Write for Timor

I never expected to end up teaching creative writing in Timor, least of all in the national language, Tetun. But every Wednesday morning for the last six months, I’ve sat in a windowless room in the former Balide prison in Dili doing exactly that with a team of social researchers.

My four male and two female students have interviewed 800 Timorese women about their roles in the 25-year resistance movement. An academic book is in the pipeline. Now their boss, Nuno, a journalist, wants to share the women’s personal stories. When he discovered my oral history and writing background, he asked me to give them a hand.

Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.

Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.

Enlisting my help was a big leap of faith on Nuno’s part. I have no teaching experience, and running a class in a language I couldn’t speak 20 months ago is, frankly, a challenge. So how does it work?

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A day dallying in Dili

6am: It’s dark when Pat and I leave home to walk up the hill behind our house. The roosters are already in full throttle and there’s a welcome coolness to the air. We scramble up a rocky path, past silent shacks, in time to see the sky turn orange above the hills of Cristo Rei. In the harbour below, container ships wait to unload almost everything Timor consumes, including rice from Vietnam, eggs from Singapore and clean water from Indonesia. Not much goes the other way.

Sunrise over Dili harbour

Sunrise over Dili harbour

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Times are a-changin’

I was looking forward to getting back to Timor third time round. I’d met family I never knew at a reunion in New Zealand and hugged my grandkids till they couldn’t stand it. It was time to see Pat and friends, pick up my English teaching and Tetun learning, start writing again. Instead I got off the plane with a First World stomach bug and spent the first week in a disoriented fug.

Ants join forces to carry off bits of our house.

Ants join forces to carry off bits of our house to make one of their own.

As I lay on the couch feeling sorry for myself, two welts appeared on my stomach, souvenirs of an adventurous ant. In his Jitters from the Critters post last year, Pat described ants as ‘tolerable’. That must have been before the invasion. Continue reading

Burials and bingo

On a hot afternoon about two months ago, a humble black flag appeared at the gate of our family compound. Visitors started streaming down the driveway, the men in black shirts and trousers, the women in black dresses and headscarves. Many carried small white boxes.

Death of Eusebio's uncle IMG_0377web - Copy

A black flag at our gate marks the death of our landlord’s uncle.

We learnt from our landlord Eusebio that his uncle had died. The white boxes contained candles to light up his shrine. His uncle was 97, Eusebio said. This seemed incredible in a country where the average life expectancy is 67.

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Hi, malae!

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.


Kiwi soldiers lived in this house in our neighbourhood in the late 1990s.

Sometimes we even get a ‘Kia ora’. Timorese seem to have a special affinity with Maori. Continue reading

Talking Tetun

On Monday night I started tutoring Timorese university students in conversational English. As soon as I introduced myself, the other tutor, a Pom, picked I was a New Zealander by my accent. She turned to the class. ‘How do I know where Pip’s from?’ she asked. A young man put up his hand. ‘Her nose,’ he said.


Does the author have a nose for Timor’s coffee beans?

I admire the students’ efforts to learn English (if not their bluntness). They see it as their ticket to the world. Continue reading