Sunday, December 18, 2005

Welcome to the neighbourhood

I was woken this morning at 5am by our new next door neighbour revving up his government issued 4WD. It had rained heavily the evening before and he was moving both his 4WD and his own private car out of the driveway onto the street and then reversing them back in again. The 4WD struggled up the small muddy incline so the engine was revved to full effect. I peered through the dark morning light to see what was gong on and then flashed my torchlight at the clock to see what the time was. I thought to myself: “what the hell is he doing moving his cars at this time of the morning?” I tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t as I then heard the squeal of a pig. I waited awhile but the squealing continued so I went to the window and saw a handful of men in our new next door neighbour’s back garden but I couldn’t make out what they were doing in the dim light. I soon suspected that they were slaughtering a pig but didn’t care to see it happen. Soon after, a man and a woman left the house and got into the private car and drove away. Again, I thought, “where are they driving to at 5:30am?” I returned to bed exhausted and angry.

I slept fitfully on and off for the next couple of hours as “our family” were also stirred by the movements of our new neighbours and were soon all up (and as there are nine of them, it’s hard to miss their comings and goings). When I finally dragged myself out of bed, it became apparent that a feast was being prepared at the new neighbour’s place as many women were busily working away under a hastily constructed tarpaulin in the back garden. I then noticed the head of a goat tied up to something similar to an artist’s easel. I said to Daniel that I didn’t think that goats squealed but perhaps one of each animal had been slaughtered for the occasion.

Then the cars started arriving. We’ve never seen so many cars in our neighbourhood! Our new neighbours are clearly “ema boot” (big/important people). They’re the only people in our small community who have a car (and they have two) and the house they have been slowly building since our arrival in July, is enormous by Timorese standards. It is much bigger than our house and we are the wealthiest people in the community. The family across the road started up their band playing and delighted the neighbourhood with Christmas carols. (It does feel a bit strange to hear familiar festive songs in such an unfamiliar place.) I said to Daniel that I was surprised that we weren’t invited to partake in the festivities but at the same time I was glad we weren’t as I couldn’t imagine sitting around all day trying to converse in a language I only have a rudimentary grasp of (and the Timorese love to draw out their celebrations for as long as possible: preferably all day and all night). Moreover, I am not a sociable person and dislike such gatherings at the best of times.

Things seemed to be going merrily along with lots of people and kids coming and going until about 5:30pm when over the sound of the very noisy mechanical water pump that Senyor turns on every couple of days to supply us all with water, I heard the sounds of raised voices. I ignored it for awhile but then decided to investigate. There was a group of men across the road restraining another man. They were trying to take him to our new neighbour’s house. Once the water pump was turned off it was easier to hear what was going on although impossible to make out the substance given the language problem. It appeared that at least two young men (20s, 30s) were having a “baku malu” (fight) but it could have involved more men. However, most of the other men were trying to stop the two waring sides from going at each other. One appeared to live at or at least was visiting our new neighbour’s house and the other belongs or again was visiting our neighbours across the road.

The hordes of children that descended on our community for the feast took refuge in our front garden along with their mothers (“our family” continues to use the garden as their own so for all intents and purposes only our house is our private space). One of the little girls who I know is the daughter of the family across the road was crying on and off, usually when the aggression flared up, which lasted for one and a half hours. Senyor and Senyora tried to play the role of peacemakers as we know that they are respected members of our community as they are part of the older generation (40s, remember the average life expectancy in Timor is 50).

We felt like the UN barracks circa 1999 when Timorese were streaming through the gates to get away from the Indonesian military militia led violence. Our front garden was full of women and children watching and waiting for the violence to subside. One or two of the children also took a toilet break in the garden which provided us with a moment of light relief in an otherwise tense afternoon.

What is interesting is the extent of the involvement of the community in solving the dispute. Unlike in Australia where the police would have been called and the offenders taken away for disturbing the peace, three separate households (all related) tried to resolve the situation (while us the “malae” looked on through our windows like anthropologists).

Violence is common in Timorese communities and is usually fuelled by alcohol, gambling, cock fighting and highly charged young men (not so different from Australia really sans the cock fighting). I just hope that this incident is not a sign of things to come; and that the dispute was not between two permanent members of each household because if it was, it is not a good sign given our new neighbours only moved in a week ago. We have enjoyed peaceful living (i.e. non violent; I certainly do not mean quiet for if anything, the noise level has increased as our new neighbours are a young couple with young children) and hope to remain living here for as long as we stay in Timor.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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