July and August were tough, and September was a frantic time of transition. On 8th September we walked away from Bairo Pite Clinic, dismayed but not defeated. What followed was a disorientating few weeks of no-man’s-land. Theoretically I no longer had a job, which was odd, because I was busier than ever: there were all kinds of meetings and negotiations and evening Skype calls to Australia finalise the matters at Bairo Pite Clinic, and to try to quickly throw down a foundation for the new entity. We felt a tremendous sense of urgency: we desperately needed to get our new plan up and running so we could retain key staff, and to maintain momentum with the donors and supporters whom we hoped would stay with us.
Meanwhile, Bethany hosted a CWA (Country Women’s Association) working group which included her parents and some friends from her home town of Badgingarra. They had made plans for doing some work at the clinic, but of course that was no longer an option. Bethany arranged a busy schedule of projects at three other sites, all of which are terrific organisations with whom we share a strong connection. In her inimitable style, Bethany planned three weeks’ worth of projects for a one week visit, and possibly failed to appreciate that some of the group were the wrong side of seventy… even the wrong side of eighty! In spite of their… ummm… vast life experience… they weathered the heat and produced some fantastic playground equipment, an enormous painted mural, a rain shelter, and a new concrete floor.
They managed all that in under week, and still found time for a number of life-threatening motorbike and motor vehicle accidents.
Bethany worked the week as a labourer: shovelling and concreting in tropical heat proved to be among the less favoured tasks for the group. Our kids also got a chance to get their hands… and heads… dirty.
Our planning and scheming for life after Bairo Pite Clinic continued, and culminated in a three day talk-fest in early October. The Australian Board of the organisation come to Dili twice a year for regular meetings, but this time the meetings were to be different. It was now the time to decide whether the organisation could continue on, and if so, in what direction, and with what funding? Naturally, we thoroughly ambushed them with an array of irresistible plans for the future, and won them all over.
Well, that’s how I like to think of it anyway. The reality of course was that most of these people have given far more, and have been committed far longer, than either of us. The fact that they continue to give up four or five days and pay their own expenses to Dili twice a year is a clear indication of their willingness to carry on. Even so, it was pleasing how well the weekend went, and that by the end of it we had the framework for a revitalised organisation, to be called Maluk Timor.
The word maluk (pronounced MAH-look… yes, I want you to say it out loud right now. Especially if you’re Australian, which means you’re linguistically-challenged. Your brain is going to prefer every other conceivable pronunciation aside from the actual correct one, so c’mon now, say it… MAH-look… emphasis on the first syllable) means something like family, kin, close friends, or ‘our people’. More importantly, it’s unique enough that if someone Googles us we should appear in the top ten hits. Apparently that’s all that matters.
I won’t spend the rest of the blog telling you what Maluk Timor is – you can check it out for yourself: www.maluktimor.org . Basically, it is carrying forward many of the strengths of Bairo Pite Clinic (programs for tuberculosis, HIV, malnutrition, rheumatic heart disease, women’s health and social care, medical education, etc) but refocussing them upon working side-by-side with the Timorese in their own government-run hospitals and clinics. I hate to oversimplify this complex vision, but it is along the lines of the overused cliche: “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day – teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Except that our goal is more like ‘teaching a man how to teach other men to fish’, or better yet, teaching the women how to teach other women… Men just use fishing as excuse to drink beer and get away from their families for a few hours. If women went fishing they would actually bring home food.
I’m being a bit facetious. I really believe in the vision of what we’re doing. I had the opportunity a week or so back to fully explain it too, as the Ministry of Health asked us for a Five Year Strategic Plan for Maluk Timor. Our organisation was about three days old at that point… five years felt like a long way off. But, Bethany locked me away in an office for the best part of two days and when I stumbled out, dazed and disorientated by exhaustion and the blinding natural light, I was holding a 14,000 word document that ran into 52 pages. They won’t ask me for another one of them, I’m pretty sure.
So now we’re three weeks into it. We’ve got our great new headquarters, we’ve hired about 25 staff, and three of our seven major programs are running, with the others due to start in the coming months.
I’m apparently now the CEO. I’ll have to Google what a CEO is actually supposed to do. In my mind it means that I get to go to a lot of long lunches, employ an attractive secretary, and that I’ll eventually get sacked when the share price falls (and get paid out an enormous undisclosed sum).
Actually one of the early troubles has been financial – a cash flow issues. The separation from Bairo Pite Clinic was extremely costly, because we wanted to ensure that we fully honoured the staff’s redundancies and entitlements. The clinic barely survived on a. month-to-month basis as it was, as we spent every dollar we could on medicines and expanding our services. So the coffers were well and truly emptied – and then some – in finalising the financial obligations of the clinic. Maluk Timor was starting from zero.
However, our supporters have been extraordinarily faithful. I think they recognise that we are the same team that achieved so much over the last six years at Bairo Pite Clinic, and that the new trajectory offers possibilities of having an even wider impact in a country that remains very much in need.
One key donation we were waiting on, to balance the books for our first quarter, was a tentative $30,000 pledge from a guy I had met just once. It was many months ago: I was asked to come in to the clinic on a hot Saturday afternoon to show a group of visitors around, and tell them about what we do. They were late. I was sitting in the heat, waiting for them, feeling well and truly irritated. But the group turned out to be very interested in our work, and we spent an hour or so in discussion about the health needs of Timor, and the many challenges facing the clinic. When I had finished, one of the group stayed back to chat, and introduced himself. I was looking forward to heading home, but we talked a short while. He told me that he donated $30,000 each year to a particular United Nations fund. I nodded. “But I hate those b*stards,” he said. I cocked my head and looked at him – now he had my attention! He went on to indicate that he might be willing to send that money our way. That was as good as a promise to me.
But I didn’t got the chance to follow him up. He was traveling and uncontactable for several weeks, and by the time he was back, things at Bairo Pite were so uncertain I didn’t feel that I could ask anyone for anything. But now, with Maluk Timor, it was time to try to make my pitch.
I gave it my best shot. I sent him a warm and enthusiastic email, an introduction about Maluk Timor, and even my 52 page plan. I wanted him to know we were serious and legitimate. A week went past and there was no response. I thought back to the Board meetings earlier in the month, and how the finances for our first three months pretty much depended on whether or not this $30,000 donation (that I’d told them about) would come through. Failing that, we would run out of money.
Then, trawling through my junkmail, I found his response! He had read my plan, he’d looked over all of it. But he wasn’t that impressed. He explained that it didn’t really address the key clinical areas that he was really passionate about.
He said he’d give the money anyway! A most remarkable fellow…
And so we have the office, the staff, the Strategic Plan and now the money… the last missing piece is the approval of the Ministry of Health. So my attention is sharply focussed on winning exactly that. In one sense, it shouldn’t be difficult. They know who we are, they know our track record, and they know we have a lot of offer. If anything, our new vision is much more closely aligned with their own priorities than our former one. We just need to get an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) signed and we’re in business. But there’s good news and bad news…
Bad news: It took us 5 years to get an MoU with Bairo Pite Clinic.
Good news: The new Minister of Health, former Prime Minister Dr Rui de Araujo, is a man of action who has been signing MoUs with other NGOs almost every day. We think it could happen very quickly for us this time around.
Bad news: He may not be Minister of Health for very much longer.
The Timorese Parliament is teetering on the brink of collapse. It’s a long story, but in short, the minority government elected in July has been unable to win support for its major program. This went very close to triggering a collapse of the government a week ago, but the Parliament has held it together and will carry on into November or December, and try to pass the program again. If it fails again, the President will most likely call for new elections, which won’t be until next year. There could be civil unrest, and there could be violence: last Friday people started leaving Dili in droves, and the price of rice in some places more than doubled in anticipation of possible conflict, but the resumption of Parliament has seemingly settled everything for now. Most people think it won’t be violent, but a dissolution of Parliament would certainly get in the way of us getting an MoU signed. So again, we feel a tremendous sense of urgency…
However, the faster you try to work the more irritated you are by interruptions and setbacks. And they come in all shapes and sizes. One of the many from last week was at least an interesting one.
Bethany has been ordering a lot of medical equipment to help furnish the Timorese doctors with a basic medical kit. After all, it’s only so much use training them to be good doctors when they can’t access the simplest things, be it thermometers, blood glucose tests, or pulse oximetry. The pulse oximeter is that little peg that goes on your finger and measures the oxygen level in your blood. It’s a pretty useful piece of kit. But, as we found out, it is replaceable:
We were not entirely pleased to hear that we were being sent $252 worth of snake repellers, as useful as they may prove to be.
Thankfully it turned out to be some kind of technical error, and the oximeters arrived after all… but no snake repellers, so we’ll have to be more vigilant than ever.