Iconic Timorese Houses Disappearing Except in Stronghold of Boti

Iconic Timorese Houses Disappearing Except in Stronghold of Boti

Across rural Timor, important cultural buildings are being replaced by cement buildings as the government hands out grants to communities. When I recently visited Inbate after a two-year absence, I was shocked to see that nearly all the ume kbubu traditional buildings in the village had been replaced by cement and tin roof structures. When I asked what had happened, I was told that government subsidies had paid for the “renovations”.

On the same field trip, I was in Boti and spoke to village elder, Molo Benu, about this change sweeping the countryside. “This is happening here, too,” she said. “People take the money to build these houses. But there is no free money. There is always something to give in return. This is why you buying textiles from us is so important. Selling textiles keeps us financially independent. Selling textiles means we can refuse the government money. Selling textiles means we keep our identity and our land.”

Our field staff, Willy Kadati, provided further context: “When we lose our traditional buildings, we no longer need to perform the rituals associated with living in them, or the rituals for the buildings themselves, or the rituals for the plants that are harvested to rebuild them. 

 “The buildings help connect us to the land. Without these buildings, our connection to the land is weakened. Our identity as caretakers of this land is weakened. Our identity as Timorese people is weakened. 

 “And this is what we give in return for the free money: we lose our identity; we lose our land. And those who would put their businesses here and grow their crops here and run their cattle here make much more money than was ever given.”

The lopo (left) is an open pavilion for meetings, storage and even sleeping. The ume kbubu (right) is thatched all the way to the ground. Warm at night in the cool season, cool during the day in hot weather, it is smokey inside from the woodfired cooking place in its middle, but the smoke keeps the mosquitos away and the malaria that they carry.  

 The ume kbubu are the buildings being replaced by government subsidy. The government’s work to support good housing is commendable, but why replace the ume kbubu? Most people have space for an extra building without having to knock it down. 

The lopo is less endangered, perhaps as it is more versatile. When made with a thatch roof, beautiful accents are sometimes tied into the thatching: these look like gods’ eyes to me. Such beautiful attention to detail is made in every way.  

Water may be stored in bamboo containers. In these dry areas where water is so precious it is stored in large bamboo containers throughout a compound often where it will stay cool and fresh. 

Ceremonial gongs are played after the ritual harvest that is usually around March every year after the rainy season. Gongs may only be played after the Poit Pah ceremony at the forest where permission to harvest is requested. After this ceremony, gongs and drums are played to accompany traditional dance as the harvest is brought in and stored up in the rafters of the lopo

Drums are made from wood from the gardens and hides from local buffalo hides that are cleaned and stretched over the frames. Drums and gongs are both ceremonial instruments and not played until after the harvest begins.