Thursday, April 06, 2006

The dollar sign on my forehead continues

This morning after I disembarked from a “mikrolet” and as I was walking down the street to work, I noticed a man crouched in the shade of a brick fence directly opposite my place of work. I decided for some reason to cross the road but no sooner had I done so than the man stood up, walked across the road and approached me. What could he want I wondered? He immediately put out his hand and asked if I spoke English or Tetum. I replied Tetum but he then talked at such a pace and with what I believe was a speaking impediment that I only caught bits and pieces of what he was saying. I certainly got the gist of it and didn’t like where the conversation was heading. I apologised that I couldn’t understand all of what he said in Tetum and could he please explain in English. But first, could we move to the shade of the outside waiting room at my work place, as having such a conversation in the blistering sun was highly unpleasant.

I offered him a seat and he began again in English. However, he was not fluent and this combined with his speech impediment made it difficult for me to fully understand him. However, I was able to understand the essential points. He was an unemployed man with a wife and two children: one age two years and one age two months. He lived in Comoro a suburb on the way to my home. He did not have any money with which to buy food and asked if I would give him money to at least buy a bag of rice so that his two month old baby could eat. I asked him where his family (of origin) was and he said in Aileu. I felt for his children as I do for all the hundreds of thousands of malnourished and starving children in Timor, but again, I was angry that I was being treated as a bank or ATM machine by this stranger.

I asked him how he knew who I was and where I worked and I believe he said something about a colleague working at my work place but I couldn’t be sure. I was and remain perplexed as to how he came to know of me as I do not live in the same village as he. Still, I stick out like a sore thumb because I am “malae”.

It was difficult for me to say this to him but I apologised and said that I could not give him any money. However, I said that I might be able to put his family onto a nutrition program run by an AVI colleague at the Dili National Hospital, which gives food to malnourished children. I went inside my work place and rang my colleague who said she could help if the man brought the child(ren) to her after 2pm. I instructed the man what to do and drew him a map of where on the hospital grounds my colleague’s NGO is located. He had asked for money for a taxi to get there but I decided to give him 50c which was enough for two “mikrolet” trips: one to get home to fetch the baby, and the other to get to the hospital.

I walked back inside my work place and immediately went and talked to my only other “malae” colleague about it. I was so angry to be again treated as if I am nothing but a bank by the Timorese (not to mention that I was accosted outside my work place!). Any relationship of some substance I have with a Timorese be it at work or home is sullied because of the dollar sign branded on my forehead. It is therefore just about impossible to have a genuine friendship with a Timorese because inevitably, they ask for something which is usually money. It makes me so angry because I feel so dehumanised by it. We talked at length about this problem. She said it is a common complaint of “malae” in Timor but how to find a way to deal with it?

My colleague suggested that in order to protect myself, I need to set very firm boundaries and just say, no, sorry I cannot help you and leave it at that with no justification(s) for the reasons. I told her I find this very difficult to do. She said that it takes time and practice but is essential for my own sanity. Moreover, a “malae” saying no to a Timorese possibly begins to teach them that they simply cannot go on asking “malae” for money. It creates a relationship of dependence that is simply not sustainable, not to mention dehumanising for both parties.

My saying no to this stranger was difficult but necessary. However, these incidences keep occurring and each time they do, I feel more and more that I cannot go on living here. I am an outsider, and although a privileged one, I am finding it more and more difficult living in a society where I am not an equal and treated the same as everybody else. I do not like my outsider status and wish to be admitted back “inside” but that is not and never will be possible in Timor.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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