Indigenous Spirits and Global Aspirations in a Southeast Asian Borderland: Timor-Leste’s Oecussi Enclave — a discussion with Dr. Michael Rose about his new book, and the theological creativity inherent in human movement and social change.
Dr. Michael Rose is a research associate at the University of Adelaide in Australia. His Ph.D. focused on religious syncretism and governance in Catholic-majority Timor-Leste. More recently he has used his anthropological training to work on projects investigating migration from Timor-Leste to Australia and lived experiences of statecraft in the Pacific.
In 2020, he published a book titled, Indigenous Spirits and Global Aspirations in the Southeast Asian Borderland. In the following interview, he discusses this book and its themes.
Can you tell us more about what brought you to study Timor-Leste’s Oecussi enclave?
I sort of came to academia after a fairly long journey. I'm not sure if that journey is finished yet, but for decades I traveled the world and worked many different jobs. I've been a public servant, a schoolteacher, a farmer, a traveler, a development worker and something you might call a professional hippie.
I won't get into the details of all these here. Eventually, I found myself working with the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) in Oecussi, which is a small enclave (or arguably exclave) of Timor-Leste (East Timor) on the west side of Timor Island.
As an ILO employee embedded within a Timorese government office, I was trying to help them to set up a social security office, where people who didn't have formal paid employment could come to get advice.
I found an interesting, but intellectually stimulating, mismatch here between the prevailing worldview of the ILO and the office in which I was placed. It was through this placement that my journey of seeking to better understand Timorese perspectives on subjects such as governance, authority and religion began.
What I began to understand then — and still don't claim to understand perfectly — is that what would look to any outsider like a typical or somewhat dysfunctional bureaucratic state being built on a pre-existing system of governance, on an accretion of assumptions about why things happen, how the world is and how society is ordered. And, it was totally distinct from that assumed normative by the ILO.
It took me a while, but eventually, I noticed that in the enclave's main local language Uab Meto (the national language of Timor-Leste is Tetun) there were two important terms they used to describe this dichotomy. These were "kase," which means foreign, and "meto" which means indigenous. Some people confusingly use it to mean dry or to denote someone from the highlands. When capitalized, it is the name of an ethnic group and language.
My research, and the book I eventually wrote about it, looked at how those two perspectives, kase and meto, interacted in everyday life.
Lifau, 5 km west of Pantemakassar, is the site of the original Portuguese settlement in Timor-Leste. The monument here commemorates the arrival of the Portuguese in 1515 (Source: Wikipedia)
Could you tell us the story of Jake Lassie and his interest in studying geology that you summarize in the book?
After my work with the UN finished in 2012, I eventually returned to Oecussi in 2014 to do fieldwork for my Ph.D. at the Australian National University. It was a change. With the UN I worked in an office. But as an anthropologist spent a lot of time driving around on a little motor-scooter, asking people about their traditions.
I first met Jake and his family when I was working for the UN, who then introduced me to his large family. He was about 17 and working as a helper at the local UN base. We became close friends. After I left in 2012, Jake went to Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, to study geology at the university there.
Jake was with the first class of geologists to be trained in Timor-Leste, which is interesting, given that many Timorese traditional beliefs revolve around rocks that are sacred, or at least associated with spirits.
I should point out here that almost everyone in Timor-Leste, including the indigenous people, sees themselves as Catholic. However, there are very small Protestant and Islamic communities.
Just out of curiosity, I went looking for people who had rejected Catholicism in favor of following only their indigenous beliefs, but I couldn’t find any. Certainly, they had existed until recently, but by 2015, when I was there, people would tell me: "Yes, some of the older generations were never baptized.” But that generation seemed to have entirely gone.
However, the old religion (the ‘rock and the tree’) was still there in people’s rituals and social lives. The primary metaphor that the people used for this was one which is historically very common in Austronesian societies. It is the example of the ‘older brother and the younger brother.’
Well, what they meant by this is that Catholicism was a sort of younger brother from abroad. It was physically powerful and outward-looking. It was capable of protecting the Timorese people from outside threats.
‘The rock and the tree’ however was seen as the older brother that had received Catholicism. It had invited it in, authorized it to be there, and still lent it authority and spiritual power.
In this way, people continued to undertake practices such as making animal sacrifices at sacred spots in the mountains and talking to the ancestors through ritual speech (uab natoni) but they absolutely did all these as Catholics.
Anyway, to return to Jake’s story. So here is a young man brought up regularly taking part in ceremonies where wise men speak to the ancestors at the sacred rock, going to study the ‘de-enchanted’ science of rocks at the National University.
His Portuguese and Brazilian lecturers were teaching a view of the world that was very different from that of the ‘wise men’ of the village in which he had grown up. He grew up listening to the need to be cautious of, and pay homage to, sometimes dangerous spirits associated with the land. Jake was suddenly very much in between two worlds. In the book, by telling his story, I try to get a better perspective on both of them.
East Timorese musicians and dancers during a performance in Suai, 2010. (Source: Wikipedia)
Is belief in spirits so widespread?
In Timor-Leste, most people believe that those going to place in the mountains must be quite careful not to upset the spirits that live there. There are wild spirits (pah tu’af), which are literally of the Earth, and there are also the ancestors, which are slightly different.
The wild spirits are more dangerous because one can't talk to them. One can, and must, speak to the ancestral spirits. But if you make them angry, they can also make you sick.
So although Jake was studying geology, the landscape had a very sort of specific spiritual meaning and risk for him, in a way his textbooks didn’t account for.
As part of his studies at the university, Jake would often go to various parts of Timor-Leste to collect rocks for analysis back in Dili.
According to Jake’s account, which I have included in the book, this led to several incidents where his classmates became possessed by evil spirits angered by this disrespect.
For a clinically minded person outside would see these possession incidents as acute psychotic breaks. The possessed violently yelled, screamed and cried. They begged to be taken back to their place of origin and spoke with what people presumed to be the voice of the offended spirits: “you've stolen my rocks, return them to me.”
Jake would sometimes tell me that he didn’t really believe any of those old beliefs. But at the same time, it was difficult for him to deny what he saw happening in front of him. He would tell me that he was quite scared of meeting the same fate.
How would you look at all these?
In some ways, it’s not important how I see it. For what it’s worth I don’t believe an outside observer could be able to find objectively supernatural behind it, but on the other hand for those who were experiencing it, and those around them, it was absolutely real. The health, mental and physical, was damaged in a way that no doctor could ignore.
Jake told me of one particularly difficult example where the possessed girl became really sick, completely detached from her previous life and unable to continue with the university.
Finally, some of Jake’s Timorese professors, behind the back of their foreign advisors, arranged to return the rocks they collected. Jake was tasked to take them back to the place from which they'd been taken, which happened to be near his hometown of Oecussi. He returned the rocks to the hill, and together with some local holy men did the rituals to apologize to the ancestors.
Sure enough, Jake said the poor girl quickly recovered.
How to explain this? I honestly don't know.
But to me, whatever else it may be, it is a great example of a group of people trying to negotiate a position between two distinct ontologies — between an understanding of nature defined by spirits on one side and science on another. As the world becomes smaller and smaller this type of process is ever more common, and important to understand.
Photo of two Timorese women in traditional attire during a cultural performance. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Your book speaks about a healing figure, who combines Catholicism with Austronesian practices. Could you tell us more?
Brother Dan. What an interesting character. Let me give some background as to how I met him.
It was a situation where an unfortunate incident became valuable material.
In my case, I got a little cut on my foot while walking in the mountains, I foolishly ignored it and it become horribly and painfully infected. I’d never been in such agony, and indeed it began to look as though I might end up losing my leg. Oecussi is a very remote area, and it was very hard to know what to do.
Then again, I thought, I was there to better understand issues related to the land, health, and healing so why not talk to my neighbors and see what their explanation for this illness was? Maybe they could help.
So I spoke to someone the Meto call an "ahinet" (a wise person), a sort of medium who can speak to the spirits, or at least see signs of their disposition. There is not much Catholicism their work, although the spirits are sometimes identified as being next to the Catholic God in heaven.
They have various techniques for doing this. I have talked about all in my book. This one twirled around a machete until it spun out of control and clattered to the ground. He said he would see what the spirit was saying from the way in which it landed.
After a few false starts, the ahinet said I had become ill because I'd moved into a house without asking the resident ghosts for permission to do so. The ghost had sent a spider to bite me, which is what caused the infected foot.
Alas, this wasn’t my only attempt to seek help from spiritual sources in Oecussi. There was also Maun (Brother) Dan.
Brother Dan was not an ahinet but someone who had been blessed with healing powers through what he (and thousands of others) believed to have been an extraordinary encounter with beings from the Bible. My book explains the unique story of Brother Dan, in which he explains his encounter with St. Peter, Joseph Baby Jesus and Mary and how St. Peter had instructed him to "carry the truth" into the world atop a white horse.
To me what Dan described sounded like a dream, but he believed it had really happened, as did the hundreds of people who would come to his house asking that he use the powers he had gained through this encounter to heal them from often very serious and painful illnesses.
He certainly had a charismatic and charming presence and, as I describe in the book, I personally witnessed situations where he seemed to be able to alleviate peoples’ suffering. Once again, as I found with Jake, the question of what was ‘really’ happening from a biomedical perspective was not the most important one I was confronted with.
Did he cure you?
When I went to him, Dan kneeled before me and said some prayers. Some were familiar Catholic prayers I remembered from Mass as a child. Others were Meto chants, the same ones that were used to speak to the ancestors.
Then he put his hands over the wound, and ‘pulled the heat.’ This was classically syncretic. In Timor, indeed through much of Indonesia, illness is often seen as being used by an excess of heat. Healing of a peace-making ritual then is often construed as ‘cooling’. In this way, Dan reconciled a Meto ritual that had existed long before the arrival of the Church in Oecussi as an act of intensely Catholic piety.
Later I also went to the hospital, where some Cuban doctors insisted that I take heavy doses of antibiotics.
Personally, I think it's the antibiotics that saved my life. But at the same time, it was interesting to have a chance to engage with these ideas around health and spirituality on what ended up being a very intimate level. What I discovered was that although I personally couldn’t bring myself to believe that Maun Dan was literally magical or that Jake’s friends were being attacked by land spirits, knowing something wasn’t true intellectually didn’t mean that one couldn’t feel it is true through one's body, if not one's soul.
Photograph of a traditional sacred house in Lospalos. (Photo: Wikipedia)
How did your research influence your understanding of Catholicism?
It took a while to process everyone.
In Australia, I began to research migrated Timorese workers, often people who had been born in remote villages in places like Oecussi before moving to a regional town, and then to Dili before they move on to work in Australia, usually picking fruit or chopping up meat.
Over the past couple of years, I've got quite close to some of these workers. It's been quite interesting to watch them once again between the worlds — in this case between Timorese and Australian ideas of what it means to be Catholic.
I remember one of them telling me that he was at first surprised to find that religion is not such an important issue in Australia for most people. He asked me why I, like most people here, don’t go to church despite being brought up as a Catholic.
I told him that I used to go as a kid with my parents up to the age of 12. Then, they said it was my decision, and I preferred to go play tennis instead.
He replied he believed in Catholicism, but that since coming here he had also come to the conclusion that one didn’t need to go to church every Sunday to be a good person. I mean, there are people in Timor-Leste itself, who've come to that point of view, but it’s still out of line with social norms there.
It was interesting to, once again, watch a form of Catholic identity being shaped by the economic and geographic realities of human movement.
As part of this research, I also noticed how the Church in Australia had really done an amazing job in supporting Timorese workers. To sum it up, I think, my research in both Timor and Australia opened my eyes to the mutability of belief systems that religions such as Catholicism keep on changing according to the needs and the perspectives of those who practice them.
I think, from a Catholic perspective, the question is what are the fundamentals that one needs to hold on to. I don't have an answer to that myself, but at the same time, I feel from a Catholic point of view that is possibly the most important question.
If my research has shown anything it’s that there’s the potential for great creativity and imagination in Catholicism. If the Church hopes to continue to thrive in a changing and increasingly mobile world it would do well to remember that.
* This is an edited version of a podcast interview that appeared on the webpage of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). The initiative, hosted by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a global network of social scientists who develop new research projects to analyze live realities and the social contribution of Asian Catholics. It aims to deepen and promote academic research on Catholic life in contemporary Asia.
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