Fake plastic flowers

I have never seen so many fake plastic flowers for sale in Dili. A week away from Loron Matebian – or All Souls Day, probably East Timor’s most important holiday – the streets near the Stadium, in Bairro Pite and other strategic parts of town are lined with lurid plastic flowers. “Loose” ones, fake bouquets, strings of flowers. They are bright purples, pinks, oranges, explosions of color.

The production of fruits and vegetables has caught up with demand in Dili over the past couple of years to an impressive degree. It seems a shame that the shame work to jumpstart these markets could not be done with cut flowers.

The fake flowers are probably an indication of the unparalleled disposable income of Dili residents – of the money splashed around with various cash transfer schemes and compensation schemes.

But just as there are ornate bath-tiled graves in cemeteries not far from simple wooden crosses or plain concrete headstones, in Dili alongside the plastic flower buyers, there are people who will strip every last frangipani and bougainvillea tree for their deceased loved ones.

I was foolish to plan what is for me a short trip to East Timor – 2-1/2 weeks – to coincide with All Souls Day, because this year, as it falls on a Tuesday, it essentially knocks out three working days. Many people travel to their ancestors’ graves in the districts for this day, which means a full day of travel for most on the way back.

I have wondered before about the consequence of this massive obligation to the ancestors – even by Dili elites – to the issue land rights. When decision-makers leave their Dili comfort-zone to go and spend days with family, and pay respects to deceased ancestors, are they sufficiently reminded of how important their ties to the land are? Or do they merely go, make appearances and view these rites disparagingly? Is it any coincidence that some of the Ministers and politicians who seem most insensitive about community land rights and most eager to “modernize” Timor at all costs, bringing in outside investors, have weaker ties to their ancestral homes, or have no ties outside of Dili at all?

It would be a very clever strategy of those aiming to defend community land rights to actually work with communities in the districts to prepare a decentralized “Loron Matebian” lobby campaign, where politicians are appropriately reminded to respect and fear the consequences of giving away land belonging to their ancestors.

Even a malae knows, all the fake plastic flowers in the world will not save you from the wrath of disrespected ancestors.

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