When we tell Timorese people where we come from, we often get a big smile and the thumbs-up sign. ‘Kiwi!’ they say. ‘Diak’ (good). This is partly because New Zealanders served in the UN force that (belatedly) rescued them from Indonesian slaughter and kept the peace after independence. In fact, more than 4000 of our army personnel and police were here between 1999 and 2012. From what we’ve heard, they had a great reputation, making friends with the locals and playing soccer with the kids. People in our neighbourhood still talk about a group who lived in a two-storey house round the corner from us about 10 years ago.
Sometimes we even get a ‘Kia ora’. Timorese seem to have a special affinity with Maori. They love the haka and sing a local version of Pokarekare Ana. A Dili cop we met who has spent time in Auckland reckons that Maori sailed to New Zealand via Timor and left all the short ones here!
He’s right about short ones. Most Timorese are tiny, shrunk by generations of malnutrition. Even now, nearly 60 percent of kids under five are chronically malnourished, which tragically will affect their physical and mental development for the rest of their lives. My five-foot-two-and-a-half-inches make me half an inch taller than the national average. For the first time ever, I feel substantial. Yet, unlike most malae (foreigners, pronounced ‘ma-lie’), I’m still an acceptable size for the mikrolets, the crowded mini-vans that run you round the city for 25 cents. The local furniture feels custom-made for me too, even if it is usually plastic chairs.
Being an older woman is another bonus in Timor. Old age is revered here, with Pat and me nudging the average life expectancy. When I told a Timorese university student I was 57 (they have no qualms about asking your age), she clapped and said, ‘Congratulations’. My silver hair and glasses help, I think. Few Timorese have either. (An Australian volunteer told me both men and women dye their hair.) I often get called ‘Senyora’, a step up from ‘Mana’ which is the usual greeting for women, and the bands of idle young men on the street corners leave me alone.
One thing that’s not a bonus is a Kiwi nickname. The locals have magnificent multi-syllable Portuguese names like Magdalena Francesca Gonzales and Roberto Salvador da Costa. Against this competition, ‘Pip’ just doesn’t stack up. It’s too short, too abrupt, the ‘i’ sound too guttural. One sweltering Saturday afternoon not long after we got here, a VSA friend and I attended a traditional dance competition for students at the Dili Institute of Technology. The first malae to arrive, we were ushered into prime seats behind the judges and given special boxes of cakes and water. After talking to us for a few minutes, the compere jumped up on stage and welcomed ‘our distinguished guests from New Zealand, Pop and Julia.’
Since then, I’ve endured many variations on this theme. It reminds me of being a bus driver in Wellington in the 70s when all the Samoan drivers called me ‘Pips’. I’m not sure if the final ‘s’ helped them get their tongues around it or they were confused because, like Tetun, their language doesn’t pluralise words.
I haven’t called myself ‘Phillipa’ since I was old enough to choose, but at a picnic with university students at Cristo Rei last week I found myself writing the Portuguese version, ‘Filipa’, on my name tag. Succumbing to the same pressure, Pat occasionally reels off his name as Patricio Antonio Martin. Hearing this, a young man said, ‘Can I call you Antonio?’ ‘No,’ said Pat.
Day to day, it’s hard to get away from our foreign-ness. Since the 2000-strong UN contingent pulled out earlier this year, our ranks have thinned. People are intrigued by our colour, especially the tan line on our white skin, a far cry from their gorgeous copper sheen.
When we walk down the street, kids call out ‘Hi, malae’. Far from being derogatory, the term is one of respect, says Catharina Williams van Klinken, an Australian who’s lived here for years and runs the Centre of Language Studies at DIT. ‘When Timorese are told that some foreigners take offence at being called malae, they are astounded that people could so misinterpret its connotations,’ she writes in the Tetun Language Resource that’s become my bible.
Certainly, being malae confers many – often embarrassing – privileges: special treatment at public functions; gifts of tais, traditional woven cloth, when Pat visits World Vision projects.
Why are we made so welcome? Several Timorese have told me they need us because they always fight among themselves. This isn’t surprising. A society built on bloodshed doesn’t automatically become peaceful when it wins independence. We can’t stop the martial arts groups from warring in Dili but by working alongside the locals, shopping in their markets, eating at their restaurants, maybe we can help create an air of normality that dampens down the tensions.
Part of our appeal is that malae represent the outside world, with all its promise. For five centuries under colonisation, Timor was isolated and inaccessible. Now her people want what other people have. They’re sick of being poor, hungry for opportunities. We have skills they need. And we speak English, the language that will take them places.
On top of that, we have money. Parting us from it preoccupies taxi drivers, fruit vendors and assorted hustlers like the pulsa boys who hawk pre-paid phone vouchers outside shops, banks and supermarkets. We don’t earn six-figure UN salaries but our monthly volunteer stipend is lavish compared with the $1.33 a day that half of Timor’s people survive on. In fact, our volunteer status proves how rich we are. ‘I know why Australians and New Zealanders volunteer,’ a Timorese university teacher of English told me in typically blunt fashion. ‘Your countries are so wealthy that you don’t have to earn money while you’re here.’
Given that Timor’s the poorest country in South East Asia, remarkably few people sit begging on the streets. All the same, I’m regularly approached. A small boy with mournful eyes rubs his stomach and asks for a dollar. A woman nursing a child at a second-hand clothes stall whispers fiercely in Tetun, ‘Can you take me to your house?’ A young man wants to practise his English as I walk along the waterfront. He’s an electrician but can’t get work in Dili because everyone employs family members, he says. He can’t get work in his own district of Lospalos either because no one there has money to fix things if they break. He gives me his card and asks if he can accompany me on my errands.
Some days, I feel swamped by these approaches, acutely aware of my comfortable life, my sturdy sandals and day pack. I don’t know what to say or do. I can’t take the woman at the second hand stall home or find work for the young man. Giving children money just encourages them to beg.
On those days, it’s easy to withdraw, to decide the best thing is not to talk to anyone in case they bail me up with a tale of woe. Almost everyone in Timor has such a tale. I walk out my gate and a woman I’ve never seen before takes my arm. By the time we’ve strolled to the vege stall at the end of the road and back, I know she teaches Portuguese at the local primary school, has 11 children and a husband who beats her. ‘La diak (no good),’ she says, tapping her head to indicate his unstable mental state. She doesn’t ask for anything except that I hear her.
I wonder if that’s enough. There’s so much pain here, and it’s so recent. It spills out from under people’s ready smiles and laughter. Perhaps it’s easier for them to tell the outsider, the one who hasn’t been through their collective hell. Maybe one of our jobs as malae is simply to listen to their stories, to validate them, so they can start to heal.