Thursday, November 24, 2005


This afternoon I visited my NGO’s crèche (kindergarten) along with two of my colleagues. There are approximately 25 children mostly aged between 3 and 4 of which three are children of my colleagues including both my team members. The rest of them are children of staff of other NGOs (mostly human rights) that my NGO has a close association with.

We are planning a “festa natal” (Christmas party) as a fundraiser and are endeavouring to involve the children. I sat in a room with about 20 of them and boy were they loud but also incredibly adorable. While I was looking through the children’s books in Tetun produced by the Mary MacKillop Research Institute for East Timorese Studies in Sydney, one little girl decided she wanted to talk to me. I did my best with my limited Tetun and mostly just nodded and smiled a lot. She then opened one of the books and began pointing at all the animals and said “asu” (dog). I had just this week covered animals in my Tetun lessons so now was the chance to test my memory and correct my little friend who believed that every animal was a dog. I noticed the word for each animal written in a brief sentence on each page of the book so pointed to each animal while saying “saida” (what?). She of course replied “asu” and I had to tell her “lae” (no) “ida nee” (this one’s) a “lafaek” (crocodile), “lekirauk” (monkey), “bibi” (goat), “fahi” (pig), “lenuk” (turtle), “samea” (snake) or “karau” (water buffalo). We soon attracted three boys one of whom is my colleague’s son and has always been “tauk” (afraid) of me due to my white skin. He turned out to be very good with the animal names much to my little friend’s annoyance. Another older boy with the most amazing frizzy hair wanted to know more about my drink bottle, a child’s one with the cartoon character Scooby Doo and a blonde female character whose name escapes me, I purchased in the supermarket as I could not find an adult one. As previously written, Timorese do not drink very much water and certainly do not carry drink bottles around with them so for me to do so just adds more intrigue to my “malae” status. I said to the children: “hau gosta hemu bee deit; diak saude” (I like to drink water on its own; it is good for your health). I then noticed the older boy taking a sip from the straw that is attached to the bottle! (When I returned to my office, I promptly ran purified hot water through it.)

On our way back to our office, we stopped in on my colleague who gave birth earlier in the month. She looked very well and her little boy was two and a half weeks old and absolutely tiny. Later that afternoon my colleague, with whom I share an office, asked me how much the baby had weighed at birth. I said I didn’t know. She guessed 3kg or less as that is the desired weight for many Timorese women. Apparently pregnant women deliberately try not to eat too much extra food in order to keep the size of their babies small. Again, this may be for cultural reasons but there is no doubt that because most Timorese women are so small themselves, they certainly would not want to give birth to larger babies. However, babies with small birth weights are prone to many poor health outcomes.

This evening as I was walking along the last section of my road to my house, a horde of children came out to greet me. As I normally arrive home after dark, most of the children are inside their homes, but my Tetun language lesson was cancelled due to my tutor’s ill health, so for the first time in a long time, I actually left work at a reasonable hour. Most of the children were littlies in various states of undress (one was completely naked) and I always ask them the same thing as my Tetun isn’t good enough yet to ask them more complicated questions. I said: “Imi diak ka lae?” (You all good or not?), to which they replied in unison “diak” (good). “Imi halimar ohin loron?” (You played today?) to which they replied “halimar” (played), and I said “diak”. I also asked the oldest girl in the group who had a soccer ball in her hand “ita halimar joga bola” (you play soccer?) and she replied “sin, ho hau nia alin” (yes, with my younger brother) and she put her arm around him in order to show me who he was. She then turned to a crowd of men and told me they were “haree futu manu” (watching a cockfight). As I looked to where she directed her gaze (pointing is rude in Timor), I noticed the two cocks going at each other. So I bid a hasty retreat with “hau lao ba uma; ate amanyá” (I walk to my house; see you tomorrow) to which they all screamed with laughter not because I said anything funny, but just because I’m a “malae”.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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