Thursday, August 10, 2006

Tia Martha, one of Timor’s finest tais makers

I have been wanting to get some tais made by Tia(Aunt) Martha, a woman I met at a women’s workshop in April. Originally from Oecusse, Tia wears traditional Timorese women’s clothes, her arms are covered in tattoos and she is illiterate but regarded as one of Timor’s finest tais makers. In independent Timor, her skills are in demand as both the government and NGOs such as Rede Feto (Women’s Network) regularly engage her creative skills. Many visiting dignitaries to Timor end up leaving the country with one of Tia’s tais in their suitcases.

Tia Martha lives in Bebonuk, a suburb in the Komoro area of Dili, 4km west of town. Daniel telephoned her to get instructions on how to get to her house. We caught a taxi to the SD tingat school and then asked various people on the street where Tia Martha’s house was. As we walked down the street we came upon this graffiti. So the GNR do have friends in Timor!

We also passed a small group of recently destroyed small shops and noticed a number of burnt down houses. A young man led us for the final leg of the walk to Tia’s house. We weaved in and out of people’s backyards and passed a couple of women at a water pump skinning a very dead and rigid dog. Ah hah, it is confirmed, the Timorese do eat dogs!

Upon entering Tia Martha’s veranda she greeted me warmly and had remembered me from the workshop. Two younger women were sitting on the ground weaving tais on order from Rede Feto. Tia’s husband, various children and grandchildren were also milling about. We sat down on plastic chairs and I immediately noticed the beautiful purple and green tais on the table. They just happen to be my favourite colours! Tia proceeded to show us her work including a bunch of personalised tais for Rotary Australia members who never collected their scarves. I commented to Daniel that I would contact Rotary myself and advise them that their unpaid order was still waiting collection three months later. I assumed that the Rotary members had visited Timor just before all hell broke lose, and as a result were not able to collect their order.

Tia showed us the material she uses to weave the tais which I suspect is a polycotton. It comes from China and isn’t cheap. A young girl was winding the material into balls and I asked to have a look at the colours available. I chose a selection and then Daniel explained in Tetum what I wanted. It was an experience for Daniel to explain how many metres and what combination of colours to use.

Tia said what I wanted was possible and they would be ready in early September. She would return to Oecusse the following Monday and bring back one of her daughters to help make the order. It takes three days for a woman to weave one small scarf and I had ordered very large wraps.

Once we had negotiated a price, left a deposit and promised to return on Saturday in order to pay in full. One of Tia’s sons escorted us back to the main road as there were now a number of groups of young men congregating on the street, some with slingshots. He said that the area had experienced its fair share of troubles and he didn’t want us to run into any trouble. We admittedly felt a little intimidated but diffused any potential problems by greeting people as we passed.

We made it out of the neighbourhood safe and sound back to the main road to catch a taxi to town. It’s a shame that Tia Martha doesn’t have a wider audience for her tais as most visitors to Timor simply head to the ramshackle tais market in Kolmera. The quality of the material used here can vary and I wonder if the women get to see any of the profits from their craftwork or whether the (mostly) men who sell the tais, keep it for themselves. Due to these concerns, I made the decision to seek out Tia Martha despite it being a more time consuming (and heart pounding) undertaking.

When Daniel returned to work he heard that there had been fighting in Bebonuk some time after lunch and at least one person was stabbed, which explains the presence of so many men on the streets in Tia Martha’s neighbourhood.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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