It’s really amazing to me, to review all of this rebelling and cattle stealing and victimhood and then by coincidence almost be presented with the female side of the story, which had been missing so entirely that I thought maybe it just didn’t exist.
Of course it exists. But it is not a story of conspiracy, rifles and machetes. It is a story of crying children of mothers losing their babies. Today I stumbled upon the first child funeral I’d ever seen. Going to interview a charming old man who spoke rather jumbled soft, an incoherent Tetum / Portuguese. He had said something about a funeral or a body when I walked in, and I had noticed a tarpaulin hanging behind the bamboo house, which was a sign of some social gathering. The senhor suggested tomorrow would be a better day but as he also asked me to sit down, I took the opportunity to test his knowledge. I realized that I could ‘extract’ everything I needed this morning, that he culdn’t make a more complete interview because of understanding difficulties and linearity and comprehension on his side.
After talking to him, and taking a photo of him with his family, the family asked me to enter the house, and take a photo of the shrine set up for what turned out to be the dead child. I expected a baby or maybe a toddler. Instead it was a coffin (box) maybe four feet long. Not a baby. I asked how old the child was. 8 years old. I could tell from the eyes of one woman, who looked very old for her years, that she was the mother. It tis a strange sitaution to be asked to photograph a child’s wake. I had to ask the assembled crows to move out of the doorway to allow more daylight to pass in. There was one candle burning and a couple of weavings set up to make a sort of cubicle for the child. I set the shutterspeed to 1/60 second, held my breathed and clicked the shutter. It’s amazing how not awkward this felt. The family wanted a way to remember this child. They had no photo of her alive. I felt as though I should say something, and it came naturally. I am so sad for this child. Simple.
The girl died of a sick stomach and high fever. I asked if there was a health post near, and everybody pointed down the road. Then the fever came fast? I asked. Ambiguous answer. The answer really is, this is just a place where 8 year old children die. Simple.
The men and children sat outside. The women inside preparing food for the funeral. Did they have time for grief? Grief is cumulative here. It cannot happen every day, or even days like funerals, because survival kicks in. I think only years later, grief… no years later, it simmers and burned underneath in these women who chew betel nut for strength. It shapes them, it ages them, it forces them to look for comfort and support in pretty things, in all sorts of relatives and children, in singing at church. Maybe in a nice haircut.
Today of the group of teachers, one woman struck me as individual. She had a nicely, layered, rounded haircut, short. She was smoking a Gudam Garan cigarette when I saw here, and sitting in an almost Bohemian, dare I say, sassy, pose. Her teeth and lips were colored red with betel nut, her slip with lace peeking out from beneath her well-tailored dress. Something in her eyes was extremely compelling, something not yet resigned, not yet destroyed by routine. She sat talking to me long after the other teachers had finished their tea and biscuits, kind of like that cool girl in the smoking lounge who saunters off into class well after the bell. Are you going to join the group? I asked almost wondering if she was taking part in the training. She got up slowly and intentionally taking her time, made her way back to the lecture.
After lunch, she sat on a sarong on the grass outside of the school under a shady tree, shoes off, working on a plate of fish and brownish rice with little will to finish. Women began talking about the troubles in Dili — the Prime Minister’s house burned, the best supermarket, a handful of dead and total breakdown of law and order — and the woman said I’d rather not hear about it. A very nervous and pained look on her face, and I said I’d rather not hear either. Rightly, the women replied, You don’t live here, you don’t have family there, really what do you care? I decided to just listen from that point, and I tried to follow the conversation but I only understood snatches. I tuned in and out as though it was a radio signal from Australia. The conversation wandered a bit. Soon, the teacher in question began telling stories about fleeing Uatocarbau for Dili, about being scared for her sons lives. The other women were listening attentively. If I understood Tetum better, or knew the context better I would have once again understood more of this story. But this story of distress, of panic and grief and loss of control over the most basic situation of her children, was clearly tied to her stress over the chaos in Dili.
The other got up once again for training, and it seems I was once again in the smoker’s lounge. This time she was chewing betel nut and smoking — to calm the nerves no doubt. All of a sudden she is talking to me about bombs dropping over Matebian, losing her husband to FRETILIN’s dirty internal politics, her son being killed by militias in 1999. I couldn’t sleep at all last night, she says. Because of what’s happening in Dili? Yes. What was meant by my question was more, Because the violence, chaos, destruction in Dili — the political violence — reminds you of all of the times you lost children and husbands to so-called politics, to feuds played out on dirt streets, in backyards, in the jungle… To see the world crumbling around you for the so-called rationale of politicians and political theories and nationalisms? To lose your children to something in the end as false as this. It seems that God plays little role in these dirty endings.
This is the woman’s side of the story. It is stained red with Betel nut, it burns that color red. It is contained in a woman’s smile, in her teeth, in her sour mouth smoking her sweet clove cigarettes.