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East-Timor

 | 
Frédéric Durand
, 
Christine Cabasset-Semedo

Part 2. Socio-cultural identities and factors in question

Nation building at the village level: First the house, then the Church and finally a modern state

Alexander Loch

Texte intégral

  • 127 Direcção Nacional de Estatística. 2004. Census 2004. http://dne.mopf.gov.tp (17.02.2005).

1The above conversation represents a key-dialogue during three years (2002-2005) of action research on psychosocial reconstruction processes in East Timor, carried out in the context of developmental cooperation, with data primarily from the Makassae region. The following anthropological reflections will focus on the dimensions “tradition”, “Catholicism” and “modernity” stressed in the dialogue, with relation to the question of nation building at the village level in a country, where over 80% of the population does not live in urban areas, but settle as subsistence farmers in rural hamlets127.

1 - Imagined modern communities, traditional structures and a powerful Church

  • 128 Anderson Benedict. 1991. Imagined communities reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, (...)
  • 129 UNDP. 2006. Human Development Report 2006. Timor-Leste. Paths out of poverty: integrated rural deve (...)
  • 130 Barth Frederik (ed) 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries.

2From an anthropological perspective, East Timorese villages constitute communities, in which members know other members to a large degree personally, often linked by umane-fetosaan-relations (i.e. prescriptive marriage patterns/alliances), and engage thus in face-toface interactions. The nation, on the other hand, can be understood as a kind of “imagined community”, characterized by the fact that members “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion"128. Apparently from this constructivist point of view, nation-building is not merely a political endeavor in Dili, it is also a “constructive” action taking place in peoples minds. Oral traditions are strong in a country where only 50.1% of the population is literate129 and for a deeper understanding of East Timorese ‘imaginations’ one has to ask, who actually creates and shapes “images” about the others and the nation in remote discourses? Newspapers and other media are not very widespread, other “actors” or “constructors” psychologically influence the production, perception and processing of such (in) formations. In metaphoric terms, intuitively understandable for most East-Timorese farmers, “constructing a nation” is somehow similar to constructing a uma lulik (sacred house): it needs men and women, discourses, material, rituals, leader and a shared vision of a culturally appropriate shape and (spiritual) boundaries against “others”130. Reflecting the principles of “constructions” in a given cultural and historical environment often also helps to understand problems related to its “architecture” and processes associated with the building.

  • 131 Loch Alexander 2007. Haus, Handy and Halleluja-Psychoziale Rekonstruktion in Osttimor.
  • 132 Durand Frédéric 2004. Catholicisme et Protestantisme dans l’Île de Timor 1556-2003.

3As argued elsewhere131, for a deeper understanding of any phenomena related to mind, cognition or identity in East Timor, it is not enough to conceptualize only the prevalent dichotomy of ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’. Indeed, there are powerful modernizers in Dili and there are strong conservative keepers of customary laws and lifestyles, but a specific third dimension has to be considered in East Timor as well, which distinguishes it considerably from neighbouring Indonesia and Australia, and that is its remarkable Catholicism132. With more than 400 religious sisters and priests, involved not only in pastoral but also social and even in quasi-political work, the Catholic Church influences and pervades many public domains, owns land and is one of the most influential education providers (18% of the schools in the country are operated by the Church including 17 of the 36 total secondary schools; curricula are developed and Catholic teachers trained according to international standards).

  • 133 Ospina Sofi, Hohe Tanja. 2001. Traditional Power Structures and the Community Empowerment and Local (...)
  • 134 Loch Alexander 2007. Haus, Handy and Halleluja-Psychoziale Rekonstruktion in Osttimor, p. 255.

4Being sensitized for the omnipresent co-existence of tradition, modernity and Catholicism, one encounters the trilogy everywhere in East Timor: Modern constructed graveyards may be decorated by traditional buffalo horns and topped by a Catholic cross; a CAVR-community reconciliation meeting may be organized according to modern international standards and supported by the United Nations, but it is eventually the traditional betel chewing ceremony and a juramento (oath – involving often the drinking of palm wine with blood), which reconciles the actors, and Catholic prayers frame the ceremony. Studies on the World Bank’s community empowerment project heuristically used, among others, this three-dimensional perspective in order to analyse different views towards democratic decision-making processes133. Systematic experiments on Timorese identity configurations with 241 subjects carried out in the Teachers Research and Resource Centre in Baucau verified in 2004 that individuals represent themselves on average as being equally modern, Catholic and traditional and these identity-dimensions correlate partly with the country’s languagetetralemma (i.e. preferences to use Tetum, Indonesian, Portuguese or English134).

2 - (In)compatibilities, symbols and narratives

  • 135 Alkatiri Mari, Silva Ricardo da, Nascimento Basilio do. 2005. Joint Declaration.

5While on an individual level it may cause only occasional cognitive dissonance to pray on a Sunday morning in a Catholic mass to maromak (God), traditionally sacrifice a chicken to the matebian (ancestors) in the afternoon and watch at the end of the day a new Chinese produced VCD (if there is electricity available) containing scenes absolutely contrary to the value system of the latter, the three dimensions can be quite incompatible on society level. Two examples may illustrate this: (1) In Bobonaro, plans to build a monument after 2002 for the victims of the independence struggle were underway, displaying a person with a katana (traditional sword), a modern country's flag and a Catholic cross. The appropriateness of the symbols, particularly the cross, was controversially disputed in the community. The intervention of the district administrator and a highly respected priest were necessary to agree on the final representation of all three dimensions. (2) In February 2005, the Fretilin government had a serious dispute with the Catholic Church, when they tried to abolish the thus far mandatory subject “religion” in public schools. Priests and religious sisters led demonstrations against the government on the streets (although the Vatican demanded no political involvement), youth associations and several dissatisfied society groups followed, and for days it became obvious that the clergy could easily mobilize the masses for political action, while the prime minister (at this time: Mari Alkatiri) had indeed legal power, but not the emotional means to reach his folks. His secular ambitions were doomed to fail; in May 2005, after President Xanana Gusmao’s mediation, he finally had to sign a declaration with the two Bishops, which reflects the self-image of the “nation under construction” at this point in history. The text recognized “the important contribution that religious values have in the construction of the national identity, in the construction of the nation and in the socio-economic, cultural and political level”135.

First the house…

6Returning back from Dili the same day to a small village, I could observe that the dialogue of the four ema boot (big person) about “religious values” was, in fact, discussed by the farmers. However, much more important for their life was a closer set of occurrences, centred on the recent reconstruction of their sacred houses (uma lulik). Over a relatively short period of two years, in the central Makassae region between Laga and Baguia, approximately 200 uma lulik were built by the local communities. This was an enormous logistic, economic and emotional challenge for the whole social fabric involved. The reconstruction of the houses of Leda Tame and Nami Bu’u, for example, required four buffaloes, six horses, 19 goats, 20 pigs, 31 sacks of rice, 1 traditional sword and 1500 USD in cash – during a time when half of the population lived below the poverty line.

  • 136 Traube Elisabeth. 1986. Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor; (...)
  • 137 Fox Jim (ed.). 1980. The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia.
  • 138 i.e. Correia Armando Pinto. 1935. Gentio de Timór.
  • 139 i.e. Wouden F.A.E. van. 1968 [1935]. Sociale structuurtypen in de groote Oost. Types of Social Stru (...)
  • 140 i.e. Tjahjono Gunawan (ed.) 1998. Indonesian Heritage.
  • 141 i.e. Costa Christiano, Guterres Aureo da Costa & Lopes Justino. 2006. Exploring Makassae Culture.
  • 142 i.e. Fox Jim. & Soares Dionisio Babo (eds). 2000. Out of the Ashes: Destruction and Reconstruction (...)
  • 143 Trindade Jose, Bryant Castro. 2007. Rethinking Timorese Identity as a Peacebuilding Strategy, p. 12 (...)

7Austronesian houses are well known in anthropological literature as being much more than mere shelters. They represent important social spaces and local cosmologies136; they link extended families and are therefore the prerequisite and guarantee of the “flow of life”137. The relevance of sacred houses in East Timor is a well documented phenomenon – from early accounts of Portuguese administrators138, Dutch scholars139, Indonesian authors140 and up to contemporary East Timorese141 and international researchers concerned with reconstruction phenomena142. In the context of nation building the relevance of these houses is at least threefold: (1) over centuries in East Timor sacred houses were built, rebuilt, and after 1975 often systematically destroyed by the Indonesian armed forces, and following 1999, again reconstructed. During the post-conflict period, the reconstruction of symbols of integrity was an important healing ritual of social wounds. The nation needed such area-wide ways of coping. (2) The houses have a pivotal role for the broader social functioning, since each uma is linked to other houses and each clan has therefore multiple alliance relations, which form a countrywide web of houses. Being a nation of interrelated houses, the imagined community is connected via these architectonic manifestations. Following Geertz’s (1973) prominent concept that people are suspended in ‘webs of significance they themselves have spun’ and “culture” can be taken as those webs, East Timorese Nation builders must be “webmasters”, able to deal with house-affairs. (3) Finally, modern East Timorese activists have meanwhile discovered the potential of building even a national uma lulik for the transformation of national grievances and overcoming the east-west tensions of 2006. Trinidade states: “Even if the origins remain unclear, the identification with Loromonu or Lorosa’e has become a serious vulnerability for East Timor, susceptible to manipulation in a context of new nation-building where people search for belonging and stability as identities are shifting” and advises therefore:“The importance of the uma lulik in relation to the people of East Timor cannot be overstated. The sacred house embodies the ethos of communal unity and the binding relationships between the people, the land and their ancestry… On the basis of the many positive responses we propose the creation of a National Uma Lulik in Dili as a symbol of East Timorese identity and solidarity. The National Uma Lulik will be seen as the focal point for local uma luliks across the country and the communities that associate with them143.

Photo: © Alexander Loch
Nation building at the village level: The reconstruction of sacred houses (
uma lulik) is a prerequisite and symbol of collective post conflict identity work

… then the Church…

8Understanding that the sacred house from it’s foundation – mostly male and female sacred pillars, at which annual sacrifices are performed – up to the top (in Makassae culture linking the living and the dead) is the most important manifestation of a worldview older than the arrival of Catholicism on the island, it is obvious that the church has more than ambivalent feelings towards these houses: in the best case, priests try to incorporate their symbolism into syncretistic forms or even build their sacral-architecture according to the same principles (see, for example, the house of the priest of Laga, the union hall in Baucau or the church in Los Palos). More often, the young East Timorese priests (and not so much the elder international missionaries) try to marginalize the remnants of the traditional system and prefer to integrate modern techniques (Laptop & LCD-projector) in their toolbox to spread the gospel. The gentio (traditional believers/pagans) raise a smile, but their days are numbered since their age group is gradually declining. In his Christmas sermon (2004) Bishop Basilio de Nascimento criticized the immaturity of his parish believing that ancestral spirits are stronger than the gospel. However, interestingly the native East Timorese clergy, both madres and padres, can not be considered as pure antagonists of the traditional system, they are considered qua their own Timoreseness to be part of it and people know exactly, to which family/clan/house actually someone belongs and who has chosen to follow a religious career.

9The role of the Catholic Church for the creation of images is multiform: Having the human resources and organizational structures to reach deep into villages, priests, missionaries, religious sisters and laymen are major players in defining in-and out-groups, heaven and hell, good and bad. They define more adequately than the text-formats of the weak judiciary system what a sala is (the Tetum word can mean both: a sin or a mistake). The Church shapes all important rites de passage (birth, marriage, death) and has through its Catholic school system access to the younger generations’ brains and visions. Most importantly and especially under consideration of the above mentioned regional fraction in 2006, it is the Church which produces uniting symbols and rituals. While an uma lulik of the Bunak looks different from the Fataluku ones, both groups recite exactly the same Lord’s Prayer. The gospel aims for love and harmony, not for disintegration. Like the traditional system, which provides symbols and rituals (like houses and sacred objects such as swords, drums, weavings etc), the Catholic Church has the power of definition over a set of images (cross, stories, ritual performances etc.). For the longest time they could even define, who actually is a Timorese (literally: a timor-oan, a child of Timor), by keeping a monopoly on baptism-certificates, which are later needed to get an identity-card.

… and finally a modern state

10The term “modern” is not as easy to operationalise as “Catholic” or even “traditional” in the East Timorese context. European Modernity of 18th century enlightenment and 19th century industrialization can hardly be compared to 21st century post-conflict nation building in Asia’s least developed country. However, political elites and villagers have distinct modern – sometimes even post-modern – visions and tendencies beyond Catholic and traditional ideas, which manifest themselves in the national development plan, the increased use of communication technology or impacts of globalization at local level. From a historical perspective, gender-equity or western-like democratic elections are-not only in East Timor-very recent developments, but are unforeseen in both, the Bible and the lisan (traditional law). Likewise “the nation” is a comparatively new concept,-though an older Timorese equivalent, the “rai” (land), exists.

11People fought for their rai, many popular songs glorify the rai Timor and the liu rai (traditional landlord) represents, for many still nowadays, the authority who actually has the obligation to care for the land and the right to speak on behalf of its people (interestingly, even Jesus Christ is sometimes attributed to be a liu rai). This prototype of a relationdefinition between the individual and his liu rai is crucial for understanding the relation of a citizen to his state.

12Although nowadays the prime minister and the president are democratically elected, it is not assumed that this implicates any kind of ownership of the nation, whom these ema boot (big person) represent. They get the respeito (respect), but not a stakeholders interest, as long as they perform well – similar to the liu rai, it is assumed that they have the responsibility to care. Nation-building is one of their duties.

13There is a deeply felt sense of being Timor oan (Timorese) belonging to the rai Timor. But its government is somehow geographically distant (in the capital) as well as emotionally far away (often personified as its prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, at that time). It is a perfect image to be blamed for unfulfilled expectations. "Governo tenke halo!" (The government must do it!) became a coined phrase expressing that responsibility for transformation and (re-)construction. It was not the task of the people, but the nation-builders in distant Dili. Their efforts to build some-thing, including a nation-thing, was seen as their business – comparable to the effort of another village to build a house to which one does not belong by family ties (and therefore not obliged to assist in the construction). Communities can afford enormous capital to build their own sacred house, work together under the hot sun and develop outstanding logistic competences to get things organized. Members of the same community will answer to the question “Couldn’t you not spend an additional half day to fix also the roof of the primary school next to the uma lulik?” most likely “Governo tenke halo!” Obviously, one challenge of nation-builders is thus, to create a house-image of the nation.

Conclusion

14In village discourses, all three dimensions are discussed: the last sermon of the Catholic priest, traditional berlake (prescribed reciprocal transfers, often misleadingly translated only as ‘dowry’ or ‘bride wealth’) and the contemporary national challenges such as education, health services or oil revenues. The question, if traditional, Catholic or modern ideas are actually considered more important is, of course, primarily an academic one. The above mentioned identity-experiments in Baucau showed a tendency that East Timorese in 2004 perceived themselves slightly more modern than traditional; but there was evidence that for most people all three dimensions are highly relevant. However, in critical situations people must indeed make choices: A very sick child can be brought to a modern hospital or to a traditional matandook (healer) or a religious sister for prayer and help. The three dimensions are not mutually exclusive – a malnourished child can be treated by a modern doctor, obtain some traditional medicine as well as receiving careful follow-up from a madre. Nation building is also a critical process, and one of the challenges for an imagined modern community is to integrate likewise traditional concepts and Catholic values. In moments of incompatibility, at the village level a preference emerges: First the house, then the Church and finally a modern state.

Notes

127 Direcção Nacional de Estatística. 2004. Census 2004. http://dne.mopf.gov.tp (17.02.2005).

128 Anderson Benedict. 1991. Imagined communities reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, p. 5.

129 UNDP. 2006. Human Development Report 2006. Timor-Leste. Paths out of poverty: integrated rural development. http://www.undp.east-timor.org (11.04.2006).

130 Barth Frederik (ed) 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries.

131 Loch Alexander 2007. Haus, Handy and Halleluja-Psychoziale Rekonstruktion in Osttimor.

132 Durand Frédéric 2004. Catholicisme et Protestantisme dans l’Île de Timor 1556-2003.

133 Ospina Sofi, Hohe Tanja. 2001. Traditional Power Structures and the Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project.

134 Loch Alexander 2007. Haus, Handy and Halleluja-Psychoziale Rekonstruktion in Osttimor, p. 255.

135 Alkatiri Mari, Silva Ricardo da, Nascimento Basilio do. 2005. Joint Declaration.

136 Traube Elisabeth. 1986. Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor; Cinatti Rui. 1987. Arquitectura Timorense.

137 Fox Jim (ed.). 1980. The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia.

138 i.e. Correia Armando Pinto. 1935. Gentio de Timór.

139 i.e. Wouden F.A.E. van. 1968 [1935]. Sociale structuurtypen in de groote Oost. Types of Social Structure in Eastern Indonesia.

140 i.e. Tjahjono Gunawan (ed.) 1998. Indonesian Heritage.

141 i.e. Costa Christiano, Guterres Aureo da Costa & Lopes Justino. 2006. Exploring Makassae Culture.

142 i.e. Fox Jim. & Soares Dionisio Babo (eds). 2000. Out of the Ashes: Destruction and Reconstruction of East Timor; Loch Alexander 2007. Haus, Handy and Halleluja-Psychoziale Rekonstruktion in Osttimor.

143 Trindade Jose, Bryant Castro. 2007. Rethinking Timorese Identity as a Peacebuilding Strategy, p. 12, 38.

Table des illustrations

Légende Photo: © Alexander LochNation building at the village level: The reconstruction of sacred houses (uma lulik) is a prerequisite and symbol of collective post conflict identity work
URL http://books.openedition.org/irasec/docannexe/image/663/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k

Auteur

Dr. Alexander Loch is a German psychologist and cultural anthropologist working for 10 years in various capacities for international developmental organisations. He managed the research-and development unit of the Instituto Catolico para Formação de Professores (2002-2005) in Baucau, edited a Tetum dictionary (2005) and a monograph about Psychosocial Reconstruction in East Timor (2007). He is academically affiliated with the Centre Asie du Sud Est in Paris (2008) as a Post-Doc researcher (DAAD), and advises ongoing training programs in East Timor (World Bank) and West Papua (UNIPA). Contact: alexander@loch.asia

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2009

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