I remember this beach thirteen years ago, just after independence. East Timor had become the first new country of the twenty-first century, and Dili was its capital. Broken tiles littered the sand. A rusty sewing machine, car parts, bits of broken dishes—the detritus of war. Heading inland, I saw that almost none of the city’s buildings had roofs; just the skeletons remained from the Indonesian Army’s scorched-earth policy as they slowly rolled out of the country. The Indonesian occupation lasted twenty-four years and ended in flames. It was a scarred city.
Kids appeared in the short tropical evenings to collect snails and other mollusks from the coral reef right on the city beach, as a thick red sun descended. The reef itself was astonishing, like a living stone shelf submerged just a few feet under the water. There were few fishing boats—the Indonesians had destroyed those, too. Instead, fishermen worked with hand nets while standing waist-deep in the water on the edge of the reef.
Today, Dili is nearly twice the size it was. It’s filled with people from all corners of the country looking for work, though there is little to be found. And there is little infrastructure to support this burgeoning population. The sewage and garbage of hundreds of thousands of people now pour unfettered and untreated into the ocean.
These days, the coral reef is dead, so kids no longer hunt for snails and mollusks. But the fishermen have returned, dragging dozens of boats back to open water, where the fish are plentiful. They sleep near their boats both to protect valuable motors and to be ready to fish at low tide in the early morning. The sun still rises and sets in pulsing shades of red.
Elsewhere in the country, coral is hanging on. And the kids come. It’s sundown, the air finally cool after a brutally hot day. The tide is out and saltwater collects inside a maze of rocks and corals. Bright blue fish the size of my pinkie swim in these tiny pools, clear as glass. We’re in Oecussi, far from Dili—four hours by “fast ferry” across the Savu Sea to this little enclave of East Timor, surrounded by Indonesia.
Kids tiptoe across rocks and coral, bare feet on sharp edges, searching for shellfish. It’s not just fun and games; it’s dinner. For a couple of generations now, East Timor has had a grim relationship with food. Under the Indonesian occupation, from 1975 to 1999, tens of thousands of Timorese starved or died of disease. Today, 20 percent of the population remains food insecure. Half the country’s children suffer from stunting. But it’s not just a shortage of food, it’s “the way food is put on the table,” Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo tells me. He’s a doctor; he studies this. “The staple food for most people is rice,” but a population can’t survive on rice alone.
The sea is critical in East Timor. When those tiny sea creatures die, so do the fish, a crucial protein source for a population already living on the edge.
I follow the kids onto the reef and take photos as tiny fish swirl in the cool water between their feet.
A pulverizing heat so strong it drains the landscape of color and turns the earth to a talc-like dust. Head down, trudging, I lose track of where we are until Terezinha Eko greets us with a wide grin, sweeping us into the cool comfort of her thatch hut. She’s thrilled to see her daughter, Mana Rosa, the woman we’re following up this mountain. We’ve been hiking a couple of hours in the middle of the day and it is obvious why we have seen few other people on the trail. Yesterday, we climbed 2,100 feet in five hours, no shade, to this community called Kutete. And we thought that was a hot hike.
Mana Rosa volunteers as a community birth attendant for villages scattered about this mountain. She took basic medical training at the Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili; she is the only trained health-care worker that pregnant women in this area have real access to. If something goes wrong in childbirth, it’s hours down the mountain to the nearest hospital. The road is so bad, most drivers won’t come up. It can take hours or days to get an ambulance. Though infant mortality rates have halved since independence, East Timor still has some of the region’s highest rates of infant, child, and maternal deaths—especially in rural areas like this.
Terezinha herself gave birth to six children, and she knew she could rely on no one but her family and the other village women.
Karen asks Terezinha about her daughter, who has delivered more than 100 healthy babies. No deaths. “Mana Rosa helps a lot of people,” her mother says. But she worries. “Sometimes I tell her: You are doing this work, but without any money.” And without a motorcycle, or even shoes. She hikes barefoot when she hears of a woman in need. Middle of the night, middle of a rainstorm—off she goes.
Mana Rosa tells her mother she has leg cramps from our hike yesterday. Terezinha heads outside and grabs a bunch of bananas. Potassium helps to ease the pain.
This reporting was made possible by funding from The International Reporting Project.
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