Meter-long coffin

It is sometimes easy to let the sea of headlines about underdevelopment and poverty wash over you. Just like it is easy to stop seeing the upper respiratory infections and signs of malnutrition in children, as callous and awful as that may sound. These things become almost routine.

This UNICEF data from 2007, about child mortality in Timor brought with it mixed emotions: while progress has been made, still 55 of 1,000 children born in Timor will die before the age of 5. [Correction: 55/1000 is the figure from 2006. In 2007 the latest figure is 97/1000child mortality nearly DOUBLED]

One of the saddest things I ever saw in Timor: a meter-long coffin, maybe 130cm. Covered in a canopy of tais. Candle burning on a table next to it, with five packets of lilin, a crucifix, and two glasses holding bougainvillea flowers.

The deceased was eight years old, died of fever and diarrhea. This child is not even included in child mortality statistics because she is simply not supposed to die — she passed the five years threshold.

I wrote at the time

I could tell from the eyes of one woman, who looked very old for her years, that she was the mother. It is a strange situation to be asked to photograph a child’s wake. I had to ask the assembled crowd 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.

This is a classic example of how money cannot solve problems. It can help, but it does not solve them.

One wonders sometimes how the same old characters in Timorese politics can be busy writing treatises on the Net, in the daily papers, to blame each other for things that happened even 35 years ago.

What did this eight year old girl know about any of that? What did it matter to whether she lived or died?

I read that staff from the President’s office went to deliver blankets in Letefoho to a grateful population. (This while the President was being feted in Thailand, after spending days in the Philippines talking about brokering peace for Mindanao.)

Perhaps on his return, he, and others, should start attending the funerals of eight year-olds.

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Of Nonas, or “Lovers”

Why is it that Angie Pires, still the only person being held in house arrest in relation to the attack on Ramos Horta in February 2008, is a “lover” in the Australian media?

It is not as if they are assigning her some kind of Bonnie-and-Clyde agency. The word is always used to stigmatize, or debase. Think of how gay partners are so often by default “lovers”. How often does the media refer to men as “lovers” of women?

I have already made my opinion of her fate clear.

One could argue that Angie is a post-colonial reincarnation of the figure of the nona. This word came to describe the concubines of European males stationed in Timor and other parts of the Portuguese empire. (In his latest book, Luis Cardoso artfully renders the character of a nona — highly recommend it.)

Osório de Castro pointed out that the use of the word in Timor came from Macau, where nonha was used. Luis Costa in his Portuguese-Tetum dictionary wrote that the word nona was used “only to designate the amante (lover) of the European or Chinese”.

Those who became nonas in Timor were sometimes mestiça, or women who were spurned by husbands or widowed, or simply women who had a curiosity and a knack for picking up European habits. Some colonial memoirs, like Paulo Braga’s (1933) Nos Antípodas, contain rather disturbing racist praises of Timorese nonas over Asian and African ones. He wrote that Timorese nonas were distinguished by their “correct facial features, without the facial excesses of the Asian and African races.”

What is clear, and what Cardoso captures so well, is that nonas were not trusted by either side, the ruling colonial elite nor the Timorese communities in which they lived. They constantly begged clearer defintion of us vs. them.

Taussig argues that in the colonial context, “Identity acquires its satisfying solidity because of the effervesence of the continuously sexualized border, because of the turbulent forces, sexual and spiritual, that the border not so much contains as emits.”

In my research of colonial violence, it is quite revealing the number of major events in Timorese history that when recounted orally seem to have transgressions of (or by) women as the spark. Take for example the story of the assassination of Governor Lacerda, which involved the illegitimate mestiça daughter of a Governor. Or Boaventura’s 1911-12 Rebellion, which is believed to have been caused by the inappropriate interest of a Portuguese military commander in Dom Boaventura’s “lighter skinned” wife (see Luis Cardoso’s The Crossing for the oral history version.) In my interviews on 1959, abuses of power in relation to Timorese women (“the voluptuousness of power”) were repeatedly raised.

When judging the Angie situation, let’s not deny the presence of ghosts of nonas past.