When I was 14 years old we traveled across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia on a family holiday. It was 1983 and one of the first international news items to enter my consciousness had been playing out on our tv screens. Footage of starving children in the throes of death had entered our lounge room from the drought-stricken, war-torn deserts of Ethiopia.
I sat on that enormous British Airways 747 Jumbo Jet, looking out over the vast expanse of ocean, thinking about how wonderful this was, but experiencing pangs of guilt that we were able to do something as decadent as international travel, while elsewhere children were not so lucky. I wondered what those basketball-stomached, stick-limbed, dying children would think, if they knew that there were people like me in the world, living extravagantly whilst knowing about, and not trying to alleviate, their suffering.
Since then I have lost count of how many international flights I have taken, but it would have to be many dozen. And if you include domestic flights as well, then it would be in the hundreds. All for the purpose of continuing my privilged lifestyle (moving to a preferred location for work; holidays; visiting family or friends), rather than out of any real necessity.
I flick through the pages of Qantas Magazine, past the myriad pages of advertisements. Ralph Lauren clothes, Paspaley pearls, Maserati cars, Tiffany and co. jewellers, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss. All targeting international travellers with money to spare for extravagances aimed purely at their own comfort and vanity. This time I’m traveling home to Alice Springs from Dili in Timor Leste, a half-island nation off the north coast of Australia. It takes an hour to fly from Dili, on the northern shores of Timor Leste, into Darwin. Then another two hours south to Alice Springs. So Darwin, my capital city, is far closer to the people of Timor Leste, than it is to me.
In Timor Leste there are no Ralph Lauren or Cellini Sport clothes, as advertised on this plane traveling out of their country. Yet there are plenty of extremely handsome men and women. One of the things that makes them so handsome, is their lithe figures. I’ve spent the past three weeks weighing, and reviewing the weights, of many unwell Timorese, and the average adult weighs in the region of 45kg. The reason the population are all so slim? Malnutrition. A 2011 UNICEF report claims that 54% of Timorese children are malnourished, putting the country behind only Afghanistan and Yemen, in the international competition of chronic malnutrition. Lack of access to affordable food is a major lifestyle stressor to the Timorese population in general, with many people, especially in the Districts, surviving as subsistence farmers.
I have just spent three weeks in Timor, volunteering on a health program. It wasn’t my first time to a Third World nation, I spent time in Ecuador five years ago, and I’ve travelled the First World extensively enough to have seen poverty in the form of London’s Cardboard City, homeless families on the streets of Budapest, beggars and bag ladies in places such as Seville, Paris, Krakow and New York. Not to mention the poverty that the remote communities and town camps of Central Australia have exposed me to in over a decade of living and working with Australia’s marginalised indigenous people.
Living in Alice Springs, I’ve developed attachments to any number of indigenous families, and some people have tried to claim that I have some sort of saintly quality because of this. Helping a few disadvantaged kids who come my way, feeding a few hungry people when I can, that sort of thing. This could not be more wrong. Nothing I do forfeits any of my own comforts and wants. I live in a nice house, have a comfortable job, never go without anything I decide I might want or need, travel regularly, have regular contact with my family whenever I want it, there are no particular risks to my safety or security as I go about my life.
The real “saints”, are the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others, who go without as a daily existence, stretching limited financial resources in order to feed one more mouth in the crowd, sleeping with eight kids in their bed behind a locked bedroom door for security, deal with noise and chaos every night as drunks take over the home to continue their partying, burning fires to keep everyone warm because there is no power and not enough blankets, going hungry because there’s just not enough money to feed everyone.
Or the doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and humanitarians who have chosen to give up the comforts they were born into, to live and work in the Third World, offering their skills and knowledge in order to try and alleviate some of the worst poverty.
For years I’ve heard mention that I apparently belong to the “top 5%” of the world’s wealthiest. It doesn’t always feel that way, when I can’t buy myself a new car to replace the tin can that I’ve been driving into the ground for almost 14 years, or have to select what I might do with my holidays because I can’t spend my whole life travelling as some others I read/hear about, are able to do. But my perception of suffering revolves purely around not having extreme wealth. I never go hungry, I never have to worry about where I might be able to go in order to stay safe for a night, or that I may have to forfeit any of my needs. The only forfeiting that I ever do, revolves purely around my wants.
95% of the world are not so lucky. A fact that I’ve found difficult to really relate to, even whilst living in Alice Springs, surrounded by the extremes of my own lifestyle at one end of the spectrum, and the lives of some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people at the other end of the spectrum, some of whom camp in the riverbed at the end of my street.
Friends were living in Timor Leste and suggested that I come over to visit and maybe volunteer some time at a clinic, where I would be amazed at some of the things I would experience. I’ve never volunteered my time or skills in this way, and had reservations around how I might cope, and so to go somewhere with friends living a similar experience, who could offer support, was ideal. After giving the idea some thought, I decided to take the plunge, and arranged to travel there for three weeks, with the sole purpose of my trip being to volunteer on a TB Program. I work on a TB Program here, but our rates of TB are so low, that we see very few cases of active disease, on a very erratic basis. The low rates of disease, combined with our access to plentiful resources in the healthcare setting I work in, means that our program runs in a vastly different way to that in a region where there is a high prevalence of disease, but very limited resources.
I’ve been home for two days now, and can safely say that the profound effect this experience has had on me, will be with me always. Not only did I see the most interesting cases of active TB disease, but I cared for my first ever AIDS patient, who died whilst I was there; saw the way skilled diagnosticians can work without any of the diagnostic tools that we take for granted in Australia, relying on educated guesswork and therapeutic trials to determine a person’s diagnosis; and accepting death or permanent but preventable outcomes as an inevitable result from misdiagnosis or mistreatment. I lived as a minority white person in a majority dark skinned population, where my wealth was (rightly) assumed, making me a target for constant bargaining and forcing me to reflect on the ethics of enjoying my wealth whilst being all too aware of the poverty surrounding me.
On arrival in Timor Leste I was met by an apparent absence of traffic rules with hilarious sights of crowds hanging out of the 10c per ride Mikrolet minibuses, sitting on the roof of trucks, riding helmetless on motorbikes with the wife and two kids holding onto each other behind; the chickens, roosters and pigs running about the streets freely; hundreds of kids riding bikes in the busy streets, up to five-abreast. The culture shock was obvious, but there was something highly appealing about it.
My first night was spent sweating it out whilst catching up with my friends and a group of their friends. The following day I wandered along the eastern coast from the town centre, into the Meti Aut area where fishermen row the seas in their little colourful row boats, while the expatriate community soak in the sun and sea on the white sands of Praia da Areia Branca. One group swim in the shallow waters of the clear ocean, snacking and sipping on food and drink sold at Australian prices, served by staff earning Timorese wages, while the other group exist to serve, either by employment at one of the expat-owned beachside cafe’s, or wandering the beach looking to sell their fruits or touristic knick knacks in the hope of feeding their families if they can bargain up enough.
To a third world naiive such as myself, the contrasts were flagrant.
From relaxing on the beach and snorkelling at the coral reef referred to as “K41”, 41km east of Dili, to starting my time as a volunteer at the clinic, the contrasts continued. The heat and humidity were oppressive, and my hair took a turn for the worse, transforming from a straight, short, manageable bob, into a frizzed out, uncontrollable mess. The ward rounds sometimes had up to 30 people walking the wards, their breath and sweat contributing further to the already heavy air of the rooms where far too many people were accommodated in tiny spaces, lying more often than not, directly on the plastic lined mattresses, due to a constant shortage of bed linen, hoping to find a cure for their often-unknown diagnoses.
The dirty walls with paint peeling off them, the creaking ceiling fans rotating so slowly as to contribute nothing to the air’s circulation, the crowded ward rooms, rusty old drip stands, chipped concrete floors, were all visible features of my first experience working in a third world healthcare setting. But they were not the most significant deprivations. The real suffering comes from the basic, or absent, diagnostic tools available. And when a diagnosis is made, the limited treatments available.
The clinic’s supplies seem reliant in large, on donations coming in from the Australian Rotary Club. Some philanthropic donations are also available, including some extremely generous endowments made to individual patients, such as the young man transported to the USA in search of a diagnosis (which was made, but he was sent home without appropriate treatment, and so will die from his cancer); or the young cancer patients who were sent to an Asian city for cancer treatment, courtesy of a wealthy businessman who heard of their plight, and were coming home cured, the week after my placement finished.
The daily grind at the clinic was wrought with lack of supplies. Not enough gloves to go around. No tape to secure bandages; only certain sized bandages available. No disposable towels to rest wounded limbs on whilst they are sutured, so that blood and flesh have nowhere to land but on the plastic mattress. Only a few handbasins in locations distant from many of the hospital beds; limited supplies of liquid soap so that it was diluted so much that you couldn’t get it to lather up. Very limited supplies of antibiotics and painkillers stronger than Paracetamol. Not even enough gauze some days to deal with the dozens of cases of wounds coming through the Emergency room.
A woman diagnosed with HIV who died from AIDS-related dementia alongside her husband and son who sat helplessly beside her in the bare, concrete room where she lay on the plastic lining of her hospital mattress for days, calling out with delirium.
A man with chronic liver failure of unknown aetiology, who spoke fluent English to me oneday, smiling at me with his teeth seeming to be far too huge for his gaunt, skeletal face, and who was dead the following day. His wife, who wanted answers as to what had done this to her husband, will be grieving his loss now, without ever finding out what it was all caused by.
The room full of malnourished babies and toddlers, all weighing a small proportion of what they need to weigh for adequate brain development, and not gaining any weight because there was no trained staff to engage with them and their mothers, to monitor their intake and teach/encourage healthy habits.
The many TB patients diagnosed on a daily basis, put onto World Health Organisation supplied TB medications. Those with infectious TB sent to a sanitorium outside the city to wait for the first two months of treatment to render them no longer infectious. Where some days they have nothing but rice to eat, but where every single person assured me that they were eating enough. Including the lady who at diagnosis of her TB weighed 28kg, and upon review two weeks later, had dropped to 26kg.
The lady from a remote location with a rare and physically mutilating presentation of TB, who had been seeking diagnosis and treatment unsuccessfully for eleven years. Her 11yo daughter came with her to the clinic, presenting with a three year history of purulent discharge from her eyes, caused by the Tuberculosis bacilli, which had blinded her for three years and which she had contracted from her undiagnosed and untreated mother. This story was an astounding example of the difficulties of diagnosing a common illness which can affect the body in countless ways, without adequate diagnostic testing tools and with a health system that can only offer very basic education to it’s employees.
I have come away from these experiences, and the many more that I had over the past three weeks, changed for life in a professional sense. But far more striking than this professional experience, was the personal experiences I had in a country where I was a visible minority, observing the behaviours of people living in poverty as they interacted with me, who has everything in a material sense.
As I left my hotel one day, I walked past the corner marketplace made of bamboo sticks and banana fronds selling lettuces, spring onions, and various other fresh produce. Strolling along with my laptop, e-Reader and camera packed for an afternoon of relaxing in the breezy bar of the elevated, open-walled Esplanada Hotel, a little boy of around eight years old appeared out of nowhere at me, holding a dirty plastic cup out at me with both hands, exactly as I’ve seen a theatrical Oliver Twist do, and begging me with pleading eyes, to fill his cup. Not knowing what exactly he wanted, I could only assume, as dishevelled looking as he was, with his ripped and dirty clothes, bone-thin legs and arms, that all he wanted from me was water. And of all the things I had packed in my bag, a bottle of water was not one of them. I had to repeatedly say “no”, and walk away. The image of this, and the guilt I felt about not offering him something so simple, haunted me the rest of the day, and still does when I think about it.
My discomfort at the constant bargaining with the local yellow cab taxi drivers also played on my mind constantly. Locals pay around $1 to $1.50 for a taxi fare to basically anywhere in Dili. Expatriates can expect to pay between $2 to $3 per fare, which is always agreed upon during a bargaining process before entering the cab. I was catching cabs almost daily, and I can afford a $3 fare without being affected in any way. So when I was told the fare would be $5, I really didn’t mind offering them a $2 tip. However, I also did not want to feel as though extra money I was offering was not on my own terms, and I was told often by long term expatriate residents not to offer higher fares which would increase the cost of a taxi for everyone, and not everyone can afford price increases. Yet many of the taxi drivers clearly couldn’t afford to maintain their own vehicles very well, with parts falling off and missing, doors that would only open or shut under certain circumstances, parts taped together, etc.
It’s not possible to help everyone, but when you are face to face with suffering, it’s also difficult not to help in some way, and so I did give money to a few people. The most memorable for me, was a teacher, whose husband died of an unknown illness at the clinic after a few days as an inpatient. They both spoke English, and it was special for me to be able to find out about them, something I wasn’t able to do with most of the patients due to the language barrier. Their village is in the mountains. In the 1970s she told me she remembers spending 6 years of her life hiding in the mountains, from the rampaging that went on, with her family. Then the same thing in 1999, but she said they only had to hide that time, for a couple of months.
She described working as a teacher at the school with children who have to come down from the higher parts of the mountains in order to attend, so they stay in her home with her, and she already has her own six children. Her school principal wanted her to start teaching English, but she didn’t speak English (she speaks Tetun, Portuguese, Indonesian and her own local dialect) so she said no, but the Principal kept pressuring her to teach the kids English, and her husband then told her “you can do it, you should do it”. So she got a dictionary and learnt how to say Hello, then taught that to the kids, and everyday she learnt new words from the dictionary, “but sometimes it is difficult, you know, to say the pronunciation correctly, so I find Australian friends, even the soldiers or the visitors who sometimes come, and I ask them, how can you say this word, and they teach me”. And now she teaches English and her students can all speak English!
Since her husband fell ill a few months ago, they had left their village to look for someone who might be able to help with a diagnosis and treatment. They left the children at home to look after each other – a 12yo daughter being the eldest, who was looking after the other four children, plus the mountain children who travel down for the school week and stay too. She said to me “You can come to my village and stay, but our house is very simple, but you can stay with us if you don’t mind”!!
These are all experiences that had a significant impact on me, and that will remain with me and play on my mind always. How can we, in the “First World”, know that elsewhere, there is such extreme suffering, and not do something to relieve it? Yet we are all guilty of this, and how can we possibly help enough to make a difference?