Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A culture of dependence

I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable about the issue of dependency. In the past couple of weeks, we have experienced four instances where Timorese acquaintances have asked for a job or money. The first occurred with the family from whom we rent our home. Senyor Raphael came to us and asked if he could borrow $100 so that he could take his oldest son to Baucau where he was to begin a training course in electronics. He would live in a home stay situation and be gone for three months during which time he needed money for his fees and board. Senyor said that he was waiting to be paid from his new job again building roads in Ermera district and said he would repay us within the week. So we leant him the money. A week passed by and no word from Senyor. After about 10 days, he said that he was still waiting to be paid and now the family had no money to eat. Could we lend him a few more dollars? We gave him $20 knowing that we had to pay the rent soon and could reduce the amount from what he owed us.

When we were away for the weekend, one of the AVIers told us that she was looking for a nurse to work at the community child nutrition project she works at. I told her that one of my colleague’s husband was a nurse in Baucau looking to move back to Dili to be with his wife and child and with another on the way. I told her that I would tell my colleague about the job and that she should let her husband know. On Monday morning at work, I told my colleague about the job and it transpired that her husband was still in Dili that day so could go to the clinic with his CV and have an interview that morning. This he did. After I talked to my colleague about the job, my colleague who I share an office with turned to me and said “Mana Samantha, you have a job for my husband?” I asked if he was a nurse and she replied no, he worked in agriculture. I said that I only heard about this particular job for a nurse but I would keep my ears open for anything in agriculture but said it was unlikely I would hear of anything because I do not mix in agricultural circles. In addition, her husband already has a job in the government department of agriculture but one of my colleague’s primary interest in work is how much money she can make (not much different from the West). I find this totally discouraging as I am working for a feminist organisation working for the benefit of women yet I have noticed that not all women I work with are their for altruistic reasons. At the same time, I am reading a report from the Bishop Belo Centre for Peace and Development titled East Timorese work values in the process of nation-rebuilding: a study in Dili, East Timor, which only confirms my suspicions (further details in post titled Work culture, values and demographics).

Then today, my colleague told me that her husband was offered the job and she was very grateful to me. This afternoon she came and asked me if I could do her a favour and lend her money to contribute to the party for the one-year anniversary of her grandfather’s death, a big celebration in Timor called “kore metan” or untying the black band (close family must wear black for a year after an immediate relative’s death and the one-year celebration marks the time where they can stop wearing black). I asked how much and she said $100! I said that I would have to consult with Daniel and that I would let her know the following day. I talked to my only other “malae” colleague about it and she said that she had leant money to two colleagues in the two years she has been here but that she sets a limit on how much she will lend. She too finds it uncomfortable when they ask.

I think the thing that really upsets me is that in the case of the family we rent our home from, we gave them $1200 for three months rent in advance in late July and they spent it all within two months, mostly on continuing to build their new home next door. However, this money is three times the average annual GDP for the Timorese most of whom earn less than $1 a day. Also, Senyor has a job (on and off) which probably pays less than $100 a month but that still gives them an income of $500 a month when most Timorese earn less than that a year. Where does all the money go I ask? Likewise, my colleague earns $185.50 a month as an executive secretary and her husband around $130 as a nurse. They live with their family of origin so I assume do not pay rent. However, after more probing I discovered that my colleague participates in a scheme with three of her Timorese colleagues whereby they each give one person in the scheme $100 a month so that they can make major purchases or contribute to major celebrations with the extra $300. They take it in turns each month and this month is my colleague’s turn but she has to wait until payday, which is the last day of the month. So perhaps in her case I can be a bit more understanding and willing to lend her the money.

Two “malae” have told me that the Timorese are not very good money managers, problem solvers, or planners. They do things like wait until they’ve completely run out of electricity before going to buy some more credit instead of planning for it in advance. My workplace often runs out of toilet paper and drinking water because no thought has gone into buying more before it runs out. Again, I’m sure it’s a result of their poor education and so little experience (in terms of years) with earning a wage. Still, I’m most uncomfortable with people I hardly know asking me to loan them money. It creates a culture of dependency that the Timorese simply cannot rely on, as “malae” won’t always be here. Also, it does nothing to increase their skills in problem solving, planning and managing their finances.

Traditions associated with bride price, marriage and funerals cost the Timorese a lot of money. Many go into debt, which they can ill afford and often at the expense of sending their children to school. Even the Bishop of Dili has said that the practice of spending so much money on these traditions must stop if the Timorese are to get ahead.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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