accelerating into the beginning of another lap with victory again in sight. I’m sure this is the final time around.

In spite of this perpetual circling we are still very much at work on our projects. Back in June we completed another 12 months of the Family Medicine Program. We deliver most of the training for this course, working under the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Bethany oversees our program while Drs Lindsay and Dianne Sherriff are the leading clinical supervisors. It was the end of our second cohort and saw another ten Timorese doctors achieve their Diploma of Family Medicine. These ten doctors have come a long way and will take the lessons learned into the next thirty years of their respective careers, hopefully teaching others as they go. It’s a very satisfying achievement.

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Drs Dianne & Lindsay with Dr Teo

I was the examiner for their final oral exam. Anyone who has ever had to sit an oral exam knows how extraordinarily stressful they can be. I remember back at medical school that some students would vomit before this exam while others had to take medication to control their heart rate or else face disabling palpitations and lightheadedness. But none of them had to face the unexpected difficulty encountered by one of our Timorese candidates in June. He was seven minutes into his exam when the room began to shake.

A few weeks earlier I had experienced my first earthquake, though hadn’t initially realised what it was. It was over so quickly. It just felt like my office chair had momentarily lost its balance, lurching ever-so-slightly to one side and then returning to equilibrium. I thought I had imagined it but others detected it too and the news reports confirmed their suspicions.

This time there was no doubt. If there had been cups and saucers they would have been rattling and tumbling from the shelves. Everybody very quickly vacated the building. We waited outside, smiling and laughing about it, unsure how long one is supposed to wait after an earthquake before re-entering a building. We decided a couple of minutes was more than enough. Our poor candidate, who presumably had been thanking his God for divine intervention of the most spectacular kind, had to sit himself down and carry on as though nothing had happened.

IMG_1108It was reported as magnitude 7.5, but was later revised down to 7.3.

A few days later we were back in Australia taking a pitstop from the endless circling. Adjusting our tropical thermostat to winter – even the mild Western Australian winter – is always an experience for us. This is a photo of the kids getting prepared for Australia.

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And this is us on our family’s first visit to the Perth Zoo. It was 24C.

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No that’s not true, it was actually pretty cold. And it was cold at night when we were camping by the Murchison River, though gloriously sunny during the days. Camping with four young children takes a lot of investment but it pays a terrific dividend.

We count ourselves so very fortunate. We live an exotic and fascinating existence in a raw and beautiful country called Timor-Leste…

…and then twice a year return to friends and family to enjoy the idyllic holiday life of Australia. Admittedly Bethany works quite a lot when we’re back and I find it hard to disconnect from Maluk Timor, but there’s enough of the good times for it to feel like a holiday. There’s no doubt about it as far as the kids are concerned.

The contrast is stark. We held several birthday parties for our children in Dili back in June and watching our Timorese friends participate was surely the best part. They have never played party games before. They’ve never had birthday cakes. Estela once described her own childhood experience: when it was her birthday her family would allow her to eat the entire boiled egg, instead of having to share it with her many siblings as was usual. That was her birthday present and party all in one.

If only you could hear the shrieks of delight and cries of laughter from our friends as they experienced their first ever games of Musical Chairs.

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Of course life here isn’t always delight and laughter any more than it is anywhere else. We have our struggles. I had a recent encounter with an old nemesis of mine that returned very predictably at a most unwelcome moment. My stutter.

Many people don’t believe me when I tell them I have a stutter, though anyone who knows me well is left in no doubt. As a six-year-old I could scarcely get a word out. Even with my parents’ persistence in engaging a speech therapist (against medical wisdom at the time, which advised waiting until I turned ten), I was very much afflicted throughout school. I have vivid memories of standing in front of my Grade 4 class trying hopelessly and unsuccessfully to deliver my lines during a rehearsal of Rinse the Blood Off My Toga. I can only imagine it was as painful for them as it was for me.

Even into adulthood I carried a lasting weakness: I avoided answering phones, was often unable to speak my own name when introducing myself to someone and suffered countless other social and professional humiliations at the hands of this old enemy. With the passage of the years I’ve generally gained the upper hand but having to learn Tetun has left me once again exposed. In English I’m well-practiced at substituting words in a split-second to avoid the blocking of my speech: I have a sense of anticipation of where the pitfall of the block or stutter will be, so can sidestep it by rephrasing my sentence at the last moment. In Tetun I am much less nimble, crippled by a very limited vocabulary and my heightened anxiety at being on unfamiliar ground. I walk straight into the traps and get stuck.

I was asked to give an impromptu thankyou speech at a ceremony at Comoro Community Health Centre. Having no time to sweat on it I got up and delivered a fairly effective if somewhat blundering and uninspiring address in Tetun.

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However, in late July I had to address the Acting-Minister for Health and his entire Council of Directors. Virtually every senior figure in the government’s health sector – many of the people I’d spent the last two years trying to impress  was sitting attentively around a large horseshoe of tables. I knew that all I had to do was to get through a handful of introductory sentences, mostly just paying respects to the various dignitaries in the room, before I would hand over to my General Manager who speaks Tetun fluently. She would carry the rest of the presentation. I had rehearsed over and over in the car on the way there. It was easy. I could speak those words fluently and accurately. If only they would come out of my mouth.

And they didn’t. Suddenly I was in Grade 4 again trying hopelessly to deliver comical lines about Brutus and Julius Caesar. It was horrible. I could see them glancing uncomfortably at one another wondering what to make of this hapless mute foreigner. There were smiles and an audible gasp of relief when one of my sentences finally came unstuck and flowed but the verbal constipation soon resumed. My face was burning hot as my staccato words eventually staggered and stumbled their way to their painful conclusion before my General Manager took over and delivered her polished address. I took shelter and hid under the desks until it was all over. I didn’t come out again until mid-afternoon.

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Sometimes you can only shake your head. Who knows what to make of such an experience? Maybe it helped us – the aftermath of that meeting seems to have been a change in attitude toward us, a change for the better. Perhaps I should have burst into tears and soiled myself too: they might have signed the MoU right there and then.

For now we live in the land of ‘almost’. We’ve almost got the MoU, we’re told. Apparently it’s on the Vice Minister’s desk, approved by all of his departments and ready for a signature. We’ve almost got our Family Medicine Program extended from 10 trainees to 24 for the upcoming year, though nothing has been confirmed. We’ve almost got the news on whether our major funding application to the Australian government was successful – it was supposed to be revealed in July but I guess they’ll announce the winners when the Prime Minister makes his first visit to Dili at the end of this month.

My Kluger – broken down since December – is almost fixed, they tell me. The final missing part has arrived from Australia and the repairs are almost complete. I had the chance to view the car last week.

I tried not to be discouraged when I found that it still looks like a prop from a sci-fi film about a dystopian world, after the nuclear apocalypse.

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You can’t let these things get you down. There are so many other good things going on. For example, today our Maluk Timor rheumatic heart disease (RHD) team is in the hills of Ermera with Menzies School of Health Research conducting echocardiography (ultrasound) screening of school children for RHD. For the next two weeks they will be scanning around 2,000 kids and finding new cases, each of whom will be followed up with penicillin treatment that should prevent an early death.

Better still, this particular study (RECARDINA) is setting out to prove that Timorese ‘rookie’ scanners – having only been trained in basic echocardiography over the last few weeks – can reliably detect children with abnormal hearts and send their images for review by cardiologists. If this is successful it will be of worldwide significance and will usher in a new era of national screening by indigenous Timorese, moving beyond the reliance on occasional visits from international teams of specialists. There are at least 300,000 children in Timor-Leste in need of screening, so developing local capacity to begin that work would be a major leap forward.

We wish the RECARDINA team well and hope they can blaze a trail that will ultimately save thousands of lives. We’re almost there.

 

 

 

When the rain comes

Human beings are incredibly adaptable to their circumstances and surroundings. Things that are at first surprising and unfamiliar are soon taken to be normal. I suspect our lives in Dili are not nearly as remarkable as some of you imagine them to be but nonetheless it is strange how one’s perception of things can change so much.

Very often it’s incremental, creeping up unnoticed. It’s hot here much of the time so the drinking of hot coffee becomes far less appealing. I tend to let it sit. Daily distractions ensure that the coffee cools to ambient temperature anyway so, just as many of you surely are, I am accustomed to swilling down my coffee cold.  Time passes and the foul bitterness of cold coffee becomes part of its charm. Giving in to defeat I have taken to brewing my coffee cold and I now rather like it that way.

It’s also evident in our adaptation to speed, or lack thereof. We become very used to things moving slowly here so when they don’t it can be both surprising and exhilarating. You recognise that a change in perception has occurred because the occasional sensation of hurtling along a Dili street at 45km/h provides an adrenaline surge normally reserved for F1 racing. Hard to believe I know, but I’m quite serious.

The children of course adapt faster than any of us due to their highly plastic brains that adjust to almost any situation. You know your kids are different from their cousins when you see them point at four stationary cars queued up at intersection and hear them exclaim, “Look! Traffic!”

I’ve noticed now that I neither flinch nor pause when the power goes out: I simply finish my sentence as though nothing unusual has happened. I’ve also appropriated the local habit of trying to catch mosquitos in a single hand – the trouble being that it’s very hard to tell if you’ve crushed the pest or only interned it within the hollow of your fist. Very often the opening of the fist in hope and anticipation yields great frustration as the savage creature free once again, but at least then the sport can continue.

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It’s been harder and harder to get back to this blog in recent months. As if life wasn’t busy enough, I’ve started studying a Master of Health Administration and it has chewed into my evenings and creative opportunities. I’m still not entirely sure why I started such a thing but it seemed the logical approach. One day I’m going to return to Australia and look for a job in some kind of health leadership and my mysterious adventures in Timor-Leste will make little sense to someone reading my lightweight CV. I hope that bolstering it with an MHA will make sense of what I’ve been doing, undergirding my experiences with some theoretical basis. Perhaps it will help me do a better job here in Timor-Leste? It’s too early to know.

IMG_0862As I write this section I am travelling again, viewing Dili from the air. And it’s a picture – colourful roofs sprinkled among the verdant green of a landscape washed and revitalised by six months of regular heavy rain. Not visible from this height is the damage wrought by that rain: the destruction of mudslides, the washing away of roads and the flooding of homes. I lay in bed one night in February listening to the rain pounding upon our roof. It was unusually heavy and, unlike the typical pattern of the late afternoon downpour that quickly passes by, it was very much sustained. It was 3am and I told myself that if it didn’t ease off in the next five minutes I would get up. It didn’t, so I did.

Heading outside with a torch and a Dora the Explorer umbrella that wasn’t quite up to the task I found the entire yard in at least 15cm of water. The water was just lapping at the doorstep of our rear apartment. The tarpaulin awkwardly slung over our pool was burdened like an overripe pregnancy, with perhaps 100kg of water in it. One of our electrical cords was running through a pool of water. I worked in the dark to remedy some of these problems and though the rain didn’t abate for another half hour, during which time our power understandably went out, major flooding was averted.

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Our HIV care centre at Vera Cruz was not so fortunate. A thick coat of mud inundated the building. How many other homes in low-lying Dili, with its blind-ended city drains that don’t always lead to the sea, must have been flooded that night? Beds are a luxury in Dili: for many people it’s a floor mattress or a bamboo mat, on a concrete or earthen floor. You can imagine how well that fares when the rain comes.

The heavy rains bring sickness too: I see my Timorese colleagues sharing knowing smiles about the inevitable stomach complaints that accompany the overflowing of city drains. The rains give the mosquito populations a sizeable boost too.

Over the summer one of Miriam’s Timorese classmates had suffered a terrible bout of encephalitis and was hospitalised with seizures and coma for many weeks. She was not expected to survive and Miriam was understandably distressed. Against all hope she began to recover and Miriam was the first student from the class to visit her in hospital. It was pitiful to behold her emaciated little body, down to perhaps half its healthy weight, but to see her smile as she recognised Miriam and then on the next visit get out of bed and walk, was truly heart-rending.

 

IMG_6024In early 2017, our first wet season, our entire family contracted dengue so we’ve had to be careful about mosquitoes. A second bout of dengue can occasionally be much more serious, presenting as either shock (with generalised swelling due to leakage of vascular fluid into the tissues) or haemorrhage (due to falling platelet counts).

During school holidays, after fixing the play-pool and building a chicken coup, we took the family back to Atauro Island and had a much-needed break for a few days. Micah, aged five, went for his first snorkelling venture at ‘the drop off’, where the stunning coral reef plunges sharply into the depths. Levi played with his school mates who were also there, including an unusual game involving a partially submerged fibreglass dinghy and a competition to see who could remain in the boat longest while it was rocked from side-to-side by the inimitable Barry (of Barry’s Place, the Atauro eco-resort).

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We took a surreal boat trip to the remote northern-most beach (Akrema), notable for its clean white sand, but we were overtaken by a surprising turn in the weather. After a hair-raising 90-minute voyage in a motorised fishing canoe in decent swell we ended up huddled near the beach trying to find cover from the unexpected heavy winds and drizzle, and roasting marshmallows on a fire.
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But then Levi burned his foot on a hot coal and I was stung by a scorpion. I was cursing our decision to leave the idyllic beach at Beloi. It felt like one of those bad nights out when you’ve found a perfectly good nightspot but there’s some restless fool among the group who convinces you all to leave it and line up outside some other seedy overcrowded club that turns out to smell of urine and vomit, with music loud enough to make your ears bleed. That’s probably a little unfair to the picturesque beach at Akrema, but we definitely didn’t see it at its best. It might be the scorpion bite talking, which along with a perforated eardrum was making me more than a little irritable. With the high headwinds and mounting swell we were dreading the voyage back down to Beloi in our rickety canoe. Thankfully the winds dropped away as we prepared to leave and by the time we were back at Barry’s Place we were once again bathed in warm tropical sunshine and my foot no longer hurt: it was as though it had all been some kind of strange dream.

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Miriam was having strange dreams of her own, having developed a fever on the first evening on Atauro. She was clearly not herself and upon returning to Dili we were pleased to find the explanation with what appeared to be a positive test for a urinary tract infection. It was not her first, and we were confident that a course of antibiotics would mop it up quickly as usual. However, the fever remained and she developed a rash the following evening. She was tested for dengue and to our dismay it was positive. Her platelet count was down to about half of the lower limit of normal but she was not yet into serious danger. Specialist advice suggested we could wait and repeat the test the following day but we had the insurance company on standby for a medevac to Darwin just the same. Ironically, by this time Levi and I were both in Darwin for other reasons and it was left to Bethany to help Miriam through the daily blood tests. Thankfully the fever abated, her platelet count stabilised and recovered, and the trip to Darwin was rendered unnecessary.

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On the beach, celebrating my birthday

Bethany and I both had our birthdays, either side of Easter. I turned 41, which seems to be a very large number in the minds of our children. Micah drew me a lovely picture for my birthday: I’m a hulking bald blob of a man with a monobrow.

IMG_0774The picture shows him jumping on my enormous shapeless belly. He assured me that the very large protuberance from the left side of my head was a good thing, it is my ‘lucky ear’. If by that he meant that in a couple of weeks’ time that same ear would be so full of fluid that it would burst the drum then he was truly prophetic.

Meanwhile Levi created a Minecraft ‘skin’ for me, though why he had to go to such detail to include ‘lots of sun damage’ and my bald spot (complete with a mole on top) is a little unclear to me.

He then proceeded to create me a character in FIFA Street soccer: a 41-year-old grey-haired man weighing 209 pounds, attired in a polo shirt and baggy tracksuit pants (while everyone else in his team was a chiselled athlete in slick sportswear). I guess there’s no hiding from the realities of advancing age. My children see it how it is.

Birthdays aren’t really all that spectacular in Dili, it has to be said. It’s close to impossible to buy a decent birthday present, though Bethany has certainly crafted some fine gifts for me since we’ve been here. The kids know that birthdays are less exciting than homecomings: that time when one of Mum or Dad returns from a trip to Australia. We’ve had several this year for various training courses and conferences and the kids’ excitement about seeing us on return is quickly overshadowed by the question bursting from their lips: “can we open the suitcase?”

The suitcase contains all kinds of wonders. Cheerios. Gingernut biscuits. Packets for making yoghurt. Socks! “Hallelujah praise the Lord! I’ve been waiting for this day!” exclaimed Levi, overcome with delight that he would no longer have to go ransacking the dirty clothes basket each morning looking for socks. New bathers. Colouring in books. Easter eggs. Sometimes a few gifts and toys. It’s like Christmas. The kids are usually a bit disappointed that half of the space is filled with medical donations or laptops but they’re used to that now.

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The socks were good. The cricket bat is better.

I’ll have to bring home the goods when I return from this visit. I’m on my way to Sydney to speak at the IMPACT Christian Medical & Dental Fellowship conference.

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For me it’s like a homecoming: 17 years ago this annual conference connected Bethany and I with a community of Christian doctors and dentists who have become our lifelong friends, and who played no small part in the trajectory our lives have taken since that time. Before coming to Timor we were inspired and mentored by others who had gone before us, having undertaken similar ventures in Africa, Asia, or the Pacific. It’s a privilege to be going back to see old friends and to meet the next group of students and recent graduates embarking on their careers.

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This photo above is from last weekend when we had the chance to meet with the leadership of the Medical Association of Timor-Leste. It was a great opportunity to hear their objectives for the next three years in developing a Medical Council, a membership database and a structured program of CME (Continuing Medical Education) to support the 950 doctors scattered across the country.  They’ve asked us to help support them in these aims, which is very pleasing because these are exactly the kinds of things we’ve come here to do.

Above is a photo of a colleague of ours training Timorese doctors in ECG and another of Bethany assisting Timorese doctors in learning ultrasound. It’s a really exciting time for us as the opportunities continue to open up: there’s so much to do and we now just need to be wise in how much we attempt all at once. Thankfully we’re not alone, with a great team of internationals (a dozen in Dili, and many more outside of Timor) and 46 Timorese staff that make Maluk Timor what it is.

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I have been delaying the publishing of this blog, in part because I had really hoped that I would be in a position to announce at least one of the following:

(i) we have signed our much-awaited MoU with the Timorese government (we haven’t, though there’s possible movement coming up this week); or

(ii) my car with the dismantled engine stuffed in the back of it is finally repaired and back on the road (it isn’t, but I remain hopeful); or

(iii) my TEDx talk is finally posted online (it’s not).

So, with no big finale up my sleeve, I’m just going to have to distract you with a cute photo from the Mothers’ Day morning tea at Annika’s school.

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