Themes / Everyday people

Beauty and Uncertainty in Timor Lorosa’e

Lauren A.

Manna Matters May 2024

I recently spent a year living and working in Timor-Leste (known locally as Timor Lorosa’e and formally as East Timor), just an 85-minute flight from Darwin. 

I had been wanting to live and work in a developing context for as long as I can remember; hearing many stories over the years of people I respected doing so, as fieldworkers: people committed to living in slums, or professionals who had gone to volunteer with the Australian Volunteers Program (AVP). My upbringing in the church and with Christian organisations taught me that a concern for global injustice and inequality is a fundamental part of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. And as a lawyer, I value the impact that a well-functioning justice system and a set of robust, socially responsible laws can have in addressing these issues, alongside political, social, and economic change.  

So, on assignment with AVP, I went to work with a Timorese-led not-for-profit organization advocating for legality, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law in the judicial and legislative systems in Timor-Leste. Based in the capital, Dili, AVP was a great opportunity for me to ‘test out’ living overseas and to use my legal skills in the context of ‘development’ work in a country I’d consider living long-term, to begin to learn its language, culture, and history, to make connections and to see whether there was a role for me to play. 

Timor-Leste’s history is worth knowing. After Portuguese colonisation, the Indonesian occupation, and United Nations administration, it has been independent since May 2002 and has had many peaceful elections since then. Its economy relies heavily on gas exports and a large portion of the population continue to live in insecure conditions, with inadequate income, nutrition, and sanitation, as well as a high levels of un-or-under-employment.  

Life in Timor 

Tropical island life 

Think super cheap mangoes, papaya, and dragon fruit, fish, and the occasional octopus sold along the beach by men with long sticks over their shoulders, as well as fabulous snorkelling and diving right off the beach. An iconic Timor scene is sitting on the beach, sipping a coconut (freshly cut by your local coconut seller out of a cart or motorbike truck on the side of the road) washing away the humidity-fuelled exhaustion, occasionally interrupted by the smell of burning plastic.  

But Timor is also a very mountainous country. 40% of it is at a 40% or more gradient and that makes road maintenance and farming difficult. It’s hot and humid all year round, with a wet season and an ever so slightly cooler dry season. In the wet, they wait for the next udan boot (big rain/storm) to flood the poorly drained streets, or worse. And of course, mosquitoes are rampant, with very little control in place or education, despite dengue being widespread.   

Catholicism and beach (web).jpgMountains (web).jpgTropical Island (web).jpg


While Portuguese and Tetum are recognised as official languages, the country has at least 32 additional local languages, with each of the 13 municipalities having their own distinct culture and language. Very few people speak Portuguese, most people speak Tetum, many (especially those over 30) speak Bahasa Indonesian and most people also speak at least one local language. Learning the language was one of the best parts of life in Timor, and the main way I began to understand Timor, its people, and culture. Tetum is a simple, literal language with many patterns, supplemented by Portuguese and Indonesian words to describe complex concepts or shorten descriptions. One memorable moment was a productive meeting I had with some colleagues discussing the interpretation of key provisions in the domestic violence law. The meeting was iconically Timor: hot spotting from our phones because the Wi-Fi didn’t work again, using Google Translate to translate the law from Portuguese (as it’s the official language of the law in Timor) into English (for me) and Indonesian for them (because Tetum, spoken by only 1.5 million people, is not yet on Google Translate), and conversing in Tetum, with reference to an outdated paper version of the law that someone had previously translated to Tetum.  

Even when I spoke the language, it was evident I still understood little: unlike our culture, Timorese tend to be very indirect, information is largely shared orally and is descriptive, and there’s plenty of subtext and assumed knowledge. There are no addresses in Timor, only descriptions of iconic landmarks near your house and then asking around, and both places and people have many names. Even emails in workplaces are often a mere confirmation of verbal communication, but WhatsApp, Facebook, and TikTok are increasingly supplementing the oral-based communication.   

Waiting in uncertainty 

Timorese people are proud - their independence and democracy are important to them. But my experience is that they also expect little and have little sense of entitlement, especially to rights and services, perhaps the result of an uncertainty and distrust that underpins Timorese society. Not so much a lack of trust in relationships but a lack of trust that things will work out, that the roads will be open tomorrow, that their family will be well. There is uncertainty about what is happening next, what exactly the rules are or where corruption may be creeping in, or what will happen when the Petroleum Sovereignty Wealth Fund runs out and Timor faces its ‘fiscal cliff’. And for the 42-45% of the population that lives below the poverty line, uncertainty about where the next meal will come from. This leads to very little forward planning (even wedding invitations are given out just a week before), and an acceptance of illness and death which appears to be mourned in structured, cultural ways rather than emotional ones.  

Life in Timor is one of waiting, patience, and perseverance. The sense of urgency that I felt every day in the workplace in Australia had no outlet in a Timorese workplace. Rather, I rarely knew what was going on, either because there was no specific plan, it wasn’t coming to fruition, it wasn’t communicated, or it was communicated but in a language I didn’t understand. Things happened in their own time or aban (tomorrow). That was the hardest thing about life in Timor. I learned more and more to give up a sense of urgency to get things done, to “go with the flow”, still to plan but to hold that plan very lightly, and to occasionally, ever so gently, be assertive if a plan needed to be met. And yet, regardless of my input, immense things were achieved, in their own time but still surprisingly largely on time-ish


The idea of working from home (for your paid job) is unfathomable because houses are crowded. Many of my colleagues had about 20 people in their household and/or were financially and otherwise responsible for 20 people, including cousins and nieces and nephews from the districts. For many, the office is the place to relax. Immense family obligations hold people together, and to an extent, also hold them back. But this, along with moderately priced land that stays in families (although mostly along patrilineal lines) and houses being cheap to build because families build their own, contributes to very few homeless people in Timor’s capital. Houses are built almost literally brick by brick as money is found, sometimes over a decade.  

Gender norms  

There are strong gender norms in Timor and high rates and tolerance of gender-based violence. Reputable 2016 studies found that almost two of every three women (15-49 years) reported having experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime and that, in two surveyed areas, 10-12% of males interviewed had perpetrated a rape in the last 12 months. While daily this was mostly hidden, gender norms affected seating on public transport, roles in the kitchen, office, and at home, who drove and owned cars (largely men), and even the common greetings/acknowledgements that needed to be passed back to my husband. At least some of these norms seemed connected to the predominant Catholic culture, mixed in with local religious traditions.  


As wealth has increased for some, the number of cars in Timor’s capital has outstripped the capacity of the small streets to handle them. But most people get around on motorbikes and public transport: buses, aguunas, and microlets. The microlets (small vans, smaller than a kombi van, that can fit up to 25 people and the occasional chicken or farm produce) are a microcosm of Timorese culture. Observe the microlets for a time and you will see: 

  • the kindness and camaraderie of drivers and passengers looking out for each other,  
  • subconscious behaviour to move further back/forward, to hang out the doorway, to the front seat, or to offer one’s lap to someone, in line with unspoken rules regarding on gender, age, or ability,  
  • safety issues like sexual harassment, poor maintenance, speeding, and swerving,  
  • the way that everyone knew every microlet route by heart, and it was assumed that everyone else knew too, and 
  • the lack of sense of entitlement or empowerment that people felt, particularly women—to not breathe in the cigarette smoke of the one male passenger despite the “smoking prohibited” sign, or to not have to listen to rap at 100 decibels that shakes your core.  


Rice is the staple food for Timorese people, three times a day. A meal without rice isn’t a meal. You might have meat, vegetables, and potato, but you still need rice. Rice with oil or margarine is a relatively common thing for children to be fed to fill them up, and malnutrition and hunger is rife. Other staples are kankung (spinach), beans, bananas, tofu, and tempeh sold in $1 USD bags at markets. The minimal wage for formal work is $115 USD/month, so phone credit and electricity are often bought in $1 or $2 amounts as it’s too expensive to invest in several days’ worth at a time. There’s currently a concern about food shortages and food insecurity as many Timorese are subsistence farmers and the prolonged period of dry conditions this year put the rice and maize production at risk.  

Agriculture (web).JPGFood (web).jpg

Reflections on development and faith 

 After many years volunteering with development organisations in Australia, it was interesting to work with a small, local NGO at the receiving end of funding, mostly from larger institutions. I did see donor-driven development, with most projects going for a year or less, limiting the ability to give employment certainty to staff or retain volunteers to paid work, and unrealistic timelines creating stress. Despite these difficulties, I witnessed many NGOs doing great things on the ground, like JSMP, Maluk Timor, ADRA, World Vision, Estrela+, and more, supported by many Australians and Australian organisations.  

I saw other glimpses of the kingdom everywhere: in strangers, in my colleagues, in other expats—in their quick responses to assist with a motorbike accident or otherwise, their commitment to their work despite the exhausting things that might be going on for them at home or elsewhere, their faithful pursuit of their vocation and their perseverance to commit to life in Timor despite the trying parts of life.  

Despite the welcome of Timorese people, being there as an expat felt complicated at times. At least one local described the many expats, development workers and NGOs in Timor as the continuing colonisation of Timor. It felt important to be requested by a local NGO, who knew the burden of having a malae (foreigner) around but thought the benefits outweighed the costs. For friends who have been in Timor for 3-20+ years, learning the language, sticking around, and getting to know their local community seemed important, those complicated feelings diminishing with each year and level of fluency. Interestingly, phrases that I used to use like to “love the least of these” (Matt 25), “have a heart for the poor”, or “love my neighbours” had no place in my vocabulary when I was there. It was just life.   

Back in Australia, we can be grateful for our clean and safe streets free of barbwire at head height, open drain holes and half washed away bitumen, for variety in your food, for fast internet, for high wages even if they don’t feel that high right now, for OHS standards, for clear expectations and plans that come to fruition, and for the sense of certainty and trust we have in what may come tomorrow or next year for us, our family and our country. We can also learn to give more generously to our families, communities, and those less privileged than us, through development work or otherwise, and to re-learn lost skills like fixing things, to be patient, to accept uncertainty and when things don’t go to plan, and, for the privileged among us, to maybe not expect quite so much.  

Timor is chaotic, beautiful, hot, humid, fascinating, curious, surprising, amazing, welcoming, and rough around the edges. Living and working there was one of the best things I have ever done and a year during which I felt very sure that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.  

Lauren is a lawyer who most recently worked with the Judicial System Monitoring Program in Timor-Leste on justice system reform and gender-based violence issues. Her home base is on Wurundjeri and Jagera/Turrbal country.