Knua, or real life

During my moras (sick) time, I still was able to get some valuable information. A lot of people stopped in and chatted, mostly ladies. I heard the feminine perspective on 59 and most conflict around here.

Found that some of the same families notorious in 1959 were involved in a fistfight the prior weekend, after drinking too much palm wine.

I also had a lot of time to meditate on this rural, hamlet-based life in Timor. This was and is life for the majority of Timorese. The most basic unit of life in Timor is the uma kain, the hearth. Then comes the knua, the hamlet, often made up of little more than one hearth, maybe up to 5-6.

I remember Professor, when interviewing his students, asked them the provocative question: what distance is greater, that between your knua and Dili, or that between Dili and New York?

To get back to Dili, I will have to walk 4 hours across the valley, wait another day for a dump truck, then hope to make it to Baucau in time for a bus from the market. In other words, Dili is farther away from Ossu Loe than Dili is from New York. And it feels farther.

From this knua, Ossu Loe, even the town Afaloicai 45 minutes away, seems a filthy, turbulent place. There people do not keep their pigs penned up. They throw garbage everywhere. They drink too much wine and get in fistfights. They tell rumors about each other.

Here in the knua, there are chores from sun-up to sun-down. There is just the immediate family around, sometimes their kids. They play together and do chores together. There are animals everywhere, and all kinds. All are vital to life there. Dogs provide security. Chickens, food and alarm clocks. The pigs are like a bank, turning leftover food into money. Buffaloes are both a bank account (better returns than the interest rate!) and they serve to prepare the fields. Even the toke lizards inside the house are busy eating bugs.
There is a whole world of meaning here that is far removed from even the village a short walk away.


What are the key elements of life here? First a knife, or a machete, and a sharpening stone. Then the mortar and pestle for separating rice from the chaff. Palm leaf and rope, for baskets, for building. An iron axehead, some pots. Large baskets for food shortage. The house, on stilts to protect food stores, made of: bamboo, palm “rope,” eucalyptus and pine cross pieces, teak flooring, four huge trunks, and fine thatch from the “black” palm.


Water at Ossu Loe was one of its most redeeming features. There is a spring just above the road. Pedro paid for plastic piping to bring water directly down. The kids don’t have to spend the morning getting water. We can take luxurious daily baths.

One morning Meta doesn’t want to go to school. She doesn’t want to go without her mother. Separation anxiety? She likes hanging out with the Malai? I asked if there was psychological reason she wouldn’t want to go to school. Her mother explained that she was being made fun of by a 15-year old boy from the village because she was a pengunsi. He called her a loromonu girl because she was from Dili! How ironic, a small fragile 10 year old girl who grew up in Dili, has been driven from her home there because her parents are from this very region, is now being labeled a Westerner. She hides in the family’s fields, refusing to go to school.

Her father is a small man, all bone and muscle. He is not too bright, and has limited hearing. He is proud of the fact that he worked for nearly 20 years with the Indonesian police. He wears their hat, belt and t-shirts all the time. He shows me the documents which prove his time of service, which he brought from Dili (leaving of course, his kids documents and the title to their house behind.)

He describes the Indonesians with a mixture of nostalgia and fear. He said that would beat people first and ask questions later. He pantomimes being beaten by them, and nearly arrested for taking leave without sufficient notice. They used to beat people who ate with spoons, he says. They eat with their hands. They cook with the hot peppers in the food! They taught Timorese to eat many new fruits and leaves in the jungle.

He married her mother when she was 15 years old. Her mother agreed to marry because it turns out, she was being pursued by an extremely aggressive member of a notorious liurai family.

She explains to me she is devout Catholic because she has suffered so much. She did not bring the suffering, it just came. God will look after her. (And my stomach, which she repeats ad naseam.)


She has five children. Meta is the youngest. Two are living “at the beach,” Uatocarbau, where they are studying. Two are living up here in the mountains. The other I’m not sure of! The family was split apart when it left Dili six months ago.

The pengunsi family comes up to Ossu Loe from another house in the village below, essentially, to look after me. Life is better up there here than in the village, and they don’t seem to mind. Although the Mother Aljira says she has to work harder up here. In town, the kids do all the work, she says. Not intended to be a complaint.

Twilight lasts longer here in the mountains. The sun sets behind the behemoth Matebian early, but then the spectacle of the mountains changing colors. They go from brown-green to pink to purple to dark gray. The pinks and purples last for 30-40 minutes whereas in Dili it is a quick, abrupt equatorial sunset. Birdsong takes us towards evening, and star-filled sky. The sound of the blue toke lizard from inside the house. The old man burning heaps of roots and bits he’s cleared from the brown earth. People hooting and singing on the main road, as they head home from the fields. A cool, verging on cold breeze blows.

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