Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Our “bibi malae”

We have had a “bibi malae” (lit: foreign goat; English: sheep) in our garden for most of December. The Tetum name reflects the fact that like us “malae” (foreigner) this “bibi” (goat) comes from foreign lands. The trouble is both “bibi” and “bibi malae” look a lot like one another (perhaps due to interbreeding) and the most obvious way to tell them apart is that the latter’s tale lays flat while the former stands up. Our “bibi malae” (who I talk to every morning upon leaving the house and who baas in response) has been eating the ever growing grass which has exploded since the wet season arrived. Up until this time, Senyor and one or two of the younger boys would crouch down and cut the grass with a big pair of shears. It took them ages and as soon as they’d finished, they’d have to start all over again! We were also consistently woken at 6am by the sounds of the snipping and were relieved once they stopped; only to have one noise replaced with another (the baas of the sheep). Lawnmowers are a rarity in Timor although I did see a bunch of them the other day but they were being used by government employed men to cut the grass in a public park. Private use of such a mechanical device is unheard of unless you’re an “ema boot” (big/important person).

I’m now worried that our family are fattening up our “bibi malae” to murder him/her on Christmas Day. I’m just glad that we won’t be here if it does happen because I really couldn’t stand it (I’ve been a vegetarian for 23 years for ethical reasons.) However, one thing I must point out about the Timorese and their attitude to animals: they’re very consistent. This is not something that can be said about Westerners. Timorese treat all their animals (so called pets and food animals) in a seemingly callous and perfunctory fashion, as they are merely fulfilling a function rather than having intrinsic worth. Westerners pander to their pets to the extent that many now spend ridiculous sums of money on them (the latest is designer jewellery the money for which could educate one child in Timor for at least a year) but then eat food animals which have been raised in the most appallingly cruel ways. Westerners are definitely hypocrites when it comes to animals. Timorese are not. But interestingly, the Tetum language makes distinctions between animals and humans that the English language does not and as we all know, language tells us a lot about culture and of course power relationships. In Tetum, you cannot use the same words as you would in English to describe a pregnant woman as you would a pregnant animal or when either gives birth; to do so is considered highly offensive. So for example a pregnant woman is “isin rua” (two bodies) but an animal is “kabuk”. When a woman gives birth it is “tuur ahi” but for an animal “hahoris”. This combined with the Timorese adherence to Catholicism (although it’s really animistic Catholicism), does not bode well for any future reappraisal of their relationship to the animals with whom they share this earth.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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