Morning in East Timor

Dili, Saturday 2 April.

The phones in the Canossian convent at Balide have been ringing since dawn, but Rome is a faraway place. We dodge the inevitable house dogs and head out to Tasitolu before the implacable sun rises any higher.

It’s hazy out on this flat wetland wedged between sea and the guardian hills. Cynics and old hands call Dili a swamp. Here, 8km to the west, on the road to Kupang, the merging of sea and shore has a benign logic. Birds flock here, some flying from as far away as Russia. The tang in the air is salt, not from frying palm oil or open city drains. The hope is that this place of salt lakes and swaying grasses will become a peace park and conservation area.

In 1989, ten years before the independence referendum that bought (dearly) East Timor’s freedom, Pope John Paul II came here. Where the morning winds now blow, thousands upon thousands of people once gathered. The Pope said Mass from the traditional house, or Uma, built for the occasion. The palm roof thatch is now home to opportunistic ferns (in East Timor even stones nurture orchids). The pink and white wash on the walls (a breath of Portugal) brushes off on our fingers as we try to decipher the graffiti that now marks the steps leading up to the Pope’s balcony. FATIN NE SANTO RESPEITO NIA TEMPAT (This is a holy place, respect it) … The balcony is modest but elevated. A breath of the Vatican. But from here you can see clear across deserted lakes and plains to the mountains which were the only refuge in 1999, when the pro-Indonesia militias and military went on their murderous rampage. At the Dili tais (weaving) market some days later a young man in camouflage gear sells me a rust-red shawl from Suai and boasts at the same time of being a freedom fighter.

‘Fretilin?’ I ask. ‘Yes’. He points proudly to the badge on his beret. ‘Where did you go in ’99?’ ‘To the mountains’, he answers, smiling and pointing to the tropical buttress that rises behind the city. He might be telling me about a weekend picnic—the East Timorese smile is beguiling—but we both know he is not.

At Tasitolu, a plain cross stands hammered into the crumbling cement forecourt of the Pope’s open house, its white wood reflecting light like bone or washed coral. In the cool under the house the goats wander. One milks. Others spring nimbly up the steps to the balcony. We are the only creatures here. Four humans and a few dozen bibi—the Tetun seems the gentler language for these delicate deft creatures which have the freedom of the island. At the other end of the bay we see one bearded fellow standing sentinel on a rock just below Cape Fatucama’s huge statue of Christo Re. Indonesia’s President Suharto unveiled the huge statue in 1988. Pope John Paul blessed it in 1989.

Baucau, Sunday 3 April

Dogs and roosters sing the foreground song. Nuns lilt in the background. The sky is clear but the dawn sound is watery as dozens of women and girls splash themselves clean. I fill my plastic bucket under the outside tap and extravagant scarlet and yellow Heliconia rostrata flowers drop pollen in the water. Deprivation and luxury live side by side here.

Mass is at 6.45am. The Tetun Mass that is. If you want the Portuguese you can stay longer in bed and walk down at nine. ‘Hardly anyone goes’ we are told. Portuguese is the officially adopted language in East Timor, the language of administration, of law, of education. In schools many of the teachers can’t speak Portuguese, let alone teach it. Every conversation we have turns eventually to the language problem. Or avoids it. We learn to interpret the diplomatic evasions and side-turned smiles when we ask questions.

The phones at Baucau have brought the news. At mass the priest (the Bishop is busy) begins his sermon with sentences that are, even to malae (foreigners) like us, recognisably about the death of the Pope. Many of the older women in the church are wearing black mantillas. In the courtyard outside they unfold the lace or tulle from careful creases and cover their heads, their arms, sometimes their whole form with them. The wall behind them is laced with orange-pink bougainvillea and drops hundreds of metres to the sea below.

But it is not the Pope that these women are mourning. In every village between Dili and Baucau we have seen bamboo stakes driven into the side of the road, black or white shreds of material fluttering from them. Black for adults. White for children. There have been many dengue deaths this season we are told.

The priest is a rhetorician and soon warms to his theme. The sermon, all remaining 35 minutes of it, is about new government proposals that would effectively secularise education in schools. As we leave the church an English translation of the policy is pressed into our hands. ‘Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport … a policy in favour of the neediest’. Vatican II language, but it soon blurs into the universal jargon of professional educators: ‘millennium developments, rationalizing, equality of opportunity’. The churchyard gossip becomes political, with government and church criticised even-handedly.

We read the policy and discuss it with Baucau locals, with aid workers, with Marist educators. But more memorable are the children we saw near Xanana Gusmão’s hometown of Manatuto, walking in the dust to church in sparkling white dresses and shirts. A First Communion? Or just the regular pride of people who have survived and want to thrive? We never find out. But we do see the blackened stumps of houses that line the road out of Manatuto. Even the vines and trees that now grow through their dirt floors and gaping window do not rescue them for humanity. Yet.

Dili, Friday 8 April

The morning Journal Nacional gives its front page over to last night’s ‘Misa ba Amo Papa iha Catedral’. Dr Mari Alkatiri, onetime Fretilin leader and a Muslim, sits in the front row. From Balide we can hear the singing well into evening. By morning the city is focused on the visit of Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Boys in a ramshackle ute stake out the presidential route with cruciform bamboo flagpoles. The Indonesian president stays in the hills at the home of East Timorese president, Xanana Gusmão. A few people kneel at a shrine near the harbour and pray. For the Pope. For East Timor. For all of us?  

East Timor’s future in Sunday best, Manatuto (top),  and ready for school in Ossu (above). The Pope’s Uma, Tasitolu (above left), with friendly locals.

Morag Fraser was in East Timor with a Brigidine group investigating established links between East Timorese and  Australian schools.



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