The road to Los Palos, like most routes in Timor-Leste is both breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly rough on your bones. Luckily, speeding along roads that clutch the northern cliff faces of the island before climbing onto a lush farming plateau, the spectacular view is distracting enough to forget your fear and not quite notice the four hours that it takes to make the 180 kilometre trip.
Enter the dusty and brown town of Los Palos and it’s back to earth in a flash.
Hot, tired, dirty. It’s midday and there’s some business going along either side of the main road, mainly women selling fresh local produce, sitting under awnings. Our cars are the only ones on the road. Everyone else is watching.
The Red Cross branch of Los Palos is in the centre of town and out front there are about 50 young volunteers – men and women – waiting to welcome us in front of a small white building. It’s headquarters for about 70 volunteers, most of them under 25 and long-term unemployed. From here volunteers go out into their community, mainly teaching health and first aid to some of the most isolated and vulnerable people in this very new, very poor and extremely disadvantaged country.
For many volunteers in Los Palos and in the 13 Red Cross branches around the country, their volunteer work is the only training outside of school that they will ever receive and the only shot they will ever get at employment outside of the traditional agricultural sector.
After almost 500 years of Portuguese rule, followed by 24 years of Indonesian control, Timor-Leste emerged as an independent nation in 2002. One of the poorest countries on earth, it is a world leader in areas where no one would want to be: worse health, higher death rates, poorer people than most places on earth.
It’s the poorest country in Asia and one of the fastest growing in the world. In a country of around one million people, each woman will have, on average, more than seven children. Right now around 60 per cent of the population is under 18 and life expectancy at birth just dropped from 57 to 56 years. Infant mortality, while improving is still among the world’s highest.
More than 70 per cent of people live in isolated rural areas, getting by on subsistence agriculture – mostly corn, rice and coffee. Many regularly face seasonal food shortages. Average income is less than US $800 (900 Swiss francs/euro 545) a year.
Access to health services and social welfare is poor and barely half the population has access to safe drinking water and sanitary facilities. About 50 per cent of the population is illiterate and there is hardly any productive employment for the 11,000 young people who graduate from high school every year.
Finding a place with the Red Cross
Mariano De Jesus is a young, good looking 20-year-old. He’s neatly dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and holds himself confidently. He’s outspoken and articulate and looks like a leader.
When Red Cross volunteers came to Mariano’s village, two hours out of Los Palos, the 20 year old saw something for him. Unemployed since he finished high school in 2006, Mariano saw not only an opportunity for him to help people in his community but to get skills that might one day get him a job.
“In our village, sometimes Red Cross people came. I saw what they did and I liked it. The volunteers taught us first aid, how to help in accidents, treat snake bites and how to keep our water clean. It really made a difference for the people in my village,” says Mariano.
“If an accident happened it would take about two hours to transport someone 12 or 13 kilometres to the nearest hospital. Now we know how to carry them properly. We’ve also changed the way we look after our village,” he continues. “We now know how to keep our village clean.
“I joined Red Cross as a first aid volunteer eight months ago and I do it so that when accidents happen I can help my people,” Mariano says. “One day it might also help me.”
“There is work in Timor-Leste,” explains Timor-Leste Red Cross Secretary-General Isabelle Guterres. “Everyone has a piece of land to cultivate. But young people here, like most other places, want more. There’s not much opportunity here at all financially.”
“There are vocational schools, but when young people finish there, there’s nothing to do. No apprenticeships, no jobs.”
Across the other side of the country, almost at the West Timor border, in Cova Lima, 20-year-old Carmelita Soares De Cruz is also hoping that her Red Cross experience will help her change the trajectory that she sees her life on at the moment.
We visit Carmelita at her home at the edge of town. She lives with her brother who is a teacher, his wife, their three children and two sisters. Her brother earns US$150 (168 Swiss francs/euro 102) per month as a teacher and with that supports nine people.
“I have a very short life in front of me,” Carmalita tells us. “There are no jobs after school for us. We have two choices – to find a job or continue to university but our families are too poor to do either.
“Some parents have jobs so they can save and send their children to university. But that’s not many. It’s sad. We want to make our lives better but the economy here is bad. My dream is to be someone who works in a proper office. I’d like to learn to use a computer. I’ve gone to school for 12 years but I don’t know how to do that.”
Carmelita volunteers for Red Cross to get experience. To build her skills and maybe one day get a job with an NGO.
“I’m very happy to have become a Red Cross volunteer,” she says. “It’s given me a lot of self confidence. I can stand in front of a large number of people now and talk about health and first aid.’
Red Cross offers one small but positive channel for young people says Isabel Guterres. “We can pass on skills between people, they can help their own communities and we can give them the feeling of doing something good. But it’s not a long term solution because people need to earn an income, so further steps after this need to be taken,” She continues.
‘To really change things all parts of society need to take a role – families, schools, religious institutions, government. Everyone has to take some responsibility.’