It was my second last day in East Timor and we were visiting Aeliu district, one of the poorest parts of the country, set high in the island’s central hills. While the rugged windswept mountains starkly contrasted the deep azure waters of Timor’s coastline, Aeliu was pulsating with hope and warmth. Clothed in mismatched rags of vibrant colour, the village children ran uninhibited. Squeals of delight echoed through the village as us foreigners made our way down a rocky path. We were here to visit Isabel’s house.
At least twenty children, grinning with intense curiosity but overwhelming shyness, were crowding around Isabel and her home. To ease the uncertainty, we started a unique rendition of the ‘Hoki Poki’ and fumbled through the associated actions. We put our right hand in. We put our right hand out. We put our right hand in and we shook it all about. We did the Hoki Poki and we turned around. The kids giggled in amusement. That’s what it was all about.
Our visit then took on a more serious tone. We sat down in a large circle and began to ask Isabel, the mother of the house, questions about everyday life. Did her children go to school? How long had they lived here? What did they eat?
Isabel introduced us to her three children: Tina, twelve, Stephan, six, and Amos. Wearing nothing but a shrunken yellow cardigan, Amos stood petite in stature to the other children congregating around the house. He barely reached his six-year-old brother’s shoulder. We asked his age and the translator said five. We laughed at the absurdity, certain the translator had misinterpreted. We asked again and the translator repeated himself. I stood shocked. Amos looked about two years old. He could have passed for a small three-year-old. But at five years old his tiny frame silently spoke volumes of the malnutrition he’d experienced.
The family live in a typical rural hut. Isabel proudly welcomed us in. Stepping gingerly through the doorway, the minimal light had us squinting to take in our surroundings – a single room, woven bamboo walls, a few pots and a grubby rug covering a quarter of the dusty dirt floor. The hut had no furniture, no windows and no running water. Isabel informed us that they only ate a single meal each day, usually maize and cassava. She paused. Very matter-of-factly she explained the physical pain they each felt when they didn’t get enough to eat.
Deciding to leave the heavy discussion there, we pulled out some gifts for the kids and farewelled them with almighty high fives. My mind goes blank trying to remember exactly what happened next. But somehow, in a passing comment, we discovered Isabel had three other children we had not met – three children we could never meet. Their tiny bodies lay resting in the side of the rugged hills; their lives had already been stolen by poverty.
I can remember feeling so numb, completely unaffected by what I’d just been told. In Timor, I had already heard too many stories of children dying, simply because they lacked enough food or basic medicine. In my head and in my heart I was accepting death by poverty to be a normality of Timorese life. But when we reached the graves, an insignificant pile of jagged rocks, it all hit me.
I had never been to a grave of a child before, let alone the grave of three children. And never, ever in my life had I been to the graves of children who had died from hunger. The reality of a once abstract issue, poverty, was right there in front of me, alive in all its ugliness. It was no longer an issue of charity. It was no longer an advertisement on television. It was no longer a list of facts from the UN. Rather, it was raw. It was a family, cut in half. It was their personal heartbreak. It was our collective loss.
And that experience has left me changed, forever.