Life after Timor

Three months after arriving home in New Zealand:

  • We’ve been surprised at how many people continue to read Dili dally: the number of views is around 30,000 and climbing. Thank you, whoever you are. Obrigada barak.
  • We’ve revived  our communications business, 2Write. Our door is open again for writing, editing and design work, oral histories, publications and workshops.
  • Pat’s building on his Timor experience in a part-time role with VSA, working with returned volunteers.
  • Pip talked at TEDx Wellington Women about the importance of both truth and compassion when we tell stories about real people.

Yes, as much as we miss it, there is life after Timor.


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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Cousin Agapito and other stories

Agapito Martins leaned back in his blue plastic chair and proudly pointed to his shiny tin roof, a sign of his new prosperity. He and other villagers are doing well from a World Vision project which includes cultivating and selling mahogany, teak and citrus seedlings. Seventeen households have pitched in to set up a plant nursery outside Agapito’s home where the seedlings are planted out in black plastic bags full of rich earth.

Agapito with a small basket of orange seeds that will be transferred to the nursery behind him.

Agapito with a small basket of orange seeds that will be transferred to the nursery behind him.

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The tais that bind

I got a rare chance to observe the ancient art of weaving tais (pronounced ‘ties’) when 10 women from Oecussi – a small Timor Leste enclave surrounded by Indonesia  – brought their skills to Dili recently.

Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira (The Women’s Star Frontier Group) spent two weeks at the Xanana Reading Room showing visitors how they spin, dye and weave home-grown cotton into beautiful cloths, using techniques and designs handed down by word of mouth from their mothers and grandmothers for up to 2000 years. It’s part of a bigger project supported by two local NGOs, Timor Aid and the Alola Foundation, to preserve and promote textile development throughout East and West Timor.

This 15-year-old girl has learnt the mapa'uf weaving technique from her grandmother. The back-strap on her loom maintains the cloth's tension but can cause painful pressure for the weaver.

This 15-year-old Oecussi girl has  learnt traditional tais weaving from her grand-mother. Scroll down for a full photo gallery.

I went back to the uma mahon (shady house) at the Reading Room several times, drawn by the women’s skill, patience and teamwork, not to mention their fortitude in sitting straight-backed on thin mats for long spells, legs stretched out under their looms.

The art of tais is performed only by women, often as a social activity that provides income, binds communities and underpins many cultural practices. The fine cloths are used for ceremonial occasions, everyday wear, decoration and as objects of exchange. These days, as weavers cater to modern demands, you can buy tais handbags and scarves, shoes, book marks, place mats, cushion covers – in fact, almost anything you can think of  –  in a bewildering array of designs, patterns and colours unique to each of TImor’s 13 districts. 

Many modern tais use synthetic dyes and cottons. However, the Oecussi group’s goal is to preserve the old ways, time-consuming and labour-intensive as they are. As with many indigenous communities  – including Maori in New Zealand  –  traditional weaving is in danger of dying out, a process hastened in Timor by the wholesale destruction of people, materials and cultural knowledge during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

The Oecussi enclave has the most diverse range of tais production techniques still left in the country. The women of Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira, the guardians of this sacred heritage, are fighting for its survival. To see their craft for yourself, click on the first photo below and scroll through the photo gallery.

To’o tempu oin/Till next time


A night at the movies

When I first met Irim Tolentino, I had no idea she was the star of Timor-Leste’s first feature film, A Guerra da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War).

Soon after we arrived here, Pip and I travelled to the town of Maliana, 5 km from the Indonesian border, to look at World Vision’s aid projects. Irim is the associate area manager, managing seven projects and 55 staff, and we arrived just as she was welcoming her new boss.

Irim welcomes World Vision's new area manager in Maliana with a cake.

Irim welcomes World Vision’s new area manager in Maliana with a cake.

She jumped in a ute with us and we drove for miles along a bumpy road next to a concrete-block fence. Continue reading

All in a day’s work

Last Thursday I smoked my first cigarette for 25 years. It was in front of around 200 people high in the mountains of Timor-Leste, at a ceremony to hand over a new water system that World Vision had helped a village to build.

As an honoured guest at the top table, I was presented with a small woven bowl. It held dark Timorese tobacco and cigarette papers made from dried corn husks. To my right, the district administrator was given a similar bowl, containing mildly narcotic betel nuts and leaves. He accepted these with a nod and popped them in his mouth. After a good chew, he spat them out with the customary red hoik. The locals were very pleased.

Then it was my turn. I carefully rolled a cigarette, borrowed the administrator’s lighter, and took a few puffs. To much nodding and smiling, I even inhaled.

Presentation of a tais - a woven scarf used to welcome guests.

Presentation of a tais – a woven scarf used to welcome guests.

The day before, when we left Dili to start the four-hour journey to the village, I’d been told I would be a guest speaker, standing in for World Vision’s country director who was unwell. Continue reading