20 March 2019

An emotional return to Timor-Leste

We interviewed a ChildFund NZ Programme Manager, following a visit to Timor-Leste in January

Every time a ChildFund New Zealand staff member visits a community supported by our generous Kiwi donors, they learn something. Whether they bring new insights into our work, additional support for the children and families living there, or inspiration for future activities, field visits are very special—and important—to moving our mission forward.

When Quenelda Clegg, ChildFund New Zealand’s Programme Manager, recently returned from a visit to Timor-Leste, we knew it was going to leave an impression on her, and on us.

So we sat down with Quenelda to hear all about her visit. 

When did you make the trip to Timor-Leste? Why did you go?

Quenelda Clegg (QC): I had been planning to visit for months, and finally made the trip to Timor on 28 January to 9 February. During my visit, I took part in ChildFund Timor-Leste’s organisational planning workshops and visited the communities supported by Kiwi families. 

Now that you’ve been back in New Zealand for a month or so… do you have any first impressions that you can share about Timor?

QC: Timor is very dear to me. Having written a thesis on peacebuilding in Timor, as well as living in Timor’s capital city for two years, this country has a very special place in my heart. When thinking about my recent visit, which is the first time I’ve returned in four years, I am full of emotion.

What, specifically, gets you emotional?

QC: It became so clear to me that gaining independence was hard and rebuilding is a very long and hard road. 

For readers who aren’t familiar with the history of Timor-Leste, can you give a bit of background?

QC: Timor has a history that is marked with violence and hope. In 1975, Timor-Leste declared itself an independent territory, after almost 300 years of Portuguese colonial rule. Shortly after this declaration, however, Indonesian troops violently invaded this small island nation. Under their rule, the country saw a massive loss of lives, approximately 200,000 over 25 years. During this period of occupation the Timorese people did not rest, they continued to fight a long and sustained campaign for independence, both in country and internationally. 

When did Timor-Leste achieve independence? What was the process like?

QC: On 30 August 1999, 98 percent of registered citizens cast their votes and overwhelming (78.5 percent) chose independence. In response, the Indonesia militia destroyed their homes, villages, and cities, and approximately 2,000 Timorese people were killed. The international community quickly responded to this outbreak of violence and an international peacekeeping force soon hit the shores of this new country.  New Zealand played a key role in helping our regional neighbour by sending members of the Defense Force, who served as Peacekeepers in the districts of Bobonaro and Covalima (which are the communities that ChildFund New Zealand sponsor support).  

With almost 75 percent of the capital’s infrastructure destroyed and about three quarters of the nation’s population displaced, the repercussions of choosing independence was harrowing. The resilience of the Timorese people, however, should never be underestimated.  Since this devastating start to their new country, the brave and determined Timorese people have been rebuilding their lives, as well as building their very own state, with democratic institutions that had never existed before.

You mentioned that you had lived in Timor-Leste previously. Can you tell us about that experience?  

QC: I lived in Dili, Timor-Leste, from 2013 to 2014. At that time, the UN Peacekeepers had just pulled out. The government was deemed stable and, despite some turbulence in 2006, this country was ‘on its way’. In my role at the UN, I supported an evaluation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and while the country was not meeting many of their targets (especially around poverty and under-weight children), it was thought that Timor was still a very young country and that more time was needed to achieve results.

You returned to Timor in January, how have things changed?

QC: I was naturally excited to return to Timor, to see how things had changed, to learn about ChildFund New Zealand’s programmes in Covalima and Bobonaro, catch up with old friends, and to visit my lovely cat, Miuku. After a few days in the country, however, it became very apparent that the nation was still experiencing hard times. 

How so?

QC: It was disheartening to learn that disputes within the National Government had meant that government (the biggest employer in Timor) had not paid workers for many months, small and major business were shutting down, National Hospital staff were walking off the job, and I could see that there were less people at restaurants and markets.

In addition, human development indicators have not improved and have even stagnated.  Today, child mortality and development remain as some of the greatest challenges facing this country.  For instance, it is estimated that one in 24 children will not reach their fifth birthday and one of every two children under five are stunted.

Have things been getting better in Timor-Leste?

QC: Timorese people are known as hard working, respectful, warm, and they are definitely determined. Mothers of sponsored children explained to me that with Kiwi support they have been able to buy animals, which provides them an income to send their children to school, as well as have a financial back up.  They are committed to giving their children the best start to life.

What improvements would you like to see in the near future?

QC: I’d like to see more of a focus on children’s health and education, and support for youth in rural areas.  These young people are the future leaders of the country and if supported, educated, and empowered they can add significant value to their communities, whilst helping to address some of the major human development challenges. 

How can New Zealanders make a bigger difference for children in need?

QC: I’m a firm believer that every dollar counts when helping children thrive. That’s why we’re always looking for ways to send even more donations to the countries where we work.

For those who want to help ChildFund grow our impact around the world, please give us a call on 0800 808 822 or visit www.childfund.org.nz/donate. We’d love to help you find the best way to make the biggest difference.         

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