Friday, July 22, 2005

We saw Jesus

Thursday 21 July 2005

On Sunday we rose early to see Jesus. No, we haven´t experienced a religious epiphany in the world´s most Catholic (per capita) country. ´Jesus´ in this case refers to the imposing 27m statue of Christ standing atop a giant world globe at the eastern end of Cape Fatucama (about 5km east of town). The statue was a gift from the Indonesians styled after Rio de Janeiro´s Christ the Redeemer. The ´gift´ was a contentious project during the waning years of Indonesian rule; its height symbolising the 27 provinces of Indonesia, East Timor being the 27th.

We climbed the many stairs to arrive at the base of Christ´s Earthly platform where we were greeted by sweeping views across over Dili and of the nearby islands of Atauro and Alor. The statue can also be seen from all around Dili harbour. There were very few people around except for a couple of ´malae´. We walked back to town along the beach and road stopping at Areia Branca beach, Dili´s best beach. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jose Ramos-Horta lives up in the hills in a secluded area behind the beach. (but he deserves a post of his own!)

We had breakfast at the Caz Bar where we had funny tasting banana smoothies (the bananas here do not taste like the ones we are used to) and baked beans on toast. The breakfast interlude was quite enjoyable except for the monkey in a cage close to our table. Daniel was most upset but there was nothing we could do for it except try to ignore its plight. This is very difficult for both of us as although most animals have freedom of movement (except monkeys, goats, roosters and strangely enough a deer not far from our hotel), like many of the people, the animals seem to suffer malaises of every kind.

The fecundity of the country is very evident in both human and non-human animals. Hens and their chicks, sows and their piglets, cats and dogs roam the streets. All female dogs are pregnant or have been recently. Many dogs are killed by cars and we found one washed up on the beach during our walk. Recently we saw a dog with a broken foot. I doubt there is a single vet in the country and considering the limited number of human doctors available here, people would greet us with incredulity if we were to take the dog to hospital for treatment.

While eating lunch at a Thai restaurant on Tuesday, a very underfed cat roamed around our legs meowing to be fed. It was ´dificil´. Meanwhile, I again felt under siege as young men intermittently came to our table trying to sell us mandarins or handmade items. The local ´malae´ supermarket sells dog and cat food but as this is not aimed at the Timorese who couldn´t possibly afford such items, I´m not sure who it is intended for as I am yet to meet a ´malae´ with pets. (although Daniel informs me one of his malae colleagues has a dog)

In many respects, it would be more humane to euthanise all the cats and dogs in Timor.

The treatment of animals here is an indication of the poverty of the people as well as the prevailing Catholic culture, which tends to treat non-human animals with scant regard. There´s actually not much I can do for the animals of Timor (other than not eat them, which I don´t), but I am trying to assist people, particularly women.

We regularly eat in a particular restaurant aimed at ´malae´ but run single handedly by a lovely Timorese woman who, it transpires, was the victim of serious domestic violence and her husband was the first man to be sentenced to prison for this crime. She supports her six children on the earnings of her restaurant business but of late, patronage has fallen due to the near total withdrawal of the UN. She often gives us dessert, usually home made créme caramel, without charging us. This week I insisted on paying her for the dessert (by estimating how much she could sell it for) and a small tip. It was the least we could do. The meal (including a G&T) only cost $9.50 US so I bumped it up to $14. Shortly before we left I saw one of her daughters doing her school work outside by candle light. It lifts your spirits to see an obviously strong and independent woman with a strong dedication to education.

I started work on Monday and the conditions I will be working in are ´challenging´. I was glad to have worked in similarly under-resourced organisations in Canada and Australia because otherwise, I may have been very disheartened. The most noticeable issue is that there is no mosquito netting on any of the windows and doors and only two rooms have air conditioning. Conditions are cramped and without any privacy. I am sitting in a communal area with my two colleagues. We have one fan, open windows, open door and many mosquitos flying in, out and around us. I was not expecting this so did not come to work covered in mosquito repellent but made a mental note to do so the following day. There are two pregnant women at work and I despair, worrying that they will catch malaria while pregnant, which is a serious problem.

I have a desk with draw of stuff (of undecipherable origin or purpose), a fold up chair (not the ergonomic computer chair I had in Melbourne) and no computer. I have been asked to bring my laptop to work as there are not enough computers to go around. The two toilets are far from desirable: a western style toilet that does not flush and instead, the ´mandi´ must be used. The water collected for hand flushing the toilet must also be used to wash one´s hands but there is no soap or towel. I have already got into the habit of carrying a small bottle of liquid soap around with me but I cannot bring myself to use the same water as is intended for the toilet so instead go to the kitchen to wash my hands. The toilet floors are often sopping wet thanks to using the ´mandi´ and so when you pull down your pants to semi squat over the toilet, you also have to hold up the leg of your trousers to prevent them from falling into the water! Thankfully purified bottled water is provided so I can at least drink safely.

There is a total of 29 staff including three internationals (a female Social Worker, a male Fundraiser and me). Of these, 23 are women and 6 are men. Of the men, only 2 work in the office, the others are drivers and security officers.

In my Division, I work with two women, one of whom only started in April as previously, she had been on the Board of the organisation but had to resign her position in order to become a paid staff member. Both women have children (I suspect that the other international woman and I are the only ones who don´t have children and we would definitely be among the eldest). The Director announced on Tuesday that she is pregnant with her third child. She is my age (35) and has a 10 and an 8-year-old. Her pregnancy highlights the fact that better-educated women are having much fewer children than the national average of 8.3 per woman. Also, it is highly probable that she has access to contraception unlike most of her sisters.

My new name at work is Mana Samantha or Mana Sam. Mana is placed before the name of a woman who is a friend or colleague and is a form of respect. Its literal translation is ´older sister´. Likewise I address my female colleagues as Mana. The men I work with have the title Maun or ´older brother´.

This week one of my colleagues will attend a regional Asian conference on the issue of gender, development and trade of less developed countries (LDCs). I hope to find out more about it but unfortunately Internet access at work is limited. We have a dial up connection but it can only be accessed from two computers and my lap top isn´t connected to anything yet (including the sole printer in use). Many office items have stickers on them saying things like ´donated by USAID´ or ´donated by AusAID´, indicating the extent to which the organisation is reliant on aid. Recently their Internet and telephone (of which there is only one handset for the entire organisation) was cut off because one of their donors failed to pay. Obviously their financial security is reliant on overseas donors paying and on time.

The power cutting out is a constant problem. Approximately three to four times a day the power just stops. The saving grace of working on a lap top is that my battery kicks in so I don´t lose anything which is not the case for those on desktops. The back up generator was broken for some time and finally was fixed the day I started. It makes a great big rumbling sound as it fires up to take the place of supplying power from the public grid. Because the electricity supply is subject to frequent blackouts and brownouts, people have installed generators. However this does nothing to solve the problem of more money needed to provide efficient electricity generation for the general population who generally cannot afford to pay for it. The people who can afford to pay for the public supply often opt out by installing generators. It´s a huge quandary that will be hard to fix. Interestingly enough the Embassy district never appears to lose power (I may have mentioned this before!).

A related issue is the cutting down of scarce trees (what´s left of them, which isn´t much) for firewood. The government recently passed a law prohibiting the cutting down of trees in the hills surrounding Dili but most of the people are so poor that they have no other way of generating energy to cook and feed themselves. Just down the road from the hotel are people living in shanty huts and come nightfall, thick clouds of smoke permeate the air as firewood is burned to cook the evening meal. These people are also living on the banks of the Santana River (also Dili´s main drain) whimosquitoeshe wet season is a breeding ground for mosquitos, malaria and dengue fever. Directly across the road, surrounded by a security fence and guards, is the American Ambassador´s house complete with a floodlit tennis court.

Language is going to be my biggest problem at work. One of my colleagues speaks English (although not fluently) and both Tetun and Bahasa are in use throughout the organisation. There is very little material available in English, which makes my research of the organisation and what they have already achieved very difficult. Furthermore, they do not have a website, which I could consult. So I have started with some very basic stuff like creating an organisation chart which includes the different divisions and who works where so that I understand who does what. From their newspaper clipping files, I found one newspaper article in English that contained references to a number of other NGOs working on the issue of gender in Timor, and whose names I duly noted. I also came across a report in English on the issue of women and the formal (as opposed to informal) justice system. Reading that document has led me to other sources I should consult. From reading the first report it is very clear that there is a widespread problem of domestic violence and sexual assault, in fact, the former is the most often reported crime in the country. However, the formal justice sector functions poorly and rarely gives women the justice they seek. This is due to a number of issues, which I´ll hopefully address, in a later posting. Meanwhile, we continue with our Tetun lessons and aim to become fluent or at least capable eventually.

Daniel had the good fortune to meet John Martinkus at work this week. Martinkus is an Australian foreign correspondent and author of A Dirty Little War: an eyewitness account of East Timor´s descent into hell, 1997-2000 (which it just so happens I was planning on reading after my current book.) During the past year or so he has been reporting from Iraq where he was kidnapped but managed to talk his way out of being killed by insisting that he was there to report the truth of what was occurring, and not as a lackey of the Australian government. I believe his journalism is in the vein of Martha Gellhorn and her ´spiritual heir´ John Pilger.

Ironically when we were having dinner last week at the Hotel Turismo, a bloke arrived to join a small group of men at a table not far from ours. His voice was very distinct and I commented to Daniel that I thought it might be John Martinkus. I couldn´t hear his conversation but his voice is rather unique and I was sure it was he. Daniel said that he had read somewhere that Martinkus was currently in Aceh reporting on the separatist movement there but perhaps he had popped on over to Dili for a break as it wasn´t far. As it turned out I was right as he is here doing a story about the UN´s Commission of Experts report calling for an International Criminal Court (ICC) on human rights abuses committed against the Timorese during Indonesia´s 24 year rule. The story will be aired on Australia´s Dateline program on SBS Television. Daniel wasn´t as excited as I would have been at meeting him, however one of his female malae colleagues was also a little awed. It must be a girl thing!

We had another disturbing incident this week with an Australian ´war tourist´ who owns one third of the hotel where we are currently staying. Daniel commented to him that one of his staff´s (who was standing right there with them) Tetun teaching was very good (she and Daniel have been practising their respective languages together). He responded incredibly rudely and continued to put her down in front of us all. It was appalling! Daniel had to restrain himself but did manage to say, ¨that´s not very nice¨. The disturbing thing is this man was wearing a CARE t-shirt (the Australian international aid agency) and when I asked him about it he said, ´I should get printed on the back ´so find someone who gives a fuck´. (Needless to say that this man has never worked for CARE but was given the t-shirt by CARE employees working in Timor. Also, although he has been here 5 years he only knows a smattering of Tetun.) Daniel remained disturbed for the rest of the evening. I on the other hand don´t think much of men like him anyway so am hardly surprised by his comments. (This incident comes on top of discovering that the Aussie run bar down the road (as discussed in a previous post), conducts a weekly raffle to raise money to promote the sport of cricket established in Timor! The prize (no surprises) is a meat platter. Of all the bloody things to raise money for in one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Not to mention the total cultural inappropriateness of the intended aim.) It should hardly come as a surprise that we are both looking forward to getting away from all these appalling ´malae´, as quite frankly, it´s embarrassing to be an Australian. I feel like apologising to all the Timorese who have to put up with them.

We finally move into our beach house this weekend. From the house you can see the sea and it´s less than a five-minute walk down to the beach. The house is a small little one bedroom place with the family who own it living out the back in their ´shed´. Our rent will help them to finish their new house being built next door. The family has 6 children, the eldest a 20-year-old girl who is at university studying biology and the youngest an 8-year-old boy at primary school. We were both happy to hear that all the children are at school as this indicates that the parents value education. The father works building roads during the week in another town and comes home for the weekends. The mother takes care of their home and the children, tending to their needs and ours!

The house is about 1km from an area intended to become Timor´s second National Park: Tasitolu Peace Park, a group of three salt lakes. Its name literally means ´three seas´ in Tetun. We hope the Park can provide us with a quite escape from Dili´s noise as we have read that it is particularly beautiful in the cool of morning or late afternoon, when the surrounding eucalypt-clad hills change colour. The area is also supposedly a great place to see waterbirds, both resident and migratory birds fleeing Russia´s harsh winter (birds are few and far between in Dili). The site is of important cultural value as Pope John Paul II visited in 1989 and the bodies of many victims of the Indonesian military regime were brought here. The area is currently degraded, but rehabilitation is planned, as is management that emphasises cultural values and environmental education.

I am currently reading Peter Singer´s Practical Ethics. Originally published in 1979, the book has become a classic introduction to applied ethics. The second edition, of which I am reading, was published in 1993. The focus of the book is the application of ethics to difficult and controversial social questions: equality and discrimination by race, sex, ability, or species; abortion, euthanasia, and embryo experimentation; the moral status of animals; political violence and civil disobedience; overseas aid and the obligation to assist others; responsibility for the environment; the treatment of refugees. It has been a thought provoking read as all the issues he addresses, including his reasoning and conclusions, I fully support. However, previously I had not formulated the same reasoning that led to my ethical conclusions and by reading Singer´s arguments, I now have firmer ground on which to argue with others as to my guiding moral framework in life. In the past, I have got into arguments with people about my values as people do find it incredibly challenging to have their most sacrosanct beliefs questioned. As Singer points out, these are a legacy of Christian doctrine (for example the doctrine of the sanctity of human life) and they have become largely unquestionable. Reading the book has also made me acutely aware of how difficult it is to argue these issues with people who aren´t so well versed in philosophical reasoning. Most people (myself included before I read this book) argue their case quite poorly. I studied feminist philosophy at university and this combined with reading Singer´s work has only further strengthened my belief that philosophy should be taught to all school age children. Human beings should be able to formulate their own guiding moral framework for life, free of religious doctrine, and this can only be achieved by giving them the tools to do so (reason, debate and critical inquiry).

Before I left Melbourne, I had the privilege of hearing Singer give a packed house public lecture at The University of Melbourne where he is a visiting academic for four months every year for the next four years. I also attended a small seminar he gave which was mainly aimed at post-graduate philosophy students. He is working on a new book with an American academic, Jim Mason, on ethics and the environment. Hearing him speak only increased my respect and admiration for his mind and prompted me to order his book from Readings in Carlton before departing for Timor. It was well worth the academic price tag of $50. Practical Ethics should interest any thinking person concerned with the most difficult social problems facing us in the twenty-first century and I commend it to you.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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