Marion Smith believes that everybody has a chance to make change, even if the task ahead looks insurmountable. The 66-year-old from Tauranga is trying to help reduce tobacco use in Timor-Leste, which has one of the highest smoking rates in the world.

By Sally Round.

smoking timorMarion had just arrived in the capital, Dili, when we met in November at the small brightly painted office of the National Alliance for Tobacco Control, where she’s acting as mentor and coach.

The advocacy group, run by just a handful of staff and supported by the Australian charity Many Hands International, is pushing to get the two-year-old tobacco laws enforced and coax people off smoking. In Timor-Leste, 70 percent of men and nearly a third of women smoke. And the rate is high among children – a 2013 survey showed about 40 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds smoked regularly.

Cigarettes are cheap and children trawl the streets offering them at 10 cents each.

Marion said, in a low profile way, she is passing on what she has learnt as a director and a CEO in local and central government and the corporate world. “I’m a lateral thinker. Whether I’ve worked with government departments or private sector, it’s outside-the-box thinking that gets you out of the starting gate and far ahead of the other players.” Through role playing, brain-storming and other techniques, she is helping to build confidence among the advocates and campaigners.

Four months later and she is excited about the changes she sees among the organisation’s staff and the progress they have made. “They’re having fun. They’re actually now beginning to think “what if”, instead of thinking ‘oh my goodness, they’ve said no’.

Marion’s skills in capacity-building and financial know-how have also helped the National Alliance to get over the first hurdle to receive funding from the prestigious Bloomberg Initiative, which provides grants to countries worldwide to prevent tobacco use. The group has also petitioned the government to neither allow cigarette sales to under 17 year olds nor allow the sale of single cigarettes, ending up with a march to Parliament, good publicity and ministers promising to deal with the issue this year. “A small organisation doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance to influence change,” she said.

MHI Timor Leste 2

Left-right: VSA Timor-Leste Programme Officer Novi Noviani, MHI Team Leader Nelinha Pereira, VSA Timor-Leste Programme Manager Victoria Gregory, Sabino Soares.

Marion said she had always wanted to be a VSA volunteer but hadn’t had the time. “It’s so lovely to be able to stand aside and say, yep, now there’s the time to do it. And there is nothing to pull me. My children have grown up and my grandchildren are growing up so it’s a great time. Sixty-five is a retirement age in New Zealand but it’s not a retirement age for most individuals.”

She is learning Tetun, one of the main local languages, teaches English, sings in a choir and enjoys the strong and active expat community. “I enjoy working with different cultures. I have done all my life,” Marion said.

She said the polite and respectful Timorese culture has its drawbacks when it comes to getting things done in the office and she has encouraged a little more pushiness among the advocates. “They don’t ring or email, they write a letter asking to go and speak to somebody. You hand deliver the letter and they sit and wait. When I first encountered that I couldn’t believe it. Now we deliver the letter, two days later you ring them, email them and you keep doing that every day until you get your appointment. Now we don’t wait more than a week. We get our appointments very quickly now.

MHI Timor Leste

Sabino Soares, of the Nazareth Foundation, which supports the project.

“Yes, it is pushy, but it’s actually important to both the parties. It took them from 2004 to 2016 to get the (tobacco) law in place. You don’t want another 12 years before it starts being enforced. Now you’ve got the law, let’s get it started. Two years have gone passed and it hasn’t happened. This year it will happen.”

Marion said while she still has plenty of energy she wished she had started her volunteering adventure a little earlier. “I had not realised how important it is to share information other than just do a job. This is something that matters and they will make use of this information. You gather a whole lot of experience in life. If you had it when you were 20 you’d be an amazing star and you’ve got a chance to make amazing stars out of people who are 20, 30 who can actually go in bigger leaps and bounds than you have done.”

Radio New Zealand reporter Sally Round travelled to Timor-Leste, with the support of Orbit World Travel, as a winner of VSA’s Excellence in international development journalism award.


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