“Lafaek” is the Tetun word for crocodile and it is sacred for the Timorese. Legend says that the land is the body of the lafaek; the whole island of Timor is shaped like one–the lower body is West Timor and the head is East Timor. Whichever comes first–the legend or the map–lafaek is deeply embedded into the life and culture of the Timorese then and now.
There may be several versions but this is the widely told and most concise story of the legend about The Boy and Crocodile, now a children’s book sold for the benefit of orphans in Timor-Leste.
Once there was a crocodile who dreamed of becoming a big crocodile. To follow his dream, he set off for the sea to find more food. Still far from the shore and under the scorching sun, he thought he will die. He accepted his fate and waited for death when a boy took him from the ground and brought him to the sea. He was revived by the waters and to show his gratitude to the boy, he pledged that he will come whenever the boy needs his help.
Years later, the boy called the crocodile and asked him, “Brother Crocodile, I, too, have a dream. I want to see the world.” With the boy on his back, the crocodile headed east to follow the sun. After years of traveling together, the crocodile, knowing that his time to die has come, made another promise to the boy, “Brother, in memory of your kindness, I will turn myself into a beautiful island, where you and your children can live until the sun sinks in the sea.”
It’s a wonderful story of friendship, gratitude, and dreams. The Timorese believe that they are the descendants of that boy, the brother of the crocodile, that until now whenever they get into the sea they say, “Don’t eat me crocodile; I’m your relative.”
This legend illustrates how Timorese shaped its own culture, distinct from others. Despite years of colonization and occupation, the roots of the people remain intertwined with the changes and demands of time. That is why when these roots are challenged, the people bravely fight back, sometimes silently, waiting for the crocodile to fulfill its promise.
Some say we must be Indonesian, some say Portuguese, but we are the children of Grandfather Crocodile. We are East Timorese.
Those are the words of Cidalia Pires, a refugee during the Indonesian military invasion Timor-Leste in 1975, who shared her life’s struggles and achievements through the documentary film entitled, “Children of the Crocodile.” The sense of identity and the commitment to never let go of the ties that bind her with the Timorese nation helped Cidalia, Elizabeth (also featured in the film), and the other children of the crocodile, then and now, to endure its tragic history and confront the present.
I watched the annual carnival when I was in Dili last 28 February 2014. It seemed like the whole population of Dili was out there to watch or participate in the event. However, I learned that some people don’t like the idea of promoting the country’s culture through a carnival, something that is not originally Timorese but borrowed from the Portuguese. I understand this sentiment but it is important to draw the line between nationalism and ethnocentrism. In Timor-Leste, Portugal has greatly influenced many of its socio-cultural aspects and one of them is the carnival but the carnival I saw in Dili showcased the culture and traditions of Timor-Leste spanning districts, time, and even environmental changes. And if there was any element of Portuguese style, it was more of an amalgamation into their own rather than a mere borrowing of something foreign. The mode of promoting its culture is perhaps borrowed but it doesn’t undermine the distinct identity of the Timorese.
The best thing about my trip to Timor-Leste is my everyday interaction with its people. I interviewed individuals working for the government and for the civil society and they are all experts in their own field, full of hope for the future even though some of them are not Timorese, and proud of what Timor-Leste has achieved so far. There are, of course, shortcomings from a state-building perspective but most of them believe that the country can move towards the right direction with the proper institutions and priorities–institutions and priorities to be built and identified by none other than its own people. And in doing so, it’s no doubt necessary to have a united voice.
A people once united for independence is now divided in economic progress. Traveling outside the city into the districts, I noticed how vulnerable Timor-Leste is to the consequences of the socio-economic dynamics of a young nation. While fancy ministerial buildings are being built in Dili, just a few miles outside the capital I see houses made of rusty iron sheets. While the business and political elite entertain their guests in high-end cafes and restaurants, I see children with their plastic bottles crossing rice fields to fetch water from a well. While the handful of upper-class sits comfortably in their air-conditioned 4-WD, I see travelers enduring the long, dusty and bumpy ride to their hometowns.
I left Timor-Leste a few days ago full of inspiration as well as despair. Inspiration because I saw how a post-conflict society has successfully rebuilt its nation-state that is now internationally commended by academics and policymakers. On the other hand, despair because I saw how the rebuilding has favored the few and left out majority of its people especially in terms of economic opportunities. It’s true that the Timorese resistance movement fought for independence and not wealth and I understand that the country is still in the process of rebuilding. But seeing the disparity of wealth, I can’t help but feel sad and look back to the story of the boy and the crocodile. The same way the boy gave freedom and another chance to the crocodile, the fishermen, the tais vendor and Senhora da Silva in the photos above also believed in and supported the independence movement. The same way the crocodile fulfilled its promise to the boy, it’s only fair for to give back and fulfill their promise not only of independence but also of freedom, equality and rights. After all, they are all children of the crocodile.
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