There are some things in Timor-Leste that are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sweet relief. Invitations went out and we threw a tremendous party at our home for staff and supporters.
The staff are happy.
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.
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.
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.