Saturday, September 24, 2005

M is for Mikrolets, Mosquitos, Men and Marriage

Saturday 24 September 2005
I have experienced new found freedom catching “mikrolets”! I am no longer tied to Daniel and can come and go as I please (within reason) and pay only 10c a journey. It is so much better than catching taxis where I often feel trapped, disempowered and vulnerable. Most of the “mikrolets” have names (as do some of the taxis) blazoned across their fronts and sides and the funniest one I have seen to date is called Teletubbies after the BBC children’s series. There are however some problems with using them as our primary mode of transportation.

Firstly, they are often so crowded, particularly in the early evening, that we have to wait up to 15 minutes for one that has a seat; there is a constant stream of them but just not enough for the many people who use them. (When leaving for work in the morning we never have to wait more than a couple of minutes because the end of the route is less than 1km from our house). During peak periods, 12 people are packed in like sardines in the back; up to 5 men hanging out the door; and 2 in the front passenger seat. You certainly do not and cannot have issues with personal space. Secondly, when you enter a “mikrolet”, no one moves down but up making it very difficult to navigate your way to a seat at the back. Thirdly, the music is very loud and the bass dominates so that you cannot hear the words to the song and the music is repetitive. The Timorese have a very limited selection of music to choose from, the current popular tunes come from one band in Brazil, and old North American 80s pop/rock bands (Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi are favourites). Fourthly, there is no air conditioning, and the side windows do not open very far (although there is an open doorway) so it is rather hot and stuffy particularly during peak periods when you are jammed up close and personal with other people. An interesting observation I have made is that a number of young men keep a 10c coin for their fare in their ear!

The “mikrolet” will stop and pick you up or drop you off from any spot on its route; there are no set stops. When you want to catch a “mikrolet”, you stand on the side of the road and put your arm out. When you want to disembark, you do one of three things: tap your 10c coin on the rail above your head, clap your hands or make a popping sound with your mouth (usually only done by young men). At certain stops like the Cormoro Market, men (including boy children) selling cigarettes crowd around the “mikrolet” trying to sell a single cigarette to male passengers (women do not smoke, publicly at least). Unfortunately, I have had to endure a couple of trips with at least one man puffing away while I sit in close confines, which is most unpleasant. On Wednesday night’s trip home, I was mortified to see a boy around the age of 7 or 8 offered a cigarette by a passenger, and he accepted and finished it off! This child got off at my stop as he lives in my community. I do not know where his parents were but perhaps the driver (who was a crazy driver) was his father or relative. I have never seen a child smoking and it was shocking. There is too much smoking here and a health campaign financed by a rich nation should be undertaken without delay!.

On Thursday morning’s trip the driver had painted his long thumb nails bright red. Many Timorese men have long fingernails, particularly their thumbnails. Our Tetun teacher’s thumbnail is so long that it has started to curl back and he sometimes wears nail polish on it too! At the Comoro Market, I saw a young man with long dangly earrings that were clearly designed for women. There is certainly a effeminacy to Timorese men that is very different from the macho men back home. That said, what is effeminate or macho is merely a cultural construct so unfortunately it can’t be construed as a sign of mass gayness or equality between the sexes.

Despite the problems, I enjoy catching “mikrolets” as I feel part of the community and mostly safe. Very few “malae” catch them, which I think is a shame. On our Wednesday morning trip, a passenger who was an English student at university was surprised by our presence as he said that “malae” rarely catch “mikrolets”.

Due to growing tired of dowsing myself with mosquito repellent three times a day, I began to think about alternative ways I might keep the little buggers from biting me. A number of “malae” have told me about the mossie tennis rackets, which look like a normal tennis racket but is in fact an implement that when you hit insects, produces an electric shock and kills them. I purchased one at the supermarket for $3. They are plastic, made in China, and need two AA batteries to work. It is a very effective device as I am now managing to keep my office mosquito free (when my Timorese colleague remembers to shut the door, which she often does not so I also spend a lot of time going to and from the office door in order to close it after her). However, while I am at work, I spend a shocking (pardon the pun) amount of time killing mossies particularly in the early mornings and late afternoons. Often the sound when killing them is very loud accompanies by the faint smell of burning insect.

This week we bought an ironing board for Senyora Domingas as she has been bending down over a small table about the height of a coffee table to do the ironing. Consequently, her spine must be wearing away. Frankly, I am surprised that none of the previous occupants (mostly other “malae”) has thought to do so! We went to two supermarkets and both only stocked ironing boards suitable for older children or adolescents. They were too low for me but then I thought perhaps they had been built with Timorese women in mind as they are mostly shorter than me (and I’m only 5’3), and certainly Senyora is much shorter than me. Therefore, we purchased a pretty pink and purple covered one with wooden legs for $13. At home, I tried to remove the plastic it was covered in and discovered to my great frustration that the plastic was attached to the board before the legs and side holder for the iron had been screwed in. The plastic was actually bolted in place! Goodness gracious me: did the manufacturers anticipate the ironing be done on the plastic? All I could think of was that men made the ironing boards and as they never appear to do any housework, probably have no idea that you cannot iron on plastic! So I took to the plastic with a pair of scissors and ripped great wads of it out from under the screws.

I met up with my Timorese friend who is studying English at the national university and who wants to obtain a scholarship to study in Australia. Since we had last met, I (and my Aunt) had done some research about the scholarships on offer and reported our findings to her in an email. As explained in a previous post, she has a 1% chance of securing a scholarship and given her level of English, I do not like her chances. Therefore, we talked about my findings and the possibility of her doing more intensive English training through courses that run in Dili. Based on the price she told me (which I need to have confirmed), I will probably pay for her to do such a course as her family are unlikely to help her because they do not have the money.

When my friend explained her family situation, my empathy deepened further. She is the only child of her father’s second marriage to her mother. However, her father has three wives and between 15-20 children both biological and step (some are dead). Her father is 65 years old, his first wife 50, his second wife 45 and his third wife 36. He inherited his third wife from his brother when he died. In traditional Timorese society (which is the norm here), polygamy is accepted practice. Her father separated from his first wife, but continues to live with either his second or third wife, depending on who takes his fancy at any given moment. As you might expect, there is a lot of hostility between the wives and constant arguments and falling-outs. The husband stays out of all this yet he is the cause of the problems!

Women are often sold into marriage by their uncles to other men for ‘bride price’ or dowry (which usually consists of animals such as buffalo, cattle, pigs and produce such as rice). In Los Palos where my friend is from, ‘bride price’ is very expensive (and therefore, men often live with women but no formal marriage takes place). However, because bride price is paid by the husband’s family, the woman is considered to be owned or controlled not only by her husband but even more so by his family. The higher the bride price, the higher the in-laws’ expectations of the wife and their involvement in the couple’s marriage. If the bride price is not fully paid, the woman can have more freedom.

As Timorese society is collectivist, it maintains close-knit family relationships. Therefore, the collective’s interests are valued more than the individuals. All male members of an extended family maintain this culture. A man and his male network are central in the relationship of men and women. Therefore, women are positioned as the property of men. For example, the inheritance system privileges men over women in that the latter cannot receive family resources or own land. All of the family’s property – including women – belongs to the man and his male network (hence when a man dies, his brother “inherits” his wife). Established traditional practices to mediate disputes between men of two families do not involve women in the process, even if the dispute involves them such as in the case of domestic violence. The woman’s uncles negotiate with the husband and his male relatives for compensation (usually animals and produce). The woman is left out of negotiations and in the end, receives no justice. However, her family receive the compensation.

The organisation I work for has noted that many cases of domestic violence occur when wives start complaining about their (domestic) burdens or when a husband wants to take a second wife. If there is domestic violence, the woman’s family usually sides with the husband and his family because in their mind, the wife was bought properly and the husband as head of the family and breadwinner has to be served. The matter can be resolved through a traditional dispute resolution (“adat” law) called “kasu sala” (financial sanction). However, generally, women’s concerns are ignored and they do not have the right to speak in the typical “adat” process. “Kasu sala” is therefore concerned with regulating relationships between men in which women are a form of currency. The most important agenda is gaining compensation rather than protecting women from violence. #

“Woman was created under the domination of the husband. It is normal that a man is in control and the woman is powerless – as a mother and as a husband’s servant and she should behave delicately.” *

I contributed to my first funeral this week. (Since commencing work, I have contributed money for a number of babies and confirmations.) Our office manager’s only sibling and brother was killed in a car accident in Indonesia. Her father is dead so there is only her mother left who also lives in Indonesia (they are Indonesian not Timorese). It’s hard to know how much I should contribute but after looking at how much everyone else has (it’s written on a sheet of paper) I decided to double what my colleagues were putting in, with the exception of the Director as she always contributes 3 or 4 times as much as the others. (I don’t want to usurp her position in the hierarchy (even if I do earn more money as a volunteer than she does!))

This past week I have been suffering from my third health problem since I arrived three months ago (in Australia I am rarely unwell so I find this disconcerting). This time it is conjunctivitis (pinkeye) which I self diagnosed from a search on the Internet as being caused by bacteria (as opposed to allergy, irritant, or virus). We have a bottle of antibiotic eye and ear drops which we purchased from the Travel Doctor before our departure, so Daniel has been dropping the solution into my eyes. Unfortunately, my left eye was so badly affected that my vision was blurry for a couple of days, which I found very frightening. I do not think I have ever had conjunctivitis before (but maybe I did as a child).

This week we experienced our third public holiday since we arrived. Tuesday was Liberdade Day, which celebrates the 1999 arrival of INTERFET to Timor and the withdrawal of Indonesians troops. It was also the “xefi aldeia” elections for Dili (a bit like elections for local government councillors). On our trip to the supermarket, we saw many people queued up outside schools in order to vote for their sub-village chiefs. It made me smile to see so many people exercising their democratic right to vote in a country that has only had this privilege for 6 years. The “xefi suco” (village chief or our equivalent of mayor) elections are on 30 September.

We watched Spirited Away last week the multi award winning Japanese animation film. It was beautifully realised with a wonderful storyline. A real fairy tale for children in the vein of the Grimm’s Brothers. I highly commend it. I also watched the latest Bridget Jones’ instalment The Edge of Reason. It was a very light romantic comedy, which provided me with an hour or so of escapism. The best part of the film was Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. I loved him (along with thousands of other women) in the BBC’s 1995 rendition of Pride and Prejudice. However, I came to him late, as I never watched the original screening while living in London, as I was not into costume dramas then (I was too young to appreciate them). The ABC screened it again earlier this year (or was that last year?) in Australia where I watched it for the first time.

I am now reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian a first novel by Marina Lewycka. She was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the war, grew up in England and now teaches at Sheffield Hallam University. The novel confused the online bookseller Amazon into classifying it under science and engineering! This month it was hailed a "masterpiece of tragicomic writing" and won the £20,000 Saga award for books of wit and humour by authors over 50. Her story is about the havoc created in a family of Ukrainian exiles in Peterborough when the father marries a gold-digging woman from his homeland. It is a very funny read, which I could well imagine being turned into a telemovie by Britain’s Channel 4. We picked the novel up from the book exchange at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room, which every now and again has a good book or two (but mostly they are drivel).


# Author unknown, ‘Stay together no matter what’: Domestic violence, power relations, and empowerment in East Timor’, unpublished paper, circa 2001
* As quoted in the above. Original source: M. Ajiza, Just as spoon and fork always touch each other: Domestic violence in East Timor, unpublished paper, presented at the Round Table Meeting on the Formulation of Legislation on Domestic Violence, Dili, East Timor, 13-16 November 2001, p.4. Published in 2001 by UNFPA Gender Program.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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