Hope and Futility

In Manatuto, East Timor

17 July 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

This morning was rather interesting, and is perhaps one of my most vivid experiences of the simultaneously evident promise and mismanagement, juxtaposed hope and futility.

I went into the office as usual, between 8:30 and 9:00 am and found my counterpart, Gaspar, at his desk reading the paper. I casually sat at my desk next to his and we only exchanged a few words. I tried to ask him about his meeting in Dili, but he seemed uninterested in discussing it. I went through my notes from the last several days and soon Gaspar left to deliver a letter somewhere. I worked on reading the Tetun section of the paper, piecing together the meaning from the words I know and could find in the dictionary with a little interpretation. It actually became somewhat interesting to read about unrest in Bobanaro, the desire of some people in one district for more "truth and reconciliation" meetings, and the award of medals of valor to the Fiji soldiers serving with excellence in the mountains.

I had made my mind up to get Gaspar to talk a little more when he returned -- I was quite bored sitting in a corner room with no windows all alone. However, I couldn't elicit more than a word or two from him about how bad it was not to have electricity before he went off again somewhere. I browsed through the shelved binders with papers discussing the numerous projects the various sub-districts have received and read of more than a few that were cancelled for lack of follow through -- a mechanics workshop, a bamboo project -- and was pleased when Gaspar took interest in my attention. I mentioned the questions I'd laid out for him regarding a potential cement-block mini-factory and he quickly offered to take me to meet the fellow interested in starting the factory.

It was an interesting discussion, and I left with a considerably positive impression of the ability and incentive of the fellow to carry such an effort through to fruition. He already has a system in place to make blocks by hand, but would like to expand production by employing a little capital. Gaspar showed me an old machine they believe could be used if only they had a small motor to drive the cement mixer. Their cost estimate is only $200 -- a possible small-business grant or loan.

Next, Gaspar showed me the site for a proposed market building. To my dismay, it was located on the very outskirts of town, within easy walking distance of only a few families. The current market site is right in the middle of the town, around the corner from the district office, close to the beach, and within easy walking distance of most of the town, except those living on the very edges. So why did they want to move the market all the way out here, away from where everyone lives, I asked. Gaspar had a terribly predictable answer that I should have expected: they don't want the market vendors -- many of whom come from other districts to sell their goods -- hanging around the center of town, making things dirty (there are of course no public restrooms) and causing land disputes when they try to set up shacks on land claimed by others.

There are certainly valid concerns about people without resources living in the middle of the town. However, I have yet to hear from any of the families I regularly talk to concerns about crime. The sanitation concerns are far more easily addressed with public restrooms than by moving the whole market, and concerns about property disputes ought to be addressed head on by the land and property department, not ignored and pushed to the outskirts of town. But how do I begin to address this issue? I see a big mistake about to happen, a project that would reduce market activity by making it more difficult to get to the market, and worse yet, isolate the market sellers from the townspeople, creating potential rifts in the community.

Guess who is the likely funder of this project? That's right, the big funder least sensitive to community interests: the World Bank. Should I go to the world bank and ask them to reconsider the project, or work on trying to get the government backers of the project to change? My thought at this point is to talk more with various community members to see what they all think about it. So far, my family strongly, and even one fellow at the land and property division to a lesser extent, oppose moving the market out of town.

The next stop Gaspar made -- he was driving me around in one of the districts landcruisers since Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to use motorcycles even around a sleepy town like Manatuto -- was at a house he thought Teresa and I might be interested in renting. I had told him my story of how Holden and I had spoken with Sr. Miguel of the Manatuto Land and Property office:

we proposed to rehabilitate a couple of houses and then live in those houses rent-free until the expenses we incurred rehabilitating the house was equivalent to the rent we would have paid. Sr. Miguel, always the agreeable fellow said it was a great idea, but the fact of the matter was that the deal would have to be approved by the Justice Minister who would never give up rent money, even for the opportunity to have a fixed up house free and clear at the end of the deal! Well, Holden and I were a bit perplexed and quite disappointed as we would both be interested in creating a nice spot to live that we could leave to the government afterwards. We expressed our regret that the government would not get a rehabilitated house, and left it at that. After Holden left, Sr. Miguel expanded the governments reasoning, explaining that they were reasonably afraid that any fixed up house would be either burned down again or illegally occupied after whoever fixed it up left. He said it's happened this way before.

The long and short of it is that instead of fixing up a government-owned house, Sr. Gaspar said it would be much better to fix up a house owned by the community. I was a bit confused, because I was originally referring to a district-owned house and ignorantly assumed this would be seen as a community resource! Quite the alternative, as Gaspar affirmed by agreeing: governu laos povo nian, maibee ema bot nian [the government doesn't belong to the people, it belongs to the important, educated, rich people], henesan mondu hotu [the same as all over the world].

We finished by quickly looking at a few other houses we could potential fix up -- one of which is now being used by the fishermen as a private place to relieve themselves -- and wrapped up our morning. I'd have to say it was the most informative morning yet. After lunch, though, I waited around the office for an hour for Gaspar to show back up before giving up and heading home to write a little -- hence this journal entry.

Oh, by the way, it's now been exactly three months since we arrived on that prop-driven plane overloaded with each volunteer's two-year's supply of sasan (stuff). Time flies, and yet it also feels as though we've been here far longer than just three months.

I want to take a moment to relate a story Holden told to me the other day, for I think it goes further to express this simultaneous feeling I have. I think at times Holden, like most of us, can feel a bit discouraged by what we see around us and the seeming selfishness, laziness, pure venality and corruption of some people in positions of responsibility. At the same time, the young povo (your average person in the village) hardly paints the picture of an innocent waiting for help to overcome obstacles put in his way; every one who can talk seems to ask for something, people constantly eye our stuff seemingly looking for an opportunity to profit, and in my rough paraphrase of Holden:

every little kid has a slingshot and is going around killing everything that moves, militia are ready to come back in, no one tells the truth, people are hardly seeing a positive leadership from their government; things could go to hell really fast. But the other day, as I was waiting for several hours for a ride back up the hill, ants found my stash of fish hanging from a tree-brach. Without considering the cost to themselves, these little kids sitting there talking with me held the fish and started knocking off the ants, all the while, enduring the stinging bites of the red ants.

With a smile and a laugh they gave the fish back to holden, and that experience typifies what keeps him so devoted to the people here. I couldn't agree with him more.


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