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Report On Visit To East Timor by Rotarian Peter Bearsley – March 2012

Maternal and Infant Mortality Project – East Timor

Saelari village Facilitator, Anselmo-Philippe, with mothers and other team members at rear

Thank you, President Austen.

Fellow Rotarians and guests

I spent the week before last in East Timor, checking on the progress of our Maternal and Infant Mortality Project.

To refresh your memory, this is a 3-year, USD 235,000 project to help save the lives of 1,000 women and many more infants in the Districts of Baucau and Lautem.

We are not training midwives; we are not building clinics or providing ambulances or conducting surgical interventions.  We are funding Alola Foundation to send midwives and nurses – expert educators – to educate and train hand-picked volunteers in 20 villages to teach and encourage their fellow villagers in the whole gamut of issues from family planning, early warning signs of pregnancy complications, birth planning, post-partum care of mothers and newborns, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, infant and child nutrition, as well as STDs, HIV and AIDS.

Refueling at LosPalos

The essence of the project is to equip and empower the villagers to take ownership and responsibility for their own maternal and child health issues.

So far, 10 villages in Baucau and Lautem Districts have embarked upon the program and 216 people from those villages have completed initial training by Alola.

I was accompanied on the trip by David Hayes, CEO of Assisi Aid Projects Inc, one of our two major funding partners for the project, along with his wife, Christine, and Assisi Committee member, Philippa Sholls.

En route to Aelebere

After a 6 a.m. start and a stomach-challenging 3 ½ hr drive to Baucau, we were given an extensive outline of the project by Alola’s Maternal and Child Health Program Director, Angelina da Costa Fernandes.  She showed us by way of slides how the program was being implemented in the villages; what were the activities of the trained villagers; examples of statistics being collected and money raised by the villagers to fund transport as needed for the mothers to reach a Community Health Centre or Hospital if necessary.

Then both she and the Alola CEO, Alita Verdial, led us on a visit to the village of Saelari, a further 2 hours rough driving from the township of Baucau, where we met with the local chief, the Xefe, and the team of trained villagers.  The teams have a distinctive uniform – a white and green collared polo shirt provided by UNICEF – which usefully identifies them and gives them status.  We were impressed by their commitment and by the very detailed statistics they were reporting from each of the nine hamlets within the suku or village of Saelari (pop. c.2800).  The Xefe was very involved and gave quite a substantial and passionate speech about the importance of the project to his village.

Next day we were on the road about 6 a.m. again for the drive to LosPalos where we met with the District Health Officer who was very familiar with our project and emphasized its importance within their maternal and child health strategies.  He spoke of the benefits of the Regulations which the villages in our program are adopting for themselves – for example, families that don’t get their children vaccinated are fined 50c.  This helps fund the transport of mothers to the health centre.  There is now a Community Health Centre in each Sub-District.  More Centres will be provided when enough health professionals are available to staff them.  At present, 300 doctors a year are being trained in Cuba and 70 midwives in Dili.

Food storehouse, Lautem District

From LosPalos we drove another 3-4 hours on a very bad road out to the remote village of Aelebere where we also met with the Xefe and the team of trained locals. 

The Xefe emphasized their need for our help to improve their maternal and child health.  The trained village facilitator reported on the group’s activities, the number of mothers counseled, the money raised – and the fact that some of it had been used to transport two men to hospital after they fell out of trees and badly injured themselves.

Road to Aelebere

Two of the significant learnings that had emerged from their training sessions, including their Participatory Problem Analysis about their village resources and issues, were:

  • some of the children’s sicknesses were the result of bad diet; and
  • the men could do something about reducing the huge imbalance in the workloads of the women vis-à-vis the men !  (Social re-engineering!)

It was noticeable both here and in Saelari that the men and boys ate first and the women and girls had what was left.

Two other things stood out:

  • Nearly half of all the trained volunteers were men – a very positive feature as they have a large say in the family decision-making
  • There is no way that these villages are going to be able to “graduate” to full self-dependence as regards their maternal and child health issues when our funding runs out in just over two years’ time.  The cost of maintaining the program beyond that time will be significantly less than during the current establishment phase, so let’s hope Assisi Aid Projects will be able to provide the ongoing funding when that time comes.
Main road Baucau-Dili

Back in Dili we had a meeting with Kirsty Sword-Gusmao who thanked us for our work.  She is very involved with the first year of a “Mother Tongue” initiative being trialled in 4 schools in each of Oecusse, Lautem and Manututo Districts.  Because early literacy has been found to be lagging well behind acceptable standards, children in these schools are being taught first in their local mother tongue how to read and write with the idea of graduating later to learning in Tetum and eventually Portuguese.

We also met with UNICEF who are funding Alola to implement identical projects to ours in many other villages.  They have provided a lot of institutional support to Alola to develop as an organization and expressed great confidence in them.  United Nations auditors from New York had assessed Alola’s financial systems and reporting in 2009 and declared them fully compliant and satisfactory.  As a result, UNICEF no longer requires Alola to provide receipts of expenditure and is happy to pay on the basis of financial reports provided by Alola.

The overall conclusion that I drew from the visit – and this is fully supported by David Hayes of Assisi Aid Projects – is that we have the right project for the time and the place and the people of Baucau and Lautem, and we have the right partner, Alola, to implement it.

"Strong Women...Strong Nation" - Alola CEO, Alita Verdial, with Alola Maternal and Child Health Program Manager, Angelina da Costa Fernandes

All indications are that the project is being well-managed and well-received.

We can be confident that our efforts are worthwhile.

Thank you all for your generous contributions and support.

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