Social and Environmental Etiquette in Boti, Timor

“Today young people go to university to receive higher learning and degrees but they graduate and know nothing about social etiquette or how to care for the earth. So what is the value of this higher learning?” demands Mollo Benu, traditional elder of Boti.

Mollo's nephew Pah (left). Mollo with children (right).

For Mollo and the people of Boti, social etiquette and how to care for the earth are indivisible. To learn social etiquette requires a child being able to sit and listen and observe. To learn about the natural world requires the ability to sit and listen and observe. The same skill set serves two purposes, to the point that etiquette itself is regarded as embracing how we treat both humans and non-humans. This boundary-less etiquette becomes the foundation for granting all beings personhood and living in careful coexistence. This manifests even in the names given to children. In Boti, all children are given names that are from nature. For example, Mollo's nephew is Pah, and Pah means earth. 

A betel nut basket (left). Mollo wearing a textile decorated with the centipede motif (right).

When people from traditional communities visit each other there is always an exchange of the makings for a betel nut quid. The visitor will bring Areca catechu nuts, Piper betel leaves or flowers, and slaked lime and gives these to their host. In return, the host will offer the same, usually in a basket. Many people use different baskets for different visitors. Friends get the same basket the host uses every day; a high-ranking guest will get a special basket kept just for such occassions. This ritual exchange dramatises the circle of life, linking social exchange to the exchange we make with the plants and animals around us that feed us and that we feed.