Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

Amilzia sleeps peacefully in her mother’s arms.

Her small face appears from the yellow and blue sarongs that swamp her tiny frame.

Her hands, half the size of mum’s finger, are crossed over her chest, and the thick string bracelets on her wrists rise and fall as she breathes.

The bracelets are there to ward off bad spirits.

Since she was born two weeks ago, her family has been worried about her health. Amilzia’s been struggling to breastfeed and is losing weight. While this may be normal for newborns in their first week after birth, the little girl hasn’t shown the healthy and normal signs of regaining weight.

She’s a 2.3kg bundle of joy, but the situation is distressing for mum Rosa, who is already having difficulty producing breastmilk.

Amilzia’s grandmother Filomena has been visiting the pair at their home in Timor-Leste’s Liquicia district, to provide encouragement and support.

Great grandmother Natalia, who makes the long walk down from her home in the mountains, has also joined them.

All three women are worried Amilzia will become malnourished and won’t gain enough weight to receive vaccinations – if she’s lucky to get them.

They know there’s a chance the little girl might not survive.

But worry, at the moment, is all they feel they can do. When they’re not distressed or anxious about Amilzia’s future, they’re hopeful things will change.

The roller coaster of emotions you feel while holding your first child is an experience like no other.

The fear, the tears, the love, and the sheer exhaustion — that cocktail of emotions came flowing back to me as I spoke to new mothers in Timor-Leste.

Hearing their stories, I remembered how overwhelmed you can feel by the immense responsibility of keeping this tiny being alive.

That feeling can be especially overpowering if you are recovering from a traumatic birthing experience, or you feel alone and unsupported, or your baby is small and struggling to feed. Unfortunately, this is the case for many of the women in Timor-Leste’s remote villages.

I met four-month-old Denilcia, her mother Susi and grandmother Maria in their tiny cement brick home in the mountains of Liquicia District.

Like 70 per cent of people in Timor-Leste, their family lives in a small remote village that is almost entirely reliant on small, subsistence farms.

To reach their village from the capital, Dili, we had to drive on a one-way, muddy road that weaved dangerously through the mountains. Recent rains had washed away the track, which made our journey take four hours and made every corner feel like a near-death experience.

When we arrived, I was struck by the beauty of the village and the loving environment Denilcia’s family had created.

The roof of the house is iron, they do not have running water, they cook food outside, the floors are concrete and they have basic furnishings: a table, some plastic chairs, wooden beds and mosquito nets. But their house is filled with love. They are a very close and supportive family; they have lived through trauma.

Over a third of the population of Timor-Leste, including thousands of mothers, grandmothers and caregivers, died during the Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, which ended in 1999.