Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Timorese Blessings Received and Counted

A few of the countless nativity scenes on display throughout Dili in the lead up to the 2011 Festive Season. Little effort or expense is spared in an attempt to garner the coveted title of the Best Nativity Scene in Timor-Leste. The Festive Season is hugely significant in the Timorese Christian calender moreso in that it also coincides with the onset of the life-giving, rainy season ushering in months of revival and renewal. This is in stark contrast to the 'Big Dry' where life for man and beast can be quite tenuous.

Baucau's children show unbridled joy, their own unique rain dance, at torrential downpours that have transformed the second biggest town in Timor-Leste into a water playground  

Baucau awash yet centuries' old drainage and irrigation systems  are able to divert excess water to where it is most needed without inundation and little or no damage to local infrastructure


Wet, wet, wet - a penny for the thoughts of these children as they enjoy one of Timor's greatest blessings in abundance

These is no doubt that the Timorese count their many blessings in the more conventional, Christian-Catholic way but equally in a far more mysterious and fascinating way through their traditional uma Lulik.  In people and nature relationships, Lulik dictates how people should treat nature (especially land) to support their life. According to Josh Trindade, Lulik demands that nature (such as land, water, trees/forest, rocks/stone) must be respected. This is the very reason why Timorese always have ceremonies and/or rituals after harvests and before the planting season. This is to show gratitude and to value the fertility of the land that provides bountiful food crops to the nation. The Sau batar ceremony, before the corn harvest, is an example and is one of the most important rituals for the Timorese.

The main objective of Lulik as a philosophy is to ensure peace and tranquility in society as a whole. This can be achieved through the proper balance between different and opposing elements. As an example, Timorese believe that peace and prosperity can be achieved through a proper balance between the real world and the cosmic world. In this case, people in the real world should follow the rules and regulations set by their ancestors. These rules and regulations can be a harmonious relationship between individuals within family, clan and wider society.

Rice crops outside Manatutu ready to be harvested but for the marauding seed-eating birds that need to be 'discouraged' from claiming their share by an elaborate system of  Timorese scarecrows. In the background moisture-laden clouds slump heavily over the surrounding hillsides

Whereas time was suspended then (in the dry season) it's now in overdrive - rain, soil, biological processes and invading weed/plant species wait for no mankind. It's literally plant for your LIFE!  The the majority of Timorese eke out a subsistence reality, living off the land and crop failures place communities and individual families at the real risk of malnutrition and even starvation. It's uncanny how well the Timorese are synchronised with the natural processes and ebb and flow of life. They ghost, in grey sheets of rain as misty mirages, across their earthy fields performing an age-old, sensuous ritual of renewal – clearing, plowing, hoeing, sowing and tending and at its absolute climax, harvesting. Communities band together, informally, planting up each others' lands in mutual agricultural programs.

A thriving informal market in the Oe-Cusse district where excess produce is either sold or exchanged in an age-old trade. Markets are important socialisation rally points where villagers congregate from through the immediate district to 'reconnect' with friends and family

From mountain to seaside ..... mountain catchment areas are important ecological and hydrological systems that are often mismanaged through excessive, controlled burning

As a land of absolute extremes and dramatic topography, saturated mountain catchment areas deliver broad and localised torrential downpours to valley, floodplain and coast. Destructive flashfloods, in a give-and-take rapport, deposit huge amounts of gravel, silt, topsoil and debris in broad swathes across countless coastal floodplains and then haemorrhage into the sea where they stain pristine coral reefs - blanketing and choking them in a perpetual  tit for tat cycle. Conversely, the abrasive torrents also scour and swash away all before them crafting new landscapes and forms that leave one in awe of nature's raw power.

A family homestead, with communal cooking area on the left and sleeping hut on the right, perched on a hillside in the Oe-cusse district

Family dwelling in a village in the Oe-Cusse district

Shades of life – every imaginable hue of green and regrowth – tamarind, mountain gum, ever evergreen coastal mangroves, leguminous trees and shrubs explode into life at the onset of the rains. Animal  droppings in abundance – plump, glossy, hydrated, nutrient and fibre-rich completing the cycle of life. Offspring of all manner, with their own exuberance borne out of a season of bounty feed and cavort as if there is no tomorrow – all part of a grand design though as months of drought and deprivation are not far away. Domestic pigs foraging within the inter-tidal zone particularly at low tide. This is most certainly a country and bio-physical environment not easily tamed and there is a real sense that the Timorese would not want it any other way. Evidence of this is plain to see - scarred landscapes, a weariness written over most Timorese and many, many cemeteries.

Father and son outside Dili combing the coral reefs at low tide in search of reef and shellfish

Trusty steed in the shade of coastal trees at Dollar Beach

Timor-Leste's incredible bio-diversity ...........

A beautiful barred reef fish

End of the line or rather island .....Timor's most easterly coastal point with Jaco Island in the background

Ladies off Jaco Island show off their catch for the day

Where it all began ..... Portuguese seafarers and explorers established a first colonial presence in the western part of the island at Oe-cusse or Pante Macassar in the 1650s. Currently the 13th Timorese district of Oe-cusse is an enclave located within Indonesian West Timor or Nusa Tenggara Timur

Submerged starfish

Sea urchin

Banded eel snake in the shallows at Com

Asian water buffalo between Baucau and Com - a good source of protein and useful in the preparation of rice paddies

Buffs chilling to their heart's content - Oe-cusse district

As Timorese enter into an important 2012, many will be hoping for a few additional blessings - perhaps for orderly, fair, free and democratic presidential and parliamentary elections culminating in a new brand of leadership that will fasttrack vital  development within Timor-Leste.  


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tais - Kaleidoscope!

Joseph's fabled amazing technicolor dreamcoat pales into obscurity when compared to the terrific Timorese tais or story-boards that relate unique legends of a nation in transition. 


A phantasmagoria of energy, soul, passion and community

Tais cloth is a form of traditional weaving created by the women of Timor-Leste. Traditional Timorese culture is supported by growing, cutting, tying, knotting, weaving, dying and sheathing a variety of fibres, grasses and leaves for ceremonial and practical purposes. Using mostly cotton threads, the cloth is created during the island's dry season (typically from May to November), almost entirely by hand. The use of cotton is a legacy of the Portuguese colonial era, when Timor was an important port for the trade in the material. Synthetic fibers like rayon, acrylic and polyester are becoming more common as they are imported more cheaply into the country. Try and avoid tais produced from synthetics as they tend to be less durable with dyes running, particularly, at the first wash. Original and more traditional tais are highly prized and priced but certainly something to treasure. A single tais can take anywhere from several days to a year, depending on the complexity of design and variety of colors used, to craft.

Located in the CBD, Dili's Tais Market, stocks weavings from throughout the country's 13 districts depicting a snapshot of local history and culture to the delight of international tourists

The tais has been used traditionally in Timor-Leste as a unit of exchange, often for livestock or other valuables. In ceremonial use, the tais is usually worn along with feathers, coral, gold and/or silver. Weaving of tais is performed solely by women, with techniques passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition.

Colour, culture, character, awe-inspiring stories and much more are to be found at Dili's Tais Market
 Designs, imagery, colors, and styles of tais production vary greatly from district to district, but they often include messages of locale and significant events. Imagery often includes animals such as the crocodile, upon which the creation legend of the island is based. Geometric patterns known as kaif are also employed in most tais. In the enclave of Oe-Cusse, Portuguese influence is most apparent, with floral and religious imagery predominating alongside subdued shades of black, orange, and yellow. In the capital city Dili, by contrast, bright colors and solid panels reflect the focus on tais commerce.  In the district of Ermera, black-and-white designs are most common, reflecting the royalty of the traditional leaders, who often lived in the area. The town of Atsabe (also within the Ermera district) is reputed to be a centre of tais excellence and production. The remote districts of Lospalos and Oe-Cusse are also known for their rather distinctive and highly sought after tais. The village of Manufahi produces tais with certain common animal themes, specifically the lizard and pig.

All tied up .... the blogger left with friend and work colleague Nuno model, to the mirth and merriment of Oe-cusse villagers (Sub-district: Nitibe), the lastest in tais-mane fashion. The older, more traditional tais are sought after collectors items   

The weaving of the tais plays an integral role in Timorese life and especially women's lives: shaping identity and attitudes towards them. Before the introduction of currency and after, the tais has been used as a valued object of exchange in gifting and ceremonies. Textiles are the art-form of the South-east Asian region and often the most beautiful tais are used to wrap around the bodies of loved ones for burial. Its role in wedding arrangements and the associated family ties, is attributed by some authors with contributing to the maintenance and strength of Timorese identity despite hundreds of years of colonial occupation (including Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesian).

Local lasses from Nitibe sub-district (Oe-Cusse) demonstate the crafting of hand-woven tais on a back-strap loom. An essential part of the nation's cultural heritage, tais weavings are used for ceremonial adornment, home decor, and personal attire

One of the most common tools for tais weaving is the back-strap loom, which allows tension on the cloth while the warp is manipulated. The pressure from the strap and the time required for the intricate designs on many tais produce significant pain for many women. During the 1999 wave of violence known in Timor-Leste as "Black September", many tais weavers saw their tools and equipment stolen or destroyed. Recent years have also seen a decline in the number of young women learning traditional methods of tais weaving.

Natural pigments are used to create bright colors in the tais; these are mixed from plants like taun, kinur, and teka. Other colourings are derived from mango skin, potato leaf, cactus flowers, and turmeric. Individuals skilled in mixing dyes are sometimes compared to alchemists, using traditional recipes for creating desired colors. Although colors carry different associations from village to village, red is often used predominantly, as it is connected to long life and courage, in addition to being the base of the Timor-Leste flag.

An elderly, yet charming, farmer takes a betelnut break at the weekly market in the sub-district of Oe-Silo (Oe-Cusse)

Styles of tais worn on the body are differentiated by gender: men traditionally wear the tais mane(or "man's cloth"), a single large wrap around the waist usually finished with tassels. Women wear the tais feto ("women's cloth"), a form of strapless dress woven in the shape of a tube. A third type known as the selendang, a slender cloth worn around the neck in a scarf or wrap-like fashion, has become popular in recent years.


A local villager, from Oe-Silo, splendidly attired in his local area tais-mane