Looking isn’t always seeing

I thought I’d given it to her straight. I mean, it’s no secret that Timor-Leste is a developing country, ranking 134th out of 186 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2013. Australia, by comparison, comes in 2nd.

I hadn’t sugar-coated anything. I’d ‘fessed up about recent security issues and curfews. I’d talked about the poverty, the dustiness of Dili in the dry season, all of it.

I thought I’d painted a pretty good picture, but when my mother came to visit last week she was shocked, to say the least. She found the heat and humidity to be overwhelming. Dili’s seemingly ubiquitous piles of festering garbage horrified her. The ever-present roosters and dogs with their incessant cacophony got the better of her after just one day. And it certainly didn’t help that the day after Mum arrived, word quickly spread that 24 prisoners had escaped from one of Dili’s prisons.

My initial reaction was almost one of personal offence. Of course it’s nothing like Bali. It’s a country that has been ravaged by neglect and poverty, having only emerged from a bloody and brutal period of occupation and civil unrest a few years ago. Heck, the last of the foreign troops only left earlier this year. Timor has essentially only been its own country since the beginning of 2013. What did she expect?

The more I thought about, however, the more I realised that my reaction was probably similar when I first got here. Of course Timor is a country with problems. If I didn’t think there were things that needed improvement, I wouldn’t be doing my research here. We’re all here – my friends, housemates, and almost every other foreigner – because we want to see change. We don’t think Timor can, or should, stay how it is at this very moment.

To be honest though, I don’t really notice the rubbish anymore (until there’s a dirty nappy being eaten by a dog, which happens more often than I care to admit). The omnipresent sickly looking dogs are now just part of the landscape. To me, it stands out more when the kids are clean; a nice change from their daily slightly-grubby look. As for the roosters, well… that’s a different story. I wouldn’t care in the slightest if they all dropped dead tomorrow. In fact, today would work better for me. Then maybe I could get a solid night sleep.

I don’t think it matters what an individual person is doing – whether it be working, researching, or something else entirely – living in a developing country isn’t easy. On top of being out of your comfort zone, there are little daily frustrations to contend with, and sometimes there are things that are so big that you’re not sure if anyone will ever be able to fix them.

On top of the trivial things, like intermittent telephone and internet services, the stifling heat and a lack of privacy or personal space, I’ve spent a significant portion of my time in Timor talking and reading about violence against women and children. I’ve read, heard and seen horrific acts of inexcusable brutality. For other people here, it could be stories of sick and dying people, or spending every day dealing with the bureaucracy that can stand in the way of improving the quality of life for so many people.

The bleakness may all be part and parcel of working in development, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. We all have different ways of coping – for me, it seems to involve a little more drinking, a lot more smoking, making wildly inappropriate jokes and ranting at the top of my lungs about the godforsaken roosters.

After Mum’s reactions during her visit, I wondered if I’d added another coping mechanism to my list: selective ignorance. Maybe I’d chosen to ignore the filth, the malnourished kids, the flea-ridden dogs, and the “discipline” that is outright physical abuse. Maybe ignoring it all makes living here just a little bit easier. Maybe if I ignore the smaller things, the things I see on a daily basis, it will make the bigger things, like security issues or hearing stories of violent rapes, just a little bit easier to deal with.

After Mum left, I noticed all the things she’d pointed out – the rubbish, the smell, the dogs, and the blatant poverty – all of it. And I realised that these things will continue to exist whether I acknowledge them or not. Ignoring them might help me in the short-term, but it won’t help to fix the problems, it won’t make them magically disappear.

Considering the recent and predicted upcoming unnecessary cuts to Australia’s aid budget (and the absorption of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), maybe the best thing I can do is to look – to really see the problems that are right on Australia’s doorstep, and to keep sharing them with as many people as possible.

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