A Walk

In Manatuto, East Timor


18 August 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

Today was a busy "work" day -- an example of how much one can find to do even when not going into the office. I started a bit late, sleeping in after a busy weekend and a late return to Manatuto from Dili -- I was using DOS on the computers in Dili to post as much of my up-dated website as time would allow. Since moving into this house more than a month ago, the family, and particularly Jacinto, have been urging me to move to Jacinto's old room on the second floor up an awkward stairway. This is one of the few houses with a second floor, and in an earthquake, I might be in jeopardy living here in this cinder block structure, but I finally decided to follow their advice for it would give me a little more distance from the crying babies, arguing kids, wash-room antics (the washroom is right outside my old window), and more importantly, the evening-time watching of the satellite-linked, big-screen T.V. playing Indonesian soap-operas, almost always involving three important characters: a sultry, pouting woman ruing her long lost man, the long-lost man, usually rich, and a bumbling idiot and perhaps an evil-minded scheming fool.

This is perhaps one of the nicest places I've lived, the houses of my parents aside. From my room, I have a view through the trees of the rice fields and the nearby foho (mountains). From the sitting room and balcony, I can see the old Portuguese fort perched on the hill looking over town. The whole floor is nicely tiled, and there is a ceiling, a rarity in most houses around the country. I might change a few things if I were in charge, but I'm not and I'm quite happy with the place. My private bathroom downstairs contains one of the few Western-style toilets around -- unfortunately, I'm one of the few Westerners who prefer the Asian toilet, but my mother and any other visitors who happen to come will surely appreciate it. The tub is kept full for it serves as the reservoir of water for showering (pouring buckets of water over oneself, and washing dishes. There is also a sink that works for the hour or so that water flows each morning, but the drain only opens to the floor, as everyone who uses it finds out quite quickly when their feet receive whatever they dumped in the sink.

I had a quick lunch of brown rice, only -- I'm on a special diet trying to figure out what it is that keeps me about as regular as the N-Judah in San Francisco (that is not very). Then I looked for a man who might be able to build a bookshelf for me, but only found his house; he was out working with the Japanese company improving the irrigation with many of the other more skilled men in the town.

After hanging around the house for a bit, talking with the girls -- about twenty young girls from the age of one to about fourteen live in and around this house -- I headed out to the toss (the area of irrigated land I might use for a small garden). No one was around, as there never seems to be during the day even though people do live there -- more about that family another time for it is a fascinating evolution of social systems. I poked around a bit and wondered if anything would grow in the clay they call dirt here, then headed off on an interesting walk, following the irrigation canal to its source. As usual when walking off the beaten track anywhere in East Timor, though I started off alone, I picked up and lost various friends along the way -- it is rare to ever get far without attracting attention, and often being accompanied by curious children, teenagers, and even adults. It was quite fascinating: the aqueduct followed a twisting path through the rice paddy, through small gardens, through buffalo pasture, and even through people's back yards. At one point, the water seemed to form a moat around one family's house -- the woman of the house was busy sweeping the dirt clean of leaves, and took no notice of a foreigner and three tag-along friends walking over her 'draw-bridge'.

My limited agriculture experience certainly leaves me lacking qualification for judging rural irrigation systems, but this one didn't seem too bad. Sure there are plenty of weeds sucking off the water, but they also provide shade, reducing evaporation that must be significant in the equatorial sun. In various spots, the ditch split off to water different sections of rice field. Some people with land above the level of water, have dug out sink holes to collect water they are then able to carry in buckets to water their vegetables. Almost all the gardens I saw consisted only of what they call mustard greens (most significantly more tender and sweeter than those with the same name back home), kanko (a kind of ditch-spinach), perhaps leafy lettuce, and a few had either potatoes or cassava. One young fellow from Oecussi (the enclave isolated from the rest of East Timor by West Timor and the ocean), invited me to see his garden and said he'd like to plant more if he had the seeds. Since he mentioned he wanted to plant tomatoes, I suggested he simply buy a tomato from the market and plant the seeds; I might just do the same.

That got me thinking about the plight of farmers here. Securing good seed stock is not easy. There certainly are programs to give out rice seed of 'improved' varieties, but for the small garden plot which provides most of the vitamins for families here, there are not any programs established here, so far as I know of. I made it with one of my followers to the river from whence originated the aqueduct, and was somewhat surprised to see it was the same place I had noted last week. I had noticed it before because it looked particularly flimsy, prone to washing out. The water from the river was directed to the aqueduct by a makeshift construction of sticks, stones, and banana leaves. Now I'm all for using local resources, but I'd imagine that in 25 years of rice cultivation (the Indonesians are recognized as largely responsible for the rice-paddy culture here, while the Portuguese apparently did little to encourage this crop, perhaps preferring corn?) people have learned to use something a little more permanent than banana leaves. It is quite ironic that this inlet from the river is the same one that may feed my garden. Will there be a conflict of interest if I help get money to fix it? Should I get money to help them buy cement, or should I look to the way the Tibetans have directed water from the river for generations using simple constructions of stones and clay? Well, I'm not an engineer, so don't feel qualified to make such design decisions.

That sentiment is one that often repeats: I'm not a material expert in anything, so what am I doing here trying to help people that most need technical experts to help them build bridges, grow better rice, start banking systems, re-plant forests, rehabilitate electricity systems… . The list goes on and on. I even thought how great it would be if an expert boat builder came here and taught fishermen to build more than dug-out canoes in which to brave the seas around here -- I just heard of a couple of families who lost their fathers and brothers at sea. But my expertise is community organizing, planning, economic development, city planning. I might yet find a way to help the local government get better organized, but until I find someone there interested in working more closely with me, I'll look to work directly with the community. The seeds of a large, fairly comprehensive project have planted themselves in my mind, and these may lead to a decent effort. We'll see.

Import Substitution vs. Economic Base

Before getting into that, I wanted to discuss something I've been thinking about plenty lately. As you may know, there are two generally established models for community economic development: import substitution and economic base. The first looks to reduce the out-flow of money by finding ways to make things locally that otherwise will be bought from outside. An example here would be for local carpenters to make chairs to supply the local demand filled now by cheap, plastic imports from Indonesia. The second looks to promote (usually) large business ventures to produce products for export, thereby generating the income necessary to purchase the import goods. Both provide jobs, but differ significantly in the roll for people: import substitution creates opportunities for local people to take initiative, start their own small business, be their own bosses, and it generally circulates capital within the community -- it aims to create many small capitalists, the backbone of any private market system; the economic base model creates wage-labor jobs, factory jobs, a few managerial and expert positions as likely as not filled by outsiders, and if successful creates profits for the investors, almost always outsiders. The second is much more tangible for planners, and far easier to coordinate. The first is more complex, uncontrollable, organic, empowering, generally promotes broad distribution of wealth, and all but impossible in today's age.

Walking around town, anyone can see hundreds of products imported from abroad that could be made here: already mentioned chairs, and other furniture, clothing and cloth, sandals, cooking oil, roofing materials… . For each of these things, there is an alternative people could produce locally. But how can a carpenter working with hand tools and spending hours looking for good wood to work, going to compete with the Indonesian factory using child labor to extrude plastic chairs by the thousands? The factory has capital and expertise provided from an economy (likely a US company) that has developed virtually uninterrupted for 200 years, building foundation upon foundation making every activity easier than it was twenty years ago. Here, people are still struggling to figure out basic property laws, minimum wage rules, and the streets don't always connect and are often washed out in the rainy season.

How to compete with these imports that all but foreclose local production? When the US as a new country found it in its national interest to be able to compete with British imports, it very simply put tariffs on those imports, giving local producers a chance to catch up with their brothers across the little ocean. The World Bank (here in force with advisors involved in many aspects of government here), and hundreds of donor countries would cry foul if any mention of tariffs were made here. So does that leave us with only the second model for a workable option? Must the East Timorese beg some multi-national to come here and found a factory to give them jobs to they can earn a wage to buy the chairs, flip-flops, t-shirts, fake cds and cooking oil from Indonesia, their former occupiers?

(In a conversation with several community leaders the other day over the foho in Soibada, I brought the subject up. I termed in the form of a "buy East Timorese" campaign, to make and encourage people to buy locally made goods rather than imports. They were enthusiastic about the idea for they too were displeased by the amount of dollars regularly sent back to Indonesia to buy their manufacturing product. Gaspar even said that there are places in East Timor where small factories produce cement, soap, and oil. I'm not sure I believe the production is active, but it could be, and this would be a great national campaign, helping build up the pride of people here, and a belief that they can do things themselves.)

Back on my walk.

After visiting the inlet, my attention drifted to the pounding sound of a generator nearby. I asked my tag-along friend what it was and he said dulas haree (a rice mill). Great, I've been interested to see one of these for a long time. Inside it was a far cry from the tsampa mill I visited in a remote valley in Tibet. That was two heavy stones turned by water flowing below, grinding roasted barley into edible flower; I can still hear the mesmerizing whirl of the stones, and smell the wholesome aroma of the tsampa. This mill was a modern factory: hulled rice poured from sacks into a funnel atop a metal box. The box spit out denatured white rice from one spout, and the hull with all the vitamins from the other spout (this people feed to pigs -- no wonder they are such healthy animals). The mill was driven by a fifty horse-power gasoline engine reving at full speed, filling the air with a deafening bang, bang, bang sound. I wanted to ask if they could turn the pressure down and take off a little less hull, leave on some of the vitamins, but there was no possibility of conversation -- the men working the machine even communicated with hand-signs -- so I headed off down the road toward the beach. My tag-alongs had headed home already, with fresh rice-vitamins for their pigs on their heads, so I walked alone watching the sunset over the nearby foho. The stands of coconut, mango, and aikadero set off the rice fields and the sky turned red. The surf beat the sand. I walked by ruins of the old protestant church -- burnt out by the Indonesians shortly after their invasion of the country -- and made my way back into town.

A handful of FDTL (Portugese abbreviation for Defense Forces of Timor Loro Sa'e) soldiers were borrowing a large wok from the OMT hotel by the beach. They were camped out nearby, on their way to a celebration of Falintil, the party that lead the freedom fighters for 25 years. I joked with them that I was from East Timor too, that I was from Los Polos. They almost believed me, but were wise to the fact that I was just too tall and too white for a Timorese man. Then I saw friends from World Vision, and hurried back to teach the kids English. I got back in time, but there would be no English class tonight for they were in the house chapel praying for good health for Senora Lina, sick with a massive tumor in her abdomen. I finished they day with a couple plates of plain, brown rice, and toasted myself to good health.

mj


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