If I had to describe Cheffy in three words? Well firstly I’d ask for more words, then I’d settle on ‘determination’ ‘resilience’ and ‘heart’. Why? Because he’s been told ‘no’ more times than he can count or recall. But it never changed his vision or resolve. Let me explain…
Renaldo Amaral Soares, a.k.a. Cheffy, is Village Chief in Hohorai, Timor-Leste.
I travelled to Cheffy’s village in 2015 to see the water solution we had funded and to hear his story.
After five hours on bumpy dirty roads that would make my friends at home who go 4WDing feel like their usual thrills were just a gentle rock of the pram, we arrived and were introduced to Cheffy. Together with a group of people from the community, Cheffy walked us through the village, sharing insights on different houses and areas as we passed them. I could tell he was warm, humble, considerate and a pillar of strength to this village. As he talked, we all listened. As he made jokes, we all laughed (though my laughs were a little delayed as I had to wait for the translator to repeat them to me). He posed for a photo and the group made light hearted fun of him, the same way my friends would to me back home. It was clear they had a strong bond and respect for each other.
We sat down to chat before the sun set on the day. Cheffy told me about himself and his family.
“I’m 50 years old. [I have] six daughters and two sons.”
He told me about 2009 — a bittersweet year for him. It was the year he was appointed Village Chief by nomination of the people, and also the year he lost his wife to what he believes to have been tuberculosis. As they are far from medical assistance, there was no way to be sure.
From the moment Cheffy was elected, he focused on one thing — to give his village control over their health through clean water.
Lack of safe water was a problem. Twice a day someone from each household would make the 3-hour trek through mountains and over steep hills to collect water that was riddled with dirt and diseases. This was the water that families used to drink, cook and clean. These trips were as dangerous as they were exhausting; and many women reported being attacked on their journey by wild animals and men from other villages.
“Some women had to carry water on a bucket make from palm leaves on their heads. We men had to carry water with jerry cans on a lever.”
The remoteness of Cheffy’s village meant when someone was sick, medical help was often too far away. Over the years, waterborne disease claimed the lives of many, including Cheffy’s son.
The thing is, the clean water was there. It was underground in the mountains. It just needed tools and a team to bring it to the surface.
In 2009, Cheffy started writing letters, sharing his story and asking for support to bring clean water to his village. For over four years he received the same response — that it was too risky and dangerous to reach him.
In 2014, after writing to Thankyou’s Impact Partner at the time, CVTL (The Red Cross), Cheffy got the answer he was waiting for. Thankyou’s goal is to reach the most at risk people and communities and give them sustainable solutions, so we were all in.
In 2015, the community broke ground on three gravity-fed water solutions that run through the top, middle and bottom of the village and taps so that everyone has access.
The change was big.
“With the clean water, the children can now have showers. They can brush their teeth and wash their clothes and because the walk to collect water is close, children are not late to school anymore.”
“Students are not late [to school] anymore because the water is close.”
With every hour saved children can study and play, and parents can work and spend time with their families.
With every class the children can now attend, they can allow themselves to dream of their future and of one day going to university.
With every vegetable they can now grow, they can eat nutritious food that gives them energy and also get a secondary income at the market.
Cheffy left us with these words: “Even though the situation is in a rural area, you made yourself available to come here. You have given support to the communities who are living here. Thank you.”
The day ended, and the sky changed from blue to pink to black.
The black sky filled with a thousand stars as if someone had thrown silver and gold glitter across it.
Children went to bed, ready to wake up for school in the morning.