Thursday, March 16, 2006

The dollar sign on my forehead

On Tuesday evening, I received a telephone call from a colleague. She has never rung me before and I wondered what was up. As I suspected, she was calling to borrow money. This time she needed it for the “barlake” (bride price) for her husband’s brother so he could buy his wife. Her brother-in-law had asked her and her husband to contribute $200, which is more than her monthly salary. Just imagine spending your monthly salary on a wedding gift (the only thing remotely equivalent to this request in the West).
It’s utterly crazy! No wonder the Timorese can never get ahead with all the huge outlays on traditional customs and ceremonies (see A culture of dependence). Daniel was pissed off and said I should say no. However if I declined, it wasn’t going to stop her from contributing to the purchase of her new sister-in-law. But how I hate being an accomplice in a practice I completely abhor!
Last night Senyor Raphael asked us for two months rent five weeks in advance of when we are due to pay it. “Our family” have yet again run out of money and they cannot pay the builders who are busying themselves on the family’s new house, nor can they purchase building materials or food to feed the builders who are living in the semi built house until it is finished. Senyor currently has a job rebuilding the road outside one of the four major supermarket’s in Dili but his employer (the Prime Minister’s brother who has been awarded many government contracts – do I smell nepotism?) says that because there is no legislation stating a minimum wage in Timor, he can pay them what he likes (ie not much).
Still, “our family” is so wealthy compared to the average Timorese (they bring in more monthly income than the per capita GDP) and it fills me with despair that they cannot manage their finances!
I’m beginning to imagine I must have a very large dollar sign painted on my forehead. Daniel joked the other day that perhaps we should install an ATM machine on our front porch.
Unfortunately, my endeavour to make friends with my Timorese colleagues is not getting anywhere because the dollar sign looms large in our relationships. Most make absolutely no effort to get to know me which includes the mere simple act of saying good morning, how are you? I constantly have to make the effort for the simplest communication and I’m tired of it.
Daniel has the same problem but he unwaveringly visits every one of the offices at his work and says good morning to everybody. When he leaves in the evening, he does the same again. He hasn’t quite got there with all his colleagues, and even in his own team, one colleague accepts the greeting but won’t offer anything in return, but he’s starting to buckle. However, his colleagues are more receptive to me than my own colleagues are. I feel more at home at his workplace than I do at my own.
Verbal communication, particularly where confrontation or conflict is present, for the Timorese is a huge problem; they are just not very good at it. Understandably, after twenty-four years of brutal occupation by the Indonesians, there is a lot of mistrust and fear within their own families and communities let alone with us “malae”.
Furthermore, the four centuries of Portuguese colonialism created a very submissive populace; people are accustomed to being told what to do, rather than taking the initiative. There is moreover a general lack of confidence. Daniel and I have also speculated it might also have something to do with the communitarian nature of the society: when you are in each other’s faces day in day out, there is no need for verbal communication; everyone knows what everyone else is doing and thus little needs to be explained.
Timorese society is also incredibly hierarchical and as a result, they tend to do whatever the leader says (father, husband, older brother, male boss, male teacher) no questions asked. Their education system reinforces this (rote learning or bank education). Years of Portuguese colonisation and Indonesian occupation have exacerbated this further. Regardless, for me, it is tiring having to always make the effort; I constantly have to be pro-active with no expectation of being met half way.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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