I have just returned from East Timor - the world's newest nation. It was my twelfth visit in four years.
The Australian Salesian Missions Office is providing valuable support to the 100 Salesians (priests, brothers and sisters) who are working mainly in education.
Each time I visit East Timor I see some signs of new development in the country, however, progress is slow. Nowadays, many seem to be on the move - there are more cars on the road, a good number are riding motorbikes and many more are on bicycles.
However, the nation's extreme poverty is never far from the surface. Perhaps the biggest single problem is malnutrition, with people simply not getting enough to eat and drink.
Tuberculosis is widespread, affecting more than 60 percent in some areas and nearly everybody has malaria. In addition there are outbreaks of a dengue fever type illness in some districts.
A drought for the past two years has reduced food production considerably in many regions. There is now a coconut blight in Baucau hitting both a source of food and income for local people.
Fr Trans, a Salesian, is Principal of St Anthony's (co-educational) High School in Baucau with an enrolment of more than 820 students (Years 7-12).
Fr Trans says he has observed a general decline in the local economy in recent years: "Right now Baucau is an area of severe hunger. Some disease has ruined all the coconut trees, the main income source for the locals. Rains have been very erratic and the farmers have not been able to prepare the field for rice and corn.
"Most of our students come to school without having had breakfast. Though they are keen to learn, they find it very hard to concentrate.
"With finance and goods provided by Salesian Missions in Australia, we have instituted a School Luncheon Program whereby we give the students a cooked meal.
"For many youngsters it is the best meal they will have in the day. One girl said to me last week, 'Here at school we get rice with beans and vegetables; at home we only have porridge!'
"The lunch helps students stay awake and pay attention in class. It has meant that they are better able to concentrate on their school work".
Fr Trans added that there are very serious health problems in the district. The people are weak through both illness and lack of food. Just a month ago one of his students, a girl aged 15, died from a dengue fever type illness.
Fr Trans told me to thank Australian donors who are assisting the students in his school.
"It is very tough right now," he said. "My main concern is that we will be able to keep this program going. We hope and pray that things will soon improve. We firmly believe that education is the key to progress in the future."
Fr Marcos, a Salesian, is parish priest of St John Bosco Parish, Laga. There are 47 schools in the parish, three of which are junior highs, and the remainder are primary, including several small one-teacher village schools, catering for more than 6,000 students all told.
In the past year, Australian donors to Salesian Missions have paid the salaries of the teachers and thus ensured that the schools have remained open.
The Laga district suffered considerably from the recent droughts resulting in a current food shortage. In response, Fr Marcos has started a Schools Luncheon Program in five schools.
"For five days a week a cooked meal is provided at Laga (250 students), Baguia (250 students), Quelicai (150 students), Hosuna (70 students) and Tequinuamada (120 students). The meal is usually rice, supplemented by meat on two days and with vegetables on the other three," Fr Marcos said.
"Many children, including very young ones, walk for more than 45 minutes to get to school. Not having had anything to eat in the morning, they arrive at school very hungry.
"The response to our School Luncheon Program has been truly fantastic. The children are very happy. And the teachers tell me the youngsters are now showing much more enthusiasm and interest in their studies. Morale has been boosted all round," he added.
Fr Marcos said he would like to introduce the luncheon program to other schools in the parish, however he did not want to commence something he could not continue; and also more pots and cooking utensils would have to be purchased.
He said one of his dreams is that each school will have its own garden where the teachers and students will work together in the growing of vegetables.
Fr Marcos asked me to thank all who are helping him assist the young people in the Laga parish by keeping the schools open and providing a luncheon program.
Br Michael Lynch oversees the Salesian Mission Office. Donations to support the Salesian work in East Timor can be sent to Salesian Missions Office, P.O. Box 80, Oakleigh, Vic 3166. These are tax deductible.