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Maria’s hope: I want my granddaughter to survive

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.

Maria and her granddaughter: “I will do everything I can to make sure this baby survives. I will make sure nothing happens to her.”

Maria survived, but she was not spared tragedy. Of her six children, only Susi her youngest daughter, is still with her.

During the occupation, Maria had five lively children. But when polio swept through the village, everyone in her family contracted the disease. Her eldest son was eight years old when he died and then each of her remaining children — another son and three young daughters — all passed away, one by one.

As we talked about her children, tears welled in our eyes. The grief of losing children just can’t be contained. The pain of living without her children is immense; I felt it in the room.

“I cannot talk for long about my children who died,” Maria told me. “If I keep talking I become very sad. Polio is a terrible sickness. It’s difficult to cure and it kills children. It made them disabled, they couldn’t sit up and they died, all of them, one after the other.”

Many children in the village died during this outbreak in 1994, devastating infected families. The Indonesian army had blockaded the village during Timor-Leste’s fight for independence.

The horrors of occupation are still being felt in this village. During this time healthcare facilities were targeted. Today many clinics in rural areas lack water, sanitation and electricity. Clinics in rural areas are mostly closed over the weekends. Many only provide services one or two days a week. There is a serious shortage of skilled health staff with maternal and child health training, contributing to a lack of information in the community to stop babies dying of preventable causes.

Maria still carries her personal tragedy with her each day. But she has her daughter Susi, and now Denilcia, her first grandchild. I will do everything I can to make sure this baby survives. I will make sure nothing happens to her,” she told me.

She helps Susi care for Denilcia; they tend to her cries, settle her to sleep under a mosquito net and spend hours cuddling her.

Speaking with this beautiful strong woman, talking of grief and love, reminded me of the importance of family. Denilcia is so well cared for, so adored. Susi is confident feeding and caring for Denilcia, because she has such solid, practical and loving support from her own mother.

Maria knows how hard it is caring for a baby in those first early months, and she gives advice on how to breastfeed, the importance of immunisation, and healthy food and sanitation.

“I will do anything for my grandchild, and for her mother as well,” Maria explained. “If her mother needs to eat, I help her so that my grandchild can have good health and grow physically.”

The new mothers and babies in Timor-Leste that I met who were struggling the most didn’t have family support, intergenerational knowledge and care being passed down.

These young mothers and their newborns need extra support from village health volunteers or healthcare clinic staff. They need advice on how to breastfeed, how to swaddle a baby, how to care for them and when they need to get help if their baby is struggling.

They need someone to show them that they are not alone. Village health volunteers and health clinics in rural and remote areas are incredibly important in providing life-saving advice and support.

I think of all the new mothers in Timor-Leste, who have so little resources, so little access to healthcare and information, and who are exhausted and frightened. What they need is support.

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