Births and bikes

Sitting on a big volcanic rock on the road winding down to the beach at Baucau. My eyes at the level of the yellowing, diseased palm trees around me. (The rock is big). To my left I can see quite impressive terracing, and people working in the rice paddies. It’s fun to see if the passers-by detect me sitting up above in my bright blue shirt. Most do not. But one group of children walking up from the creek where they were bathing and doing laundry spots me. “Hello! Good afternoon! How are you?” I scream “I am well. How are YOU?” The little kids in their too big shorts, with their dirty feet and snotty noses, are jumping up and down with glee. They are used to seeing foreigners breeze by in noisy, dirty Landrovers.

The clouds were turning pink and mosquitos buzzing. Motorbikes passed down the hill with this empty whizzing sound, their motors off to save fuel.

I was in Baucau for work, ‘networking’ in anticipation of the development of a Child Protection Network in the district of Baucau. One of the more populated districts, home to the sacred mountain Matebian, and the second Diocese in Timor, Baucau has many remote subdistricts. There is extreme isolation and poverty in the mountain areas.

We met with the District Administrator (or as I was reminded by a bunch of men smoking cloves wearing big yellowy-gold rings) the ACTING District Administrator. Only temporary. A very quiet, older woman with long fingers and veiny hands. Her UN ‘advisor’ was this Armenian, who my Timorese colleague rightly pointed out looked like Khruschev. The most important person in the District, and we dropped in without an appointment. Yet she stopped everything to grant an audience. We explained our business. I felt this spontaneous swell of awe and excitement, in spite of her quiet demeanor. This was a woman who is shaping the future of her country, a woman who I could only imagine had sacrificed so much for her country.

She said she hears constant criticisms about the sad state of children in the district. Primarily regarding malnutrition. She explained her optimism about such a Network, but her body language hardly reflected it. I believed it anyways. There are not too many role models for authentically Timorese female authority. I think her way of self-protection was to seem quiet and disinterested.

Her next comment came as a shock, although I knew it shouldn’t. She said that family planning was crucial for the development of the country (not just condoms which antagonize the church). Too many children are born to poor families who cannot afford to raise them. They die, or are chronically malnourished, or if they are lucky are sent to ‘orphanges’. Her vision was to educate women and men as to the advantages of smaller families, and let the various solutions arise from that. This may not sound too progressive. But you would not hear this except from the most progressive women activists in Dili normally. Men repeat the mantra that ‘God put us on earth to procreate.’ Most women don’t dare oppose this – they are too busy having children!

On the way back up the hill from the beach, it was getting dark already. I passed an old man squatting on the outer edge of the market selling these strange, green and yellow seed pods. Perhaps a fruit or a vegetable. But clearly picked from the jungle: this man’s livelihood. Two young men in sunglasses with leather boots and a shiny-chrome motorcycle passed. I thought to myself, there is great inequality in Timor. A few can ride Japanese bikes and the rest are squatting selling wild fruits.

But really, this inequality is only a result of the extremely poor condition of the Timorese economy. So a couple of people can buy a motorcycle. That does not seem as offensive as the kind of equality in other third world nations. For as long as people can remember, market days were like this. Bring the couple of fruits and vegetables you can scrounge and sell them to the few foreigners, mestico or Timorese who had money. Two accounts, one from Osorio de Castro from the turn of the century, and one from an Australian journalist named Osmar White describe the deep poverty of Portuguese Timor as seen in the Central Market in Dili.

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