Saturday, 27 October 2012

Water of life: villages in Timor-Leste get sanitation

Francisca Martinez with her niece, 18-month old Luciana
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown
Francisca Martinez lives in Suku (village) Estado, high in the mountains of Ermera district in Timor-Leste. She doesn’t know her age exactly but guesses around 30. She has two teenage children of her own and helps look after her sister’s young children. “All the families round here are coffee farmers,” she says. “We earn up to $500 a year selling sacks of beans to an American company. We also keep pigs and chickens and grow corn to eat.”

Suku Estado is part of a water and sanitation project supported by UNICEF and local NGO Haburas Ita Moris (Lift Up Your Life), which motivates local communities to build their own latrines. “We used to have to walk 40 minutes to the river to collect water and we went to the toilet in the bush,” Francisca continues. “Now we’ve built our own latrine and we have a water pump. It’s much better this way – it keeps the village environment clean.”

The initiative is literally life-saving. In 2009-10, nine children in the village got sick and died, but so far in 2011-12, there have been no deaths at all.

Bumpy road

I was in Timor-Leste for three weeks to help the UNICEF office set up digital communications. As part of the project, I visited Ermera district with colleagues Mi-Ann, Tony and Indra, to gather material for our new blog site and social media. Looking at a map before we left, Suku Estado seemed close to Dili, but I was reckoning without the roads. Within half an hour of leaving the capital we were navigating regular potholes in the road, and as we climbed into the mountains the tarmac disappeared altogether, replaced by packed earth and stones.

Eva, one of the few girls we met at Suku Estado
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown

It was a bumpy ride but we were lucky to be in an air-conditioned pick-up truck. As it was the dry season in Timor-Leste, the road was covered in a thick layer of dust, which was churned up into dense clouds by passing vehicles, coating the plants and houses along the roadside in a uniform beige, as if an enthusiastic painter with a limited palette had been at work.

We passed women and children on foot and open-back pick-up trucks crammed full of passengers, their hair and clothes the same shade of beige as everything else. “We have a joke that when you arrive at your destination, you’re so pale you look like a foreigner,” Tony said laughing.

The journey brought home to me how isolated people can be in an under-developed country like Timor-Leste, where just getting to the next village can involve a day’s trek and a major health risk. “There are many children in health centres with respiratory infections at this time of year because of all the dust,” Tony added more seriously.

On the way, Mi Ann told me how NGOs, trained by UNICEF, engage local communities. It starts with a meeting with the whole community, including children, parents, grandparents and teachers. A facilitator from the NGO asks them to draw a map of the village on the ground and mark the location of the houses and fields. “He asks them ‘which houses have a toilet?’ and everyone knows,” Mi Ann said. “Then he asks ‘if families have no toilets, where do they go to the toilet?’ and they point to the fields, the bush, everywhere. So he gets a shovel, goes and finds a poo and puts it in the middle of the map. He puts a stick in the poo and then in a bottle of water. ‘Does anyone want a drink?’ he asks.”

This demonstration starts a discussion with the community about the issue and what they want to do to solve it. The idea is to get families to commit to build their own latrine using their own resources. “What I find exciting about this project is that it’s really interactive,” Mi Ann adds. “There are lots of visuals and everyone gets involved. They really enjoy the activity.”

Hilltop village

Most of the houses in Suku Estado are made from wood and bamboo
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown
After four hours’ drive, we arrived in Suku Estado. There was a central flat hilltop of packed earth, which was full of coffee beans spread out on sackcloth to dry in the sun. Houses made from wood and bamboo with thatched roofs were clustered around the edge of the hill. Behind them, the ground dropped steeply down to the green valley below. In the middle of the village was an ancient sacred tree and two sacred houses – one for families descended from the male line, and another for the female line. At the base of the tree, among the roots, was a grisly pile of human skulls. No one knew for sure, but they were probably from a long ago tribal battle or war with the Portuguese.

We met the caretaker of the male line sacred house, Maudua. He was an old man in his 70s with a deeply lined face, milky eyes and a mouth that turned down at one corner. “This village was the capital of the Central Kingdom of Timor before the Portuguese invaded,” he said. “The trees and sacred houses have been here for five hundred years.”

At the village, we also met Carion da Costa, UNICEF Timor-Leste’s water and sanitation officer who briefed us on the progress of the project. “Every family in the village now has their own latrine and has access to a public water tap,” he said. “A few months ago, the area was certified by health officials as open defecation free, which is a big achievement.”

Carion took us to see the latrine at Francisca’s house and the nearby water tap, both of which were clean and in full working order. Francisca’s nephews Tomas and Lorenzo demonstrated how to use the water tap by washing their hands and filling a bucket to flush the latrine.

Tomas and Lorenzo wash their hands at the water tap
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown

Afterwards we talked to the older brother, Tomas, a healthy-looking boy in a Barcelona football shirt. “I help my parents collect water and firewood, and help with the cooking,” he said. “I used to go the river every day before school with a jerry can to fetch water. It was a long way. I prefer using the water tap. My favourite subject at school is math. I like playing with numbers.”

Tomas and his friends followed us everywhere, excited by the unusual visitors and activities. They were particularly fascinated by our video camera and took turns to watch the small screen of the camera. Only one house in the village has TV but their battery had gone flat and there’s no electricity this far into the mountains.

Most of the children were boys but we persuaded one girl, Eva, to fetch water for the video. She was shy at first but then quickly got into the role. “Don’t look at the camera,” Indra said in the local language Tetun as she posed a little too self-consciously.

Afterwards, we waved goodbye to the children and headed back to Ermera town for the night. On the way back, we passed children from less fortunate villages carrying bundles of sticks and jerry cans uphill from the river, and saw traditional pipes made from bamboo transporting river water, open to the dust and other elements. Suku Estado is a good start, I thought, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Read part two of this blog »

Tomas and his friends sit at the base of the sacred tree
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown

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