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Day Three in Timor-Leste

Day Three in Timor-Leste

This video we’ve come to Timor to film is all about challenging people’s assumptions. As one of the architects of the video idea, I quite confidently thought I held very few of those - that I had the lofty self-awareness to recognise and challenge pre-conceived thoughts. But today, with a pig pen and a squat toilet and a mobile phone, I realised I was wrong.

We were allowed to film at Rosalia’s house this morning. She was shy about it - she’d told us her house was quite simple - but was happy to host us. Her reservations coupled with Sierra’s reminder that even a simple house in Dili was nicer than houses in the rest of (mostly rural) Timor had me completely devoid of expectations going in: I had no clue what we were going to see as we turned off the main road into her street.

We bumped down a narrow, dusty street, fringed on either side by palm trees and thin bushes; puttering motorbikes waiting outside squat brick buildings. The street was pale blonde dirt; the buildings dark grey, and against the neutral background stood the bright T-shirts of kids out the front of houses, staring curiously up at our backpacks and sunglasses and confused, sweaty faces. Rosalia slid out of the car and showed us into her house: a simple, tidy place, with a small kiosk store out the front. Her mother sells vegetables and household goods from the front of their home - later, she’d take me through each one and teach me the Tetun words for peanut and chilli and bean and tomato (it’s “tomati”). We met her and Rosalia’s father, and then two grandfathers - the adults live in the house with Rosalia, her four siblings, and her cousin. It’s a large-ish family by Timorese standards, but not the biggest I’ve heard of.

Behind the kiosk is the largest room in the house - a dark, cement-floored room devoid of furniture except for a small table carrying a religious shrine. Behind the first room is what I’d call a dining room - but this wasn’t the kind of dining room I’m used to. Covered dishes sat on a narrow table, and when the family ate lunch, each person took a plateful of food to another part of the house, and sat or squatted elsewhere to eat. The only other piece of furniture in the dining room was one of those water taps you see in doctors’ waiting rooms.

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The room lead to a courtyard, with a narrow verandah and a covered kitchen area. Behind the kitchen was an outhouse; next to that was a pig pen. There was a beautiful breeze through the courtyard and I sat on the verandah with our translator, Anibal, for a long time, trying to avoid the day’s baking heat.  

When we spoke to Rosalia yesterday and got permission to film at her house, I didn’t think about things like pig pens, squat toilets, and naked kids in the street: in the rather smug way I dismissed my own ability to make assumptions, I’d subconsciously decided that those kind of images were just lazy ones that big NGOs fabricated to guilt people into donating - they didn’t really exist.

But they do. The reality of Rosalia’s life is both that she’s a sassy, chatty, Facebook-using, school-wagging, bossy older sister and hardworking drama student, and a person who wakes up at 5am to clean her house and cook breakfast for her family every day, and whose jobs in the afternoon involve things like feeding the pig and raising her siblings while her mum works and her dad studies. She’s a vibrant, empowered young woman, and she happens to live on a dusty street with a naked infant neighbour on one side and a fahi on the other.

I thought I knew what it meant to live in poverty - I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading and learning about it, and I thought I might have seen enough of it to have something of an idea. But today I realised how far off I really was. I was welcomed into a house unlike any I’d ever been in before, by a wonderful warm family  who taught me Tetun words (fahi is pig, and busa is cat), gently went along with everything we did, with more grace and kindness than I’ve seen for a good long while. And from the outside, they look desperately poor.

I’ve been repeating phrases about how people-can-be-both-rich-and-poor-et-cetera for the whole four years I’ve been at Oaktree. And today, I really realised what those words meant - and was able to see that I’d been telling myself a story about what the world was like. That it’s easy to tear down and ridicule tragic sad stereotypes in videos - but it’s more difficult to look at the story in your own head and learn that what you thought isn’t quite true.