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Notes from the field: Oxfam in Oecusse, Timor-Leste

Stop hunger in Timor-Leste
Report by Kate Bensen

As we flew in to Timor-Leste, I was curious to see exactly how life is there. After all, Timor-Leste is so close to Australia, and our histories are so intertwined.

Flying into Oecusse in a tiny plane, I could see why communication with the outside world was such an impossible mission during the Indonesian occupation. The landscape is a natural fortress: teeming reefs surround the coastline and a 100-metre border of flat terrain quickly steepens towards inhospitable mountains that cover the whole island.

Stop hunger in Timor-Leste

The sun is harsh in Oecusse. Mist settles in the valleys each morning but is burnt off by the searing sun within a few hours. Coming from Australia, I’m used to harsh sun — but I soon learned how harmful these conditions are for people in Oecusse.

We drove for hours, up into the mountains to the remote Cunha region. When we arrived, I stepped out of the 4WD into a hot, dry and dusty wind. It didn’t let up all week — I felt like I could see the leaves on the trees getting crisper around me.

You can help our neighbours in Timor-Leste survive the hungry season.
“My biggest worry is about food. If we have no food … maybe we will always be hungry and die.” — Maria, Timor-Leste

High in the mountains, I met Maria and José, who live with their daughter Julmira and José’s mother Terejinha. They’ve endured unpredictable weather for years — this year it only rained for a few weeks in February. I saw how hard they work in their garden. But without rain, they only harvested enough food to last for three months.

You can help our neighbours in Timor-Leste survive the hungry season

Maria was emotional when she shared her story. I was humbled by her strength. She told me that the children come to her and cry because they’re so hungry but she can’t placate them — she has no food or money.

Her mother-in-law Terejinha is a tiny woman, less than five-feet tall, with muscle wrapped around her bones. Within moments of emerging from the house, she had the whole village laughing. Everyone clearly adored her — she seemed to be a source of strength for everyone in this difficult time.

You can help our neighbours in Timor-Leste survive the hungry season

Terejinha couldn’t recall when she was born but she shared stories from her youth that indicate she’s lived at least 100 years. In my time in Oecusse, she was by far the most elderly person I saw.

I was moved by this family’s resilience in the face of such adversity. I know that with the right support they’ll survive. But until help arrives, their life is so terribly hard.

I hope that with your help we can make sure this family and all the others like them have enough food to eat in the future.

You can stop hunger

Donate today to help our neighbours in Timor-Leste survive the hungry season.

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Photos: Kate Bensen/OxfamAUS and Vlad Sokhim/OxfamAUS