PEOPLE OF EAST TIMOR: CUSTOMS, CHARACTER, ORIGINS AND MARRIAGE

PEOPLE OF EAST TIMOR

Nationality: noun: Timorese; adjective: Timorese. Ethnic groups: Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian), Papuan, small Chinese minority. The population also includes a small fraction of people who are not ethnically East Timorese: including Chinese and Arab merchants as well as Indonesians who married East Timorese. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor <>, CIA World Factbook]

The Timorese are known collectively as Maubere, an originally derogatory name turned into a name of pride by the resistance movement. . Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “Maubere refers to a common name found among the Mambae people, the largest ethnic group in East Timor (Traube 1986). During the Portuguese colonial period, maubere was generally used to distinguish the native East Timorese from the upper class, educated Portuguese and, to a certain degree, the mestizos, the half caste group. ‘Maubere’ was often employed as a synonym for the illiterate, uneducated and, to some degree, uncivilised (see Traube 1986). <>

There are many local cultures and languages in East Timor despite the population being highly heterogeneous. Very few of the indigenous cultures have been anthropologically documented: Tetum of Viqueque district, Ema of Marobo in Bobonaro district, and Mambai in Aileu district (See Hicks 1976, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1997; Renard-Clamagirand 1971, 1972, 1975, 1980, 1982; Traube 1980; 1986). <>

Timorese consist of a number of distinct ethnic groups, most of whom are of mixed Malayo-Polynesian descent and Melanesian/Papuan stock. The largest Malayo-Polynesian ethnic groups are the Tetun (or Tetum) (100,000), primarily living in the north coast and around Dili, the Mambae (80,000), living in the mountains of central East Timor, the Tukudede (63,170), who are living in the area around Maubara and Liquisa, the Galoli (50,000) living between the tribes of Mambae and Makasae, Kemak (50,000) in north-central Timor island, and the Baikeno (20,000), living in the area around Pantemakassar. The main tribes of predominantly Papuan origin include the Bunak (50,000) living in Central interior Timor island, the Fataluku (30,000) living in the eastern tip of East Timor around Los Palos, and the Makasae living in the eastern end of the island. [Source: easttimorgovernment.com]

The Timorese are a racially mixed people composed of Melanesian and Malay genetic elements. In addition, in common with other former Portuguese colonies where interracial marriage was common, there is also smaller population of people of mixed Timorese and Portuguese origin, known in Portuguese as Mestiço. The best-known East Timorese Mestiço internationally is Nobel-Peace-prize winner José Ramos Horta. Mário Viegas Carrascalão, Indonesia's appointed governor between 1987 and 1992, is also Mestiço. ++

Mythical Origins of the Timorese and the Timorese Today

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “The following derive from oral histories recounted to me by Kemak traditional leaders in the Atsabe subdistrict of Ermera district in 2002 (Molnar 2002). 1)“The Flores people are related to the East Timorese, especially to the Kemak. The Flores people still have a named house called Uma Beu Ubu. A long time ago there were three liurai in East Timor. But because of a disagreement they split up. One went to the West, Loro Kik, under whose authority West Timor and Flores belonged. One stayed in the middle, Loro Bot, the liurai (koronel bote) of Atsabe whose authority extended over central and western parts of East Timor [story teller inserts and further elaborates that the Atsabe is the center and the place of origin for the dispersal of all Timorese and Flores people]. Another one went to the East, Loro Sa’e, and his authority extended over Lospalos and territories east of it. But the gold items of wealth [heirlooms and symbols of status and authority] were only retained by Loro Kik and Loro Bot.” [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor <>]

2) “All Timorese are descendant of three ancestors; the many different ethnic groups are the result of complex intermarriages between local groups and descendants of Portuguese and Dutch colonials. Wehale kingdom with its ritual center at Laran was influential in propagating the marriage alliances, especially in the central regions of Timor Island (eastern West Timor and western East Timor), since eastern West Timor has its own alliances with West Timor and Oecussi and western East Timor has alliances with groups in eastern East Timor. So the whole island is one.” <>

3) “Timor Island was divided among three descendants of one founding ancestor. The division was between the west, middle and east. And also there was a partition of North, middle, and south. The west belonged to the Wehali kingdom. The middle to the ancestor of the Atsabe people and the east to the ancestor of the Los Palos people. But then the Portuguese and Dutch came and each wanted sandalwood so they divided the island into two. But in reality Timor is ONE. Therefore, the East Timorese representation of their history suggests a pan-Timor identity, emphasizing a unity of Timorese, based on shared ancestral founders. The divisions of authority they also view in terms of local kings and rulers and with particular affinity to Wehali, which is now in West Timor, Indonesia. <>

Tetum

The Tetum live in south central Timor. Also known as the Belu. Teto and Tetun, they speak the Tetum language but otherwise are very diverse and fall into a number of different groups. They have traditionally been primarily slash and burn agriculturalist with those in the highlands growing rice and breeding buffalo and those in the coastal plains growing corn and breeding pigs. They supplement their diet with some hunting and fishing and also make mats, iron tools, textiles and containers. Surplus food and goods are sold in markets.

Traditionally there have been four Tetum classes: royalty, aristocrats, commoners and slaves. Political organization was formed around princedom and kingdoms. Most are Catholics although elements of traditional religions remain. Marriage customs include a bride price, bride-service, marriage to form alliances and concubinage. Clans are dispersed among different villages. There are an estimated 600,000 Tetum speakers.

Population of East Timor

Population: 1,201,542, country comparison to the world: 160; other estimates range as low as 800,000 (July 2014 est.). Age structure: 0-14 years: 42.4 percent (male 261,794/female 247,486); 15-24 years: 19.8 percent (male 120,256/female 117,268); 25-54 years: 29.3 percent (male 170,179/female 182,278); 55-64 years: 4.8 percent (male 29,867/female 28,156); 65 years and over: 3.6 percent (male 21,214/female 23,044) (2014 est.). Dependency ratios: total dependency ratio: 94.3 percent; youth dependency ratio: 87.8 percent; elderly dependency ratio: 6.5 percent potential support ratio: 15.4 (2014 est.) Median age: total: 18.5 years; male: 17.9 years; female: 19.1 years (2014 est.)[Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Population growth rate: 2.44 percent (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 35. Birth rate: 34.48 births/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 30. Death rate: 6.18 deaths/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 158. Net migration rate: -3.87 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 189. =

Sex ratio: at birth: 1.07 male(s)/female; 0-14 years: 1.06 male(s)/female; 15-24 years: 1.03 male(s)/female; 25-54 years: 0.93 male(s)/female; 55-64 years: 1.01 male(s)/female; 65 years and over: 0.96 male(s)/female; total population: 1.01 male(s)/female (2014 est.)

Total fertility rate: 5.11 children born/woman (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 15 Contraceptive prevalence rate: 22.3 percent (2009/10); Mother's mean age at first birth: 22.1, median age at first birth among women 25-29 (2009-10 est.) =

According to the UNFPA 2004 Census, the population was approximately 924, 642 in 2004. There was an almost even distribution between males and females: 467, 757 males and 456, 885 females. The average life expectancy for males is 55 years and for females 58 years. In 2002: Population: 952,618 (July 2002 est.), other estimates range as low as 800,000 (2002 est.); Population growth rate: 7.26 percent (2002 est.); Birth rate: 28.07 births/1,000 population (2002 est.); Death rate: 6.52 deaths/1,000 population (2002 est.); Net migration rate: 51.07 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2002 est.); Total fertility rate: 3.88 children born/woman (2002 est.) [Source: easttimorgovernment.com]

In 1974, the last official Portuguese census, the population was 680,000. In 1980 the population was 555,350 according to the census conducted by the Indonesian authorities.

See History

Character of the East Timor People

Cliff Morris wrote: “The morals and social behaviour are not governed by our European standards, but it would be a mistake to regard the culture is in any way primitive. There is no doubt that much of its past culture has deprecated because of events that have occurred since 1975, nevertheless there will be enough of the old culture left to open the eyes of all who see it. It is important to look below the surface and the gain the most from your visit to the island. The KUTUAS (wise old men) say, "Only those with their eyes open can see." [Source:, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003 ><]

“Much of my own Timorese cultural knowledge may be historic, and not applicable to present day East Timor, though the fundamental beliefs of the Animists in Mother Earth must still exist in the minds of everyone in what is a very complicated culture. It is always hard to discover the deep intrinsic beliefs and mores of any society. I hope when you leave East Timor you will come away with some of the understanding and admiration I have for these very caring and brave people. ><

“Timorese are by nature most polite with a great deal of outward humility and seem willing to agree to anything rather than upset strangers in their land. Thus it is easy to receive a wrong answer to questions, especially leading questions, merely because most people will only be trying to show good manners. Timorese respect others for their social position and education, as well as wealth, but they do not discriminate on the ground of race. This simple fact will put most Australians on an equal footing in their initial contact. ><

“Timorese relatives cover a much wider circle than in Australia. Close kinship is regarded to exist among the uncles, aunts, and cousins of their in-laws' in-laws and a strong loyalty is given to all relatives. In past times the whole society revolved around incurring debts to ones relatives to build a bank of indebtedness for future help in all of the various tasks of living that could be accomplished more efficiently with a number of people, such as growing food, harvesting, house building, feasts, and the Animist religious ceremonies of death, birth and marriage. ><

Customs and Etiquette in East Timor

Timorese do not tend to be greatly punctual. Rubber time would describe their view of time in most situations. However if they have cooked a meal for you it would be good not to be too late. Buses to other towns run at approximate times, buses within towns are small and run frequently so there is no need of timetables. Most people give their time freely as many are unemployed. In a business situation it may be difficult to get to meet the person concerned but once the meeting occurs they may give you more time than they said they would. [Source: Culture Crossing]

Greetings: 1) Men greeting Men – A handshake is the most common form of greeting. 2) Women greeting Women – A kiss on each cheek is the most common form of greeting. This is true even if meeting for the first time. 3) Greetings between Men & Women – A handshake is common for initial meetings. Sometimes a kiss on each cheek is acceptable depending on how well people know each other.

Public Customs: 1) Pointing with a finger is okay in most situations. 2) Pushing into queues/lines is acceptable in many situations as well. 3) Public displays of affection are considered taboo for the most part, except when greeting. 4) Shouting and/or arguing in public is considered rude as is making lewd comments to women. 5) Avoid touching people’s heads as this is often seen as disrespectful.

Social Customs: 1) Indirect communication style tends to be the norm. Politeness to your face is more important than truth in most situations. A third person may be used as a go between if there is a problem. 2) People tend to be more direct with one another when talking within the same group. For example, Timorese and Timorese. 3) Timorese tend to have very big families and are used to being fairly close to each other so less than arms length of personal space is quite common. 4) Timorese tend to touch each other a lot more than westerners do during conversations. 5) It is not uncommon to see male friends walking along holding hands as a sign of friendship; however boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife would not hold hands in public. 6) Direct eye contact is okay in most situations.

Home Customs and Gifts: 1) Timorese are more likely to socialize at home. Weddings and parties do not have a lot of alcohol. 2) Take presents. Chocolate and casks of red wine are popular and if you give money say that it is for the children otherwise it will not be accepted.

Eating Customs: One travelers posted on Virtual Tourist: “I only ate a local's house twice. Both times it was way out in the villages. First time, only the old man of the house dined with me as his wife and family ate separately. The second time, the family was all together. The meal was small, but adequate enough being some rice and fried fish. They use silverware but depending on the food, eating with the hands sometimes too. Dining at restaurants is just the same as any western country. [Source: Virtual Tourist]

See Indonesia.

Marriage in East Timor

Marriage customs of the Tetum include a bride price, bride-service, marriage to form alliances and concubinage. Brothers of deceased men sometimes marry widows.

Cliff Morris wrote: Marriage and the arrangement of marriage consumed a great deal of time and ceremony. The usual and preferred method was by HAFOLI (lit:to fix the value) where a go-between (a katuas close to the family) would spend up to a year and even longer fixing the terms of the alliance. The proper gifts were passed to each side as the terms were gradually sorted out. At each stage the Lia Na'in would recite long lengths of poetry DADOLIN (two line verse) emphasising the merits of the alliance to the opposite side. A Lia Na'in from the other side would do the same, as the guests ate food supplied by the groom's relatives. When the terms had been agreed upon, and the initial gifts exchanged, (buffalo, and horses from the groom's family as well as gold and silver, and from the bride's family goats, pigs and cloth) the two young people often lived together on a nightly basis in the house of the girl's parents. Consummation was the only recognised rite of marriage. Now that so many Timorese are Christian, the priests could be insisting on a marriage ceremony similar to that conducted in our churches. [Source:, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003 ><]

“In times past marriage was not entered upon lightly. Firstly the prospective groom would approach his parents for permission to marry. Then the elders would decide if the young man was a suitable candidate to become a full member of the clan, as only married men and women were allowed to enter fully into all the religious rites and secrets. If for any reason the elders decided that the young man was not suitable to become a full clan member (as a practising priest of Mother Earth), then no arrangement could be made for his marriage. Of course this does not happen any more. Since 1975 many young men take the woman of their choice as their wife without any ceremony. This is called HAFE. Unlike in our Western culture, marriage between first cousins is not frowned upon, provided the nuptial couple were the children of a brother or sister. Two children of sisters or brothers was strictly forbidden.” ><

Bridewealth and Counter Gift Customs in East Timor

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “Named source houses are the basic units of marriage exchanges and thus the basic anchor of the highly complex nexus of alliances. Marriage is with the exchange of bridewealth and counter gifts. Bridewealth are goods given by the group of the husband and counter gifts are goods given by the group of the wife. Many East Timorese find the giving of bridewealth a heavy economic burden. Indeed, during 2001 in some public hearings and consultation towards the prospective constitution, a common theme that the villagers expressed was the wish to legally standardize or even abolish bridewealth. Amongst the Atsabe Kemak, bridewealth (elir) consists of buffalo and large male discs (part of the ritual attire of males). The counter gifts include pigs and textiles. The amount of each of these depends on the status of the families and origin houses engaged in the contraction of marriage. For example, a high status person, such as a member of the Koronel Bote’s (liurai, king) group of Tiar Lelo, bridewealth is usually 30+ water buffalo (brau) and 30+ large male discs (cumara bote) -- the counter gift include 30+ pigs (ahi) and 30+ traditional textiles (tais). Common people will have a lower bridewealth and counter gift ranging from 12-15 buffalos/male discs and countered with 12-15 pigs and textiles. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor <>]

The counter-gifts are always the exact number as the number of the items in the bridewealth, it is truly reciprocal. The delivery of bridewealth to the uma mane (wife-giver) is referred to as tau elir. Small bridewealth is referred to as elir ana, meaning that the number of buffalo and male discs is small. When the number of items is in the teens then it is called elir bote. The size of the bridewealth is proportional to social status of the houses and associated responsibilities of these houses in the hierarchy and political organization of the former kingdom of Atsabe. Thus, the greater the status on the scale of social hierarchy, the greater the size of the bridewealth. It is claimed the bridewealth size cannot be negotiated but is specified by the wife-giving house (uma mane). Only the time of delivery of various parts may be negotiated. Parts of the bridewealth are referred to as: pahe ama no amar teha muna nesi inara he teha, teha cumara teha brau ina no ana cumara pae gulu. These are the parts for the bride’s father, mother, elder brother and younger brother. Nowadays, part of the bridewealth may be substituted with equivalent money (osa). <>

Love and Finding a Boyfriend in East Timor

An Australian blogger wrote in unofficialeasttimor.com: “Timorese are obsessed with love and romance! It’s a big concern for my Timorese friends that I don’t have a boyfriend, they tell me: "You need a boyfriend so on the weekends you can have picnics together and discuss ideas. Valentines Day is coming up” Yes, they celebrate today, Valentine’s Day in Timor too. Tacky ornaments, fake flowers and now even real roses can be purchased on the street for your love. But if you are looking for something more upmarket, check out the brand new offerings at Timor Plaza. [Source: unofficialeasttimor.com, February 13, 2012 \+/]

“It's important to note, that as a woman if you’re not married by 25 you are practically considered an old maid. One 28 year old woman I work with, Mary, is yet to be married. In my first week, a lady from accounts warned me about her: "She’s a bit crazy in the head because she isn’t married" I was surprised to hear this because Mary is striking and the most intelligent and hard working woman at our workplace. She’s fiery, sassy and assertive. She was the first out of all the girls to get her hair chemically straightened. She wears cowboy shirts and trendy jeans. She is a total catch but no one else seems to think so. But don’t feel sorry for Mary, she doesn’t care, that’s the best thing about her. \+/

“So to avoid an unhappy and incomplete existence without a man like Mary and I, my colleagues told me how I should go about finding the man of my dreams, this is their advice: 1) As soon as I get back to Australia I must tell all of my neighbours that I am looking for a husband. They in turn will spread the word to the community. 2) Whatever I do, I must not look for a husband, it’s a mans role to look for a woman. 3) Places where I could meet him include church, parties, work, through friends and at the beach. \+/

“Potential problems they foresee: 1) Australia is a very big place with lots of people unlike East Timor. This is going to make meeting a man very difficult. 2) Lack of time, I’m almost 25 So if you find yourself alone this Valentine's Day- fear not- heed the above advice and by this time next week you could find yourself in heated negotiations with a potential suitor’s family over your union….. The most important question remains, how many Oxen will you be worth?! \+/

And before this ends, some important FAQ’s: 1) Can one find love in East Timor? Yes, it has been known to happen. There is a lively expat scene with ample opportunities e.g. parties and events to become acquainted with potential partners. 2) Can foreigners date locals? Sure. Check with your work, if you are working, some workplaces don’t allow it. 3) Are there brothels in East Timor? 4) Can I buy condoms in East Timor? Why of course.

Families and Children in East Timor

Timor Leste is a patriarchal society. Women are number two and are expected to do the cooking, cleaning and raising children, though more women are working since independence. One human right official told the New York Times, "if the children hit the teacher, we don’t blame them, because the of the violence all around them. They are used t violence and terror."

In a Dawan village in West Timor, one traveler posted on Escape Artistes: “When a baby is born, here, the placenta is buried in the floor of the hut. A flat stone goes over it. The mother and baby have to spend the first forty days and forty nights inside the hut, kippering – and, as a smoker, I do not use that phrase so lightly. “My god,” says Z. “Their infant mortality must be huge. Think of all the bugs and vermin there, as well as all the smoke.” “No,” says Aka. “You see these children? They’re all strong and healthy.” [Source: Escape Artistes, June 30, 2011 |~|]

“They seem it. They’re the snottiest children I’ve seen in Indonesia, most likely due to the kippering process, though not necessarily snottier than a primary school class in an English winter. But the ones who make it through to the running around stage are sturdy, happy, sunny children.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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