Children of Lafaek: The People and Culture of Timor-Leste


“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.

The map of Timor-Leste is shaped like a crocodile’s head


Timorese boys at Dili Beach

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.


Fishermen at Valu Beach in Tutuala, Lautem District


A vendor at Tais Market in Dili


Senhora da Silva, a resident of Mehara in the district of Lautem

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.

Freshly Pressed badge by Kirsty of La Plume Noire. Thank you!

About these ads

61 thoughts on “Children of Lafaek: The People and Culture of Timor-Leste

  1. Miss, well written…you are a good writer I admire reading this article about my lovely country with it’s unique culture…it brings me a drop of tears……I am imagined how you write , u must be wrote this article with full of emotions…..I love the way u write…u are great :) Thank you very much

    • I’m glad you assume that I wrote this article full of emotions. I actually did. Every time I talk about and even think of Timor-Leste, it just brings back wonderful memories. Timor-Leste will always have a special place in my heart.

    • Thank you for dropping by, Eli. On behalf of the Timorese people, let me thank you for helping the beautiful country of Timor-Leste in rebuilding and establishing peace. I will post a couple of more articles about my visit to Timor-Leste so I hope to see you here again soon. Cheers!

  2. What you have stated about your country is almost the same as other developing countries, where I come from as in Papua New Guinea. We also regard crocodile as spirit or guardian traditionally. Its a very unique animal that can live both in the water and on the land!…
    However, our country is also a haven of diverse cultures and traditions. There are approximately more than nine hundred different languages that comes with its own customs and cultures. People who speak each language comes with their own unique physical appearance and attitude or mentality. And as in such instances; it is so complicated to unify those different types. As evident in constant unstable political enviroment we have faced as a nation since having independence in 1975. Although, we did not fought for it has you people did but, various political goals for development and prosperity in such vorlatile political enviroment which is made up by varied cultures and tradition is no exception.
    We are still fighting for unity. It’s a silent one. It is by the people who believe in common good. Together we stand divided we fall!….
    My heart goes with you the people of East Timore, but, let us all fight for a common spirit which can unite all the creatures of the land and the seas, like the crocodiles are……..

    • Thank you for the insightful comment, Ricky. I’m not surprised that TL and PNG share some commonalities being part of Melanesia. Studies and research about TL and PNG are very strong and important in my university. I wish I could also visit PNG and if possible also study about its complex history. Thank you for your inspiring words.

  3. Reblogged this on paulmaher82blog and commented:
    Nice blog and photos. Unfortunately disparity of wealth is ever present in rich and developing societies alike, obviously harder in less rich parts of the world. But Timor looks great as do the people so they are probably going to thrive in time, judging by the energy exhibited in the lovely pictures.

  4. Nice blog and photos. Unfortunately disparity of wealth is ever present in rich and developing societies alike, obviously harder in less rich parts of the world. But Timor looks great as do the people so they are probably going to thrive in time, judging by the energy exhibited in the lovely pictures.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Paul and for reblogging this post. I agree that this gap is not only a problem in developing countries. I sometimes speculate though whether it is more depressing to be a poor person in a rich country given the opportunities and assistance available.
      The Timorese are always very generous in having their photos taken. I chatted and requested their permission before I took the photos. For the kids, they were the ones who asked me to have their photos taken. I will not forget their positive and joyful spirit. :)

  5. I like your description of the legend … ” a wonderful story of friendship, gratitude, and dreams.” It reflects on the writer.
    By the way, is there a Mcdo in Dili?

    • Even if I don’t see your e-mail add, I know this comment is from you, sir. :) Thanks for dropping by here again.
      There’s no McDo in Dili but they recently opened a Burger King. Ramos-Horta and the Philippine ambassador to TL are two of the ribbon cutters.

  6. I always wonder how those ancient stories come together. Whether an ancient storyteller said that exact story way back when, or if it has been modified through the years to how it is now.

    • I won’t be surprised if stories have been modified as they pass verbally from one generation to another. On the other hand, they also ensure that these stories remain intact and faithful to the original through writing and other method of preservation. But like you, I am also full of wonder. :) Thanks for dropping a comment. Appreciate it.

  7. Interesting post. But I think we should not despair about the situation in Timor-Leste. It’s about the same as in other developing countries, where the rich-poor gap is very wide. Progress may be achieved first by small steps to awareness, such as what you did. So thanks!

    • It’s true that many developing countries also have similar problems and I agree with you that we should not despair. Perhaps, I used too strong of a word for it. Nevertheless, as a young country, Timor-Leste could learn from the mistakes of other developing countries. Thank you for the inspiring words. :)

  8. Until your post I had no prior knowledge of Timor-Leste, so I’m excited I fell across your blog. I often view myself as a social activist to say the least , and I’m always ready and humbled to learn more about social and economic issues the world we live in experiences. My heart goes out to the people of Timor-Leste, and I shall add it to my list of places that inspire me—places I would love to be graced with the chance visit and learn more about their culture and needs or dreams.

  9. Dahlia, this is a beautifully told story with true compassion for the people of the island. And your photos bring it all to life. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed again. All the best, Terri

  10. This is very informative. This only shows that different people have different culture to follow. But it is important to respect the culture of others. I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Good thing I checked the spam and found you comment there (glitch). Thank you, Joelle, for sharing your opinion and as you said, it is important to respect the culture of others and only in that way we can enrich our own lives. Have a nice day!

  11. I liked the story. Each tribe of man has there customs, beliefs and rituals. There stories enhance this and that in a simple word is the essence of good. Tradition is important.

    • It’s paradise! Pristine beaches without the negative effects of tourism. I told my friends to visit this beautiful island as soon as they can because it seems that tourism will soon be big in Timor-Leste. Thanks for the comment. :)

      • Remarkably similar beaches and legends from the people in the Top End as well.

        I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting.

        • I agree with the similarities and I’m not surprised (if you meant NT). I’m also very fascinated with the legends from there. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. Thanks!

  12. The story of the Grandfather Crocodile which you recall is truly inspiring. Let’s hope that this spirit can inspire future economic prosperity for all in Timor-Leste.

It's a free world so your opinion matters. (Names and e-mails are not mandatory but if provided will be kept confidential. Pinky Promise!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s