In my role as Oxfam GROW! Campaign ambassador, I was recently lucky enough to visit Timor Leste. Travelling with Laurelle from Oxfam, Bonnie the photographer and Sarah the videographer, we went to see the programs that Oxfam are running with their partners in remote rural communities.After visiting the Oxfam office in Dili, we flew across-country in a tiny six-seater plane. Since the military have left Timor, it is the only fixed-wing plane in the country and provides vital service to the people there.
From Suai we headed to the Maudemo community. We were welcomed by the chief of the community, Maria Fatima, and given tais, hand-woven scarves, to honour us as visitors. I was invited to chew Betel nut with Maria Fatima, which apparently has a similar effect on the brain as alcohol. I tried some, but not enough for it to go to my head. The taste was really quite unusual.
We were then offered snacks, all made from cassava which is a root vegetable. This was prepared in a number of ways. My favourite dish was little fritter made of ground cassava, ginger, garlic and chilli, and fried.
We went to the community’s garden. Here we saw that although it was the end of the wet season, the ground was dry, cracked and rock hard.
The changing climate and weather patterns have meant no wet season this year. The corn crop has suffered dramatically because of the dry.
However, Oxfam and their partners have introduced more diverse crops so that that when one crop fails, there is something else to utilize. In the same garden as the failing corn, there was a thriving crop of eggplants.
Part of this garden is a small creek, where snails are harvested. The Timorese used to believe snails were poisonous, but now they understand that they are edible and are a good source of protein. We harvested some snails to take back to the Maria Fatima’s house to cook.
When we arrived back at the house, we prepared and cooked food at an outdoor table.
The cooking area consists of a couple of small fires with stones around them under a lean-to shelter. The day was incredible hot, and cooking over an open fire was pretty uncomfortable. It was one of many moments that I was acutely aware of how lucky I am and how even the basics in some part of the world, are incredibly hard work.
We cooked a beautiful eggplant dish, as well as some satay snail skewers! The snails were fiddly to prepare and a bit chewy, but the satay sauce was absolutely magnificent.
We were given strong, sweet local coffee and then taken to the gardens. I was shown how to harvest cassava and bananas.
The Oxfam program in this community is helping them to process food in such a way that it can be stored, transported and sold at market. One of the biggest problems in food production in Timor (and other third-world countries) is that food often spoils before it can be consumed or sold. Lack of storage, temperature and difficult terrain all add to the problem. So I was shown how to slice and cook the cassava and green bananas into chips, which can be stored for long periods of time and sold at market. Having an income allows the villagers to be more resilient in lean times.
Back to Dili and the third group we visited was a savings and loan group situated in Liquissa. Oxfam have facilitated 95 savings and loan groups, once again to make the people more able to deal with fluctuating crops and difficult times. Having money to fall back on means that they won’t starve and they can offer opportunities to grow business and provide education. The group we visited have been creating handicrafts and a wide range of snack foods from their own crops.
They has saved $1700 when we visited. This money is then available to lend to people who want to start or grow a business, further increasing their ability to sustain themselves. Prior to loan and savings groups, the only place to borrow money was from the large financial institutions, which could be ruthless if repayments were late. They would take animals and as recently as 2007 a child was taken for delinquency on a loan.
The handicrafts produced are of the most beautiful quality. I bought a number of items. Tiny little woven purses cost $US1, and I was told they take a day to make.
On our last night in Timor Leste, we had dinner on the beach – fish on a stick cooked over open flames, with hot sambal and cold beer out of a bucket. We sat at little plastic tables right on the water, along with hundreds of locals. It was amazing.
Timor Leste is a beautiful country with joyful, awesome people. The work that Oxfam and their partners are doing is helping those people to survive and thrive. It’s a country with such a difficult history, but that is now at peace and ready to go forward. It was the most enormous privilege to see the work, to meet these beautiful and humble people, to cook and eat with them. I am once again humbled by our humanity, the fact that despite huge differences in our means, we are the same. We want the same things. A chance to thrive, and to provide for our children. That is all.