Not a word about this in our media

Update 17 August 2013

I have now heard back from both Friends of Baguia, and CVTL (Red Cross Timor Leste).

CVTL said this:

Dear Helen

Our apologies for not getting back to you sooner – but we went on a bit of a mission to find out what had happened in Baguia.

No one,  either CVTL HQ or Timor friends had heard anything about it at al – which is very unusual as Timor is a small country and everyone knows everything.

Finally I saw Sipri our Bacau Branch Coordinator – and he confirmed there was a landslide in the area but there had been no deaths.

He said CVTL volunteers went up to help and gave relief packs to the family’s (pots, toothpaste, soap, sleeping mats etc and some tarps. Sipri also said the Government agency went up there and helped and there has been some rebuilding. But as your friend said there is probably still a need for something – but Sipri said  that the government had provided some roofing materials.

CVTL doesn’t have any funds to help with rebuilding as we don’t have a funding base for disasters like Australia.

Sipri gave me some photos of distribution of emergency packs – but I’m not sure that’s of use to you.

Hope this information helps and again our apologies for the delay.

Friends of Baguia said this:

The Friends of Baguia committee has assessed and prioritised the issues that they believe they can address – namely the four schools that need roofing iron and timber. We have obtained costings and in total this will be over Aust Dollars $3,000. So while we don’t really have “spare funding” we feel we need to fix these immediate issues to improve teaching conditions, and then hope that we can met our future fixed commitments later in the year for scholarships, teacher salaries etc.

Other requests such as 2 tanks and piping for Buibela are out of our league, even though I’ve been told that the landslide has destroyed their spring and their new water supply is apparently now 3 kms away.

My friend in Baguia continues to press the need for a solution to the water crisis in Buibela, but it has been identified as an expensive and complicated job, so I don’t know how this will be solved.  Friends of Baguia say it would cost $4,500 for the water tanks alone, and much more to include 3km of piping to the nearest spring.  I would dearly love to visit Buibela and see for myself, how they access that water.  I guess they walk the 3km, fill something, and walk the water back to their homes?

Meanwhile, I read a quote on Facebook the other day by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of Nestle, that access to water should not be a human right, and water should be treated like a commodity, as with any other foodstuff.  When I hear this, I think back to the little boy in Dili who appeared in his ragged clothes from nowhere near my hotel as I was walking along, and literally begged me (in a language I didn’t understand) to put some water in his dirty old plastic cup.  I will never know what happened to that boy who I didn’t find a solution for, because in my shock it didn’t register until I’d walked away, the impact of what he didn’t have.  A cup of water!

780 million people across the globe lack access to clean water, which is approximately one in every nine people on the planet, and lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every four hours.

21 July 2013

Today I heard from my friend in Baucau District, Timor Leste.
The message from her is “rain a lot and natural disaster everywhere.  People are injured and dead.  Buildings slid down in the rain”.

I have tried to find news of this on the internet but there is nothing?


It takes an hour to fly from Darwin, on the north coast of Australia’s Northern Territory, to Dili, on the north coast of Timor-Leste.  Why would this not be news we would want to hear?

Baucau District, where the disaster is reported to have happened, can be found on this map, two districts to the east of Dili.


I have texted her again, asking for more information so that I can let people know.  Her reply so far has been “I will send you email tomorrow.  But we have no batteries and no power”.  So providing even basic information via email is going to be a challenge.  Anything I find out, I hope to share somehow.

Sometimes though, it seems as though what some American celebrity wants to call their baby is more newsworthy than a disaster going on in our own back yard?

23 July 2013

Two days later, when the intermittent power came on, she managed an email to me, which I quote here:

The desastres are around Timor leste.There are many significant desastre in Seisal,West of east Timor.It is the desastre journalist has photos of it. Up in baguia no journalist come to do the report on the newspaper.We have no picture up in baguia because we are in remote area.there is no power at all during this wet season.We can’t recharger batteries.It is very hard to have evidence to over seas.If someone come up to baguia they will know what is happen.Friends of baguia will know what and where.

These is the things we need you to help.

1.Buibela school need your help to replace their school roofing because just in half an hour of the wind the roof is blow away.They need 45 lenghts of corrugated iron.6 kg of nails. And two water tanks and pipes for Buibela.

2.Haeconi School.35 lenghts of corrugated iron.

3. larisula Kindergarten school. 35 lenghts of corrugated iron.And 6kg nails

4.Water tank for Baguia orphanage

5.Afaloikai school.Needs 45 lenghts of corrugated iron.6 kg of nails and timbers.

6.Road and bridge broken

7.Mesh or gabion baskets for landslide and road broken.

Friends of Baguia are a community organisation in Victoria who have assisted Baguia District in different ways, and their website tells you how you can help with donations or fundraising.  I hope that people will read this page and decide to help.  It is hard to imagine being so cut off from the outside world.

Unfortunately a Google for news from Seisal also brings up nothing, so even though an outside journalist has apparently been there and taken photographs, this is not information available to the outside world either.

The good news is, people in Australia and the West do want to know and help.  This morning a friend has (already!) referred me to Kopernik, an NGO involved in directly assisting third world communities with innovative technologies.

24 July

Further enquiries have revealed that because Baguia is a remote location in the highlands of eastern East Timor, with a population of around 13,000, with intermittent power, poor internet connections, and a population who survive on subsistence farming (rice, corn, beans, and some water buffalo used to till the land), the chances of this ever making it to the outside world’s consciousness is pretty much “nil”.

There are, despite this recent tragedy (and the ongoing threat of similar tragedies due to the fragile built environment), still good news stories.  In 1999, after the Timorese referendum in which independence from Indonesia, who had ruled since 1975, was almost unanimously voted for, the Indonesians left a trail of destruction as they left the country.  95% of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed, including schools.  Almost all of the teachers at that time were foreign born, and left the country.

Since then, schools have been established, the country boasts 12,000 teachers at a teacher:student ratio of 1: 28 now, yet much still needs to be done.  Two thirds of the population are under 25yo, meaning that the demands on the education system are only going to increase.  Especially if natural disasters such as Baguia has recently seen, continue to cause cheap tin roofs to fly off school buildings, roads cut off, obstructing people who often have to travel large distances to reach school, and access to water remains so challenging.

26 July 2013

Overnight I received this email from Baguia:

Thank you very much for your attention.
Kopernik is absolutely a very part of the world to contact after I read the explanation you sent me.
I hope our suffers can be less with your way to listen to us.

Sadly, the message from Kopernik is that unless there is an organisation at the grass roots level for them to partner with, then they cannot help.  They have strict processes in place about this, which is tied in with their accountability processes, and it makes complete sense.

I have written to Baguia asking if there is an organisation there who Kopernik might be able to partner with, but I suspect the answer will be no.  In which case, I’ve written to Timor’s Red Cross, asking for their assistance.  They have a good reputation from all accounts, so with any luck they may be able to respond in some way.

The wheels of assistance sure move slowly!

12 August 2013

Well, the wheels do turn slowly, but today I heard from two organisations with an interest in Baguia Sub District and their recent weather damage.

Timor’s Red Cross have reported back from the area.  Unfortunately they don’t have funding to assist in disasters in Timor, and so they cannot assist with the repairs.  They have delivered “relief packs” including soap, sleeping mats and tarps (I can’t imagine living under a tarp in a tropical climate?).  They report that a government agency has assisted with some building repairs, however my friend continues to report that there remain buildings without roofs.

Friends of Baguia in Victoria have committed to roofing iron and timber for the four damaged schools, so that is a great start.  The school which needs access to water – they are hoping for piping to link to the nearest spring 3km away – seems like an unlikely bet, people are not prepared to commit to this as it is expensive and would be labour intensive.

Anyone interested in helping, you can donate to Friends of Baguia and know that the money will go directly towards projects in this poor and very remote part of the world, but only a very short flight from Darwin in Australia as the crow flies.


Meanwhile Some Social Epidemiology is a website offering hundreds of free short online courses from many reputable universities around the world.  It’s well worth taking a look at what they have to offer if you’re at all interested in undertaking any type of informal but structured study.  There is an enormous range of subjects, and the website is ever-expanding, most recently reporting an enrolment of 4 million students, and new courses being offered constantly.

This year I enjoyed and completed a nine-week HIV course.  Enjoyed but didn’t complete an eight-week Introduction to Psychology course.  About to complete a seven-week Social Epidemiology course.  And in a few weeks’ time I will begin an eleven-week Virology course through Columbia University in New York.

The courses are all free, with online webinars presented by lecturers / professors from the university delivering the course, online readings, references to interesting online videos on the relevant subject, etc.  Some of the courses now have an optional “Signature Track” which costs a small amount of money and allows the student to have their course participation acknowledged should they apply to the university for a more formal course.  All you really need is an interest in the subject, the time to listen to lectures, do the required readings and online quizzes, possibly write a few short essays and possibly mark some of your peers’ work, all as a part of the course requirements (not every course has every one of these components).

After studying Epidemiology as part of my Masters degree years ago, and working in the area of disease Epidemiology for ten years or more, I decided to take the Social Epidemiology class offered via Coursera, by University of Minnesota.  It was an introductory level course,  but nevertheless I learned a lot, around the sub-discipline of “Social Epi”.

Epidemiology as a subject looks at health and disease at the population level, related to patterns and causes of illness.  Much of my paid work relates to infectious diseases, identifying who is sick with a particular disease and responding to this from a public health perspective (as opposed to an individual-level clinical perspective).  For example identifying contacts of someone with a specific infectious disease and providing education, preventive treatment etc, to stop the disease from spreading.  It’s an interesting subject with a lot of variation and interaction with people from all walks of life.  The study of Epidemiology has a lot to do with mathematics and research, so as a subject that I have come to know and love, it has drawn me into dealing with two study areas which would have to be my least favourite.  But because they’re connected to a subject I enjoy, I can (reluctantly) tolerate thinking about mathematics and research methodologies.

Social Epidemiology, as I have learned, is more specifically about “the social determinants of health” – which is in brief, how social factors or social systems influence the health of a population. The lecturer compared the health of Robinson Crusoe – who was marooned on a deserted island – with the health of those of us who live in a society, surrounded by other people who influence us in all kinds of ways.  For example cigarette companies who market their product to us; our peers smoking or not when we are teenagers influencing our decision to smoke; the political systems and laws which affect cigarette marketing and sales; and the social norms in our society around cigarette smoking.  For example once upon a time in Australia, smokers assumed the right to smoke wherever they wanted; but today the social norm in Australia is that smokers have designated places to smoke and they must abide by these rules.  Smoking rates in the western world have plummeted in the past two decades, influenced by changes in all of these factors.

Some of the more interesting examples discussed in this course included:

The use of diamond rings as symbols of marital engagement
In 1938 De Beers, a conglomerate of companies who dominate the diamond industry, implemented a strategy whereby they restricted the supply of diamonds (which are not a particularly rare commodity), and began marketing diamonds as a rite of passage connected to becoming engaged.  They were so successful, that they changed our social norm, such that it became expected and normal for the gift of a diamond ring to be a part of the engaged-to-be-married status of a couple.

You can read more about this interesting piece of social history at these links:

Foot binding in Chinese society
For over a thousand years Chinese girls underwent the tradition of having their feet tightly bound, so that as their feet grew they were deformed into a painful and contorted shape which caused women to be housebound with limited mobility.  But their small feet were considered to be sexually attractive to men.  Women with tiny feet were considered good marriage material, while women with normal (considered to be large) feet, were guaranteed to never marry in Chinese society.  It became associated with class, with the smallest feet being the higher social classes, whilst the only place where bound feet may not be found was in the lower social classes where women’s labour was needed in the fields or workshops.  But even in the lower social classes, families would undergo great financial hardship in order to bind the feet of their daughters to ensure they could marry.  Within a single generation, through some fairly simple measures, this practice was halted simply by a shift in the “social norm”.  The parents of girls said they would not bind their daughters’ feet, and the parents of boys said they would prohibit their sons from marrying someone with bound feet.  By the early 1900s foot binding had moved from being 50% to 80% prevalent across China, to having all but disappeared from society completely.

More on foot binding can  be found at:

The bottom article directly above compares the eradication of Chinese foot binding as a “social norm”, with the persistence of Female Genital Mutilation as a “social norm” across a large tract of northern Africa.

A less extreme example of Social Epidemiology than these, is the influence that neighbourhood environments in the developed world can have on population health.  Wealthier neighbourhoods with good planning and design tend to be much healthier than poorer neighbourhoods with lower value housing, fewer parks and cycle tracks, fewer affordable shops and more unhealthy takeaway establishments, etc.  Studies go so far as to say that living in a distressed neighbourhood (with high rates of poverty)  can adversely affect people’s well being and behaviour due to reasons such as limited exposure to peers and role models who support pro-social behaviours such as school and work; increased exposure to pollution or crime; limited exposure to neighbours who are willing and able to cooperate and work together to improve community life; limited exposure to high quality public institutions, from schools, housing and police, to community-run organisations.

So Social Epidemiology is about influencing populations in order to alter the status of their health, either by altering physical aspects of the environment, or cultural practises, various social systems (school systems, organisational and governmental systems, economic forces, etc).  With social media such a popular cultural practise now, this is considered one possible way to alter people’s attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and/or choices.

We hear a lot about the negative forces at play with social media such as Facebook, but I believe that there are also a lot of potential positive forces involved with such media.  For example, teenagers and young people love Facebook.  In remote Australia, for marginalised teenagers with limited educational attainment and limited literacy, the use of Facebook could well change the face of the literacy levels of some of our most impoverished teenagers, who suddenly have a reason to want to read and write.  They are talking to each other via keyboards on their phones and computers, being exposed to ideas and news which may otherwise be far removed from their world perspective. offer university level educational courses to anyone with access to the internet, from anywhere in the world.  While most of the courses available to date seem to be in English, there are some courses in Spanish and other languages.  The students I have studied with so far have come from all corners of the globe, and many people in developing countries have been enrolled with me in courses offered by reputable universities located in the developed world, which would not be accessible without this website.  This could well change the face of education in poorer parts of the world.

I think these are potentially exciting times and Social Epidemiologists could have a ball exploring the issue.

The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog

The last time I wrote a book review, was probably in the mid 1980s when I had to for school.  So I don’t know how this will go, but it’s worth trying, because the book was great.

Some months ago, when I was still fostering, I was talking to a social worker about things, and she recommended I read Dr Bruce Perry’s work.  A few weeks later I came home from work and a pile of books had been left at my front door.  I’ve just finished The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a series of case studies about different traumatised children Dr Perry has dealt with over the years.

Dr Perry is an American psychiatrist who has undertaken a lot of research in neuroscience specific to childhood trauma.  He founded (I believe) the Child Trauma Academy in Texas, a not-for-profit organisation involved in clinical care of traumatised children, as well as research and health professional education on the issue.

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog reveals the stories of a small number of the children Dr Perry has helped.  He outlines their traumatic experiences, how these experiences impacted on the childrens’ neurological development, from a physiological perspective and how this abnormal physiology can explain the behaviours displayed by each child, and then how and why he and his colleagues implemented treatment which helped (or in some cases, didn’t help) the children.

Throughout the book he discusses the development of the human brain, and how traumatic experiences can interrupt normal development leading to delayed, unusual and / or disordered behaviours.

For years I’ve argued with people that many children and young adults misbehave due, at least in part, to disadvantaged upbringings.  But it’s not really disadvantage, which was an unsophisticated way of describing it.  It’s exposure to traumatic experiences which affects our neuro-physiology, which in turn affects our psychology.  Anyone living in socio-economic disadvantage has an increased risk of traumatic experiences by the very nature of such an existence.  Poverty, overcrowding, exposure to mental illness and substance abuse, exposure to stressful situations such as financial hardship and hunger, domestic violence, and lack of stability, are all things which increase any child’s risk of exposure to traumatic experiences, and simultaneousy reduces their chances at access to decent support systems to compensate.

Dr Perry takes it a step further though, explaining that it depends when you are exposed, to what type of trauma or neglect, how often you are exposed and at which stages of your brain development throughout childhood, as to how a child may or may not be affected.  For example, a newborn who is severely neglected from his first days of life will have very different brain development processes, than a toddler who had some time for healthy processes to occur prior to being neglected.  He discusses two such cases – one young man who is severely dysfunctional (and has committed a double murder) after experiencing severe neglect throughout his infant years, and one young man who displays unusual but endearing behaviours after experiencing a healthy first year or so of life before being left for long periods of time during his older infant years.

There is, as you might expect, a story about a boy who is raised for around 5 years with an elderly man who worked as a dog breeder. When the elderly man inherited the care of this baby via some convoluted family connections, he kept the baby in a dog cage, with very little human interaction, through a lack of understanding rather than any desire to cause harm to the baby, who he wasn’t able to care for properly.  There is also a chapter on the child survivors of the Waco Massacre, and how and why they were treated together in the first few weeks after their release from captivity by Dr Perry and his colleagues.

The eleven chapters each tell a different story, each very different and informative in varied, but inter-connected ways.  Anyone who works with or has any kind of contact with children who have, or are at risk of having, traumatic experiences, would find the stories and explanations in this book as invaluable as I have.

At the same time as reading this book I undertook an online Psychology course and learned about the human brain, another informative experience.  The way that the spinal column leads up to the brain stem, our most primitive brain area which we share with reptiles.  This area of the brain is responsible for very basic processes such as maintaining temperature and blood pressure, breathing, digestion, etc.

With evolution, our brain developed further, with the limbic system which is involved in formation of memories and emotions.  Then the “neocortex” developed, and is involved with more sophisticated things such as language, perception, awareness of others’ feelings, etc.

The way that these different areas develop through childhood means that the brain of a child is highly – far more than I ever imagined – sensitive to, and affected by, the experiences that occur during childhood. When in childhood the traumatic experience occurs, and how the child presents to the clinician, determines the treatment significantly. Dr Perry uses what he calls “neurosequential treatment”, whereby the child’s brain is literally “mapped”, and the areas of the brain which are underdeveloped (due to neglect) or shut-down (due to exposure to trauma) are identified, and then given appropriate attention to promote healing. This may be as simple as rocking an older child back and forth repeatedly in a loving way, as an infant experiences regularly with their mother in normal experience, if the child is found to have missed out on such nurturing during infancy. Or it could be teaching a teenager who is self harming – which I learned is a very effective way for some, to block out bad memories of abuse – ways to “zone out” which don’t involve self-harm.

It has evoked memories for me, of a boy I nursed almost fifteen years ago who when he was admitted to hospital at around age 6, was found to have been living in a pen with pigs.  He was removed from the family and came to hospital whilst alternative care was arranged, which in the time I was involved, didn’t happen and he remained hospitalised for a prolonged period of time.  He could not speak, did not know how to shower or dress himself, and had many very odd behaviours.  But in the couple of months that I knew him, he improved significantly simply by having contact with familiar people.  He learned to follow basic commands, and bonded with a number of the nurses caring for him.  He would be close to 20 years old now, and I often wonder what became of him.

Since that time I’ve had a lot to do with many traumatised children, and I wish that years ago, I knew the few basic concepts that I have learned from my reading and studies in recent times.  It was interesting to hear Dr Perry describe how little was understood in the 1990s, and how much research has occurred since then.  Child psychology and psychiatry has advanced in leaps and bounds since then, and despite having so much more to learn, advances in the field have had a major impact on what help is now available for those children who are lucky enough to engage with professionals  in the system.  Unfortunately many children in need of such help never encounter it because they don’t access or remain engaged with the systems in which psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers work.  The children with highest need also don’t tend to remain well engaged in schools, where teachers may have the appropriate training to make a difference.

Those of us lucky enough to lead stable, happy childhoods are far less likely to end up with psychological problems, than those exposed to misery, deprivation, fear, violence, etc. Dr Perry also talks about the role that genetics and other influences have, and is very clear about the fact that every individual is different. But the brain development processes that occur in each of us during childhood, are a dominant consideration. It makes complete sense intuitively, yet learning about the processes that occur during childhood trauma, and stories of children whose brain development has been disrupted, and then learning that there are often effective ways to treat the resulting symptoms for many children, was really enthralling and I recommend the book to anyone interested in childhood and / or social psychology.

Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog