Village life prevails in East Timor. Everyone knows everyone and are often related. Local chiefs are very powerful. People gather under “hali” trees near their homes for community meetings. Traditionally the Tetum have been divided into four classes: royalty, aristocrats, commoners and slaves. Political organization was formed around princedom and kingdoms. Clans are dispersed among different villages.

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies wrote: “Kemak social organization places great emphasis on founding villages and with their associated founding ancestors. Origin groups are associated with specific founding villages. The origin groups consist of a number of named source houses. Neither local categories of social organization — origin group or source houses (origin houses)—can be equated with the anthropological categories of clans and lineages. Source houses are social groups whose membership crosscuts such categories as descent, marriage alliance, and residence since these all can be used in a variety of ways for claiming membership in a source house. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

Renard-Clamagirand also refers to the Marobo Kemak as a house society. While the Atsabe Kemak show slight variations with and even greater complexity than the social organization of the Marobo community in Renard-Clamagirand’s (1982) study, the basic units of social organization –the hierarchically ordered named source houses—are also at the core of Atsabe social structure. Another, neighbouring cultural-linguistic group, the Mambai, also show similar patterns of social organization (See Elizabeth G. Traube 1986, Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor). The hierarchical ordering of named source houses and social relationships are with an orientation to both place and ancestors. Named source houses are also the focus of asymmetric marriage exchanges.

Cliff Morris wrote: “Slavery was an accepted way of life even in 1975. It was a very benign practice, but it still existed, even though it had been outlawed by the Portuguese. It was not uncommon for young boys and some girls to be sold into slavery. I personally know some young Timorese refugees who were slaves in Timor. Another way of describing the practice would be to say the ATAN (slave) was an unpaid servant, also called KREADO (nurse for a baby), who was not free to leave the family. Their masters were responsible for their welfare and usually the slave was treated humanely. It was not unusual for a slave to become part of the family to such a degree that on adulthood he married a daughter of the family. [Source:, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003]

See Character

Poverty in East Timor

East Timor is one of the world's poorest nations. It has a jobless rate of 50 percent and about 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line despite holding the rights to an estimated 8 trillion cubic feet of gas and 300 million barrels of light oil. [Source: Bloomberg 2007]

Many people live on 50 cents a day. Most East Timorese are very poor. On U.N. official told the New York Times in 2000, "They can't take a table out to he side of the road to sell things because not only do they have not have anything to sell but they don't have a table."

After the vote for independence, a two tired society was created: the foreigners with vehicles, good food and comfortable accommodation; and the East Timorese who mostly had nothing.

Refugees in East Timor

In 2008, when tensions in East Timor were particularly high, Ahmad Pathoni of Reuters wrote: Delvina da Costa complained of squalid conditions and a shortage of food in the refugee camp where she has lived for almost two years, but the prospect of returning to her old neighbourhood in Dili fills her with dread. Her house in East Timor was burned down in 2006 during a wave of violence that killed 37 people and forced 150,000 from their homes."We feel it's not safe. There's no guarantee we will be protected from attacks," da Costa, 26, said, holding her naked one-year-old son in a refugee camp near Dili's largest hotel. [Source: Ahmad Pathoni, Reuters, February 19, 2008]

Allison Cooper, a spokeswoman for the United Nations mission in East Timor, said that in addition to genuine fear, confusion over land ownership was also making it difficult for the refugees to return home. "It's very difficult for people who have become dislocated to actually establish legally that they have land," she said. On top of that, people in the districts who have to eke out a living have started to become jealous of refugees receiving food handouts and this could create new tensions, he said.

In 2007, East Timor's government and the United Nations started a programme to relocate some 30,000 refugees living in camps that dot the capital. Starting this month, food rations for the displaced have been reduced by half in an effort to prevent refugees from becoming too reliant on handouts. Under the $15 million (7.7 million pound) programme, the government will give $4,500 to each family whose home was destroyed as well as a two-month food ration and transport stipend, said Jacinto Gomes, state secretary for social affairs. Those whose homes were damaged but which can still be repaired will get $3,000 and houses will be built in suburbs for people unable to return to their former dwellings for security reasons. Gomes admitted that solving the refugee problems is not an easy task. "They have legitimate security concerns but the sooner they can be relocated the better," Gomes told Reuters, adding that he hoped the programme could be completed this year.

See History

Villages in East Timor

Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, “The source houses were the basic anchors of the highly complex nexus of alliances that united the former kingdom of Atsabe. Marriage alliances also forged inter-ethnic ties, namely with Aileu Mambai, and the Bunaq and Tetum groups of the western part of East Timor. Kemak alliance relations with these two latter groups also extend into the Atambua region of Indonesian Timor. These alliances are still strongly maintained, particularly among those groups that fell under the political authority of the former kingdom of Atsabe. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“Aside from source houses located in specific villages, East Timorese place a great value on their sacred houses, uma lulik, which are generally located in the origin village. When such a village is relocated the first house to be built is the uma lulik. Sacred ancestral heirlooms are stored in the uma lulik. During 2002 there was a fervent effort to rebuild sacred houses that were destroyed and ransacked by the militias during 1999 throughout East Timor.

“The East Timorese identify three different styles of uma lulik which they roughly categorize as representing the cultures in the western, central, and eastern parts of the country. In Atsabe this categorization was explained as follows. In the eastern part the sacred house stands of tall 2+ meter posts, in the central part the uma lulik is round and has a domed roofing, in the western part the house is more rectangular in shape. In Atsabe both the central and western styles of uma lulik can be found. In Atsabe, uma luli, is usually the founding house of a group, the most senior house, also called the uma pun (source house). Its sacredness is conceptualized as bansa (hot) since it houses the sacred (luli) ancestral heirlooms and objects (siak). Siak can only be taken out of the house in a ritual context where drops of sacrificed animal blood are sprinkled on them. Uma luli has a number of significant divisions and all luli objects are on the back wall, on the soro tete side. There are also two doors; the main door and one on the left side of the house, a small door that leads directly into the soro tete. This door has also been referred to as the female door, and interestingly in some instances, as the door by which God should enter during ritual. The front partition of the house holds the hearth as well and it is the soro rema. When facing the back wall the hearth is in the right hand front corner of the house. There are many posts on which the house lays, but the four main posts at four corners of the inner house are the most inauspicious in the uma luli. The central post is actually part of the back wall. It is on this post that the sacred heirlooms are hung on a pronged rack. The main hearth stone must face this central post. Also during harvest ritual corn is taken inside the house and placed against this post.

Other sacred objects in the Kemak Atsabe village include the granary (uma lako), a stone platform complex (menaka or also called acu boso) for the gathering of elders during rituals and a live sacred tree that is part of this complex (referred to as bugas buci, bugas miak, or biar lalu). The live tree(s) supposed to provide protection from all illness and misfortune for all members of an origin group. The most significant menaka for Atsabe Kemak is the one for the entire village which is the central menaka and is spatially related to the uma luli; since it represents the unity of the grouping of related houses in the village. At the center of the menaka stands the aitos, carved post with human head.

Smoky Huts and Homes in East Timor

It is common for Timorese to keep huts of residences in caves in addition to their homes. Some have storage areas for grain, tobacco and beans and corals for their livestock. Many families spend heir weekends at their huts or caves.

After the violence that followed the vote of independence in August 1999, most people did not have houses and most of those that did had houses without roofs. Cities and towns had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

In a Dawan village in West Timor, one traveler posted on Escape Artistes: “The smoke from the open fire blows straight into Z’s face. He coughs. The family seem surprised. Smoke doesn’t bother the children here. They are kippered in it from birth. Outside their new hut, Kores’ wife smiles broadly and hands around a bowl of sweet potatoes, young, pale tubers fresh from the red earth. I pop one out of its skin and nibble. It’s delicious. [Source: Escape Artistes, June 30, 2011 |~|]

Well, the circular huts are perhaps a little over 3 metres in diameter. The door is under a metre high. The ceiling is a little over a metre above the dirt floor. From the branch rafters, corn hangs to smoke in the cooking fire that barbecues everything to sooty black. There are no windows. No chimneys. When the door is shut, the smoke seeps out around the edges of the door and through any loose patches in the thatch. There are so few peoples in the world who have chosen to live without a chimney, or, rather, some means of drawing smoke out of their habitation. The families of Nome can, and do, raise eight or more children in these smoky pits, though some now are beginning to add a second hut, on a rectangular frame, with an open cooking place, to their traditional way of life.” |~|

Everyday Life in East Timor

In East Timor the electricity is notoriously unreliable for those that have it. People rely on mobile phones because there is no land-line telephone service .

Mark Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Traveling through the rugged mountains of East Timor in March, my car got stuck in the middle of a river. The back wheels spun around uselessly, then the engine died, but my driver, Afonso Martins, wasn't worried. "Someone will come," he announced. Ten minutes later, the car had filled up with water and we crawled out onto the hood. "Someone will come," he repeated. A few minutes later, a dump truck showed up driven by Martins' cousin's best friend. As we were towed out of the water, I remarked that it was lucky to find such a connection in the middle of nowhere. Martins was amused. "If we stayed in this river, we'd meet my whole family." That's how East Timor is. Village life is traditional, and people know their neighbors intimately. If you get stuck in a stream, you'll probably know the next person who comes down the road. [Source: Mark Lee, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2002, Mark Lee's novel, "The Canal House," Algonquin Books]

One aid worker in East Timor posted on, “The toilet we have is a hybrid western style toilet – it flushes and does not require the use of a ‘mandi’ (large bucket or basin filled with water that you use to fill a small bucket with to do the flushing). However, having a Western esque toilet gave me a false sense of security that I was actually using a Western toilet, I wasn't. [Source:, December 25, 2014]

“A bit problem, the toilet was blocked. This isn't the first time this has happened to me. I have been known to use too much toilet paper... What I should have done was place my used toilet paper in the small bin beside the toilet, but I have never really got used to that system.The next morning, as Zena was getting out of bed and heading to the toilet, I realised that I needed to fix this problem and QUICK. One option would be to ‘outsource’ it to the landlord, but Zena threatened to kill me for doing that. The next option was use the plunger in the bathroom and try and clear the blockage myself. I plunged and plunged but my plunger was not good enough. If there was any chance of clearing this blokage, I’d need a new plunger or a hose!

Knowing that I didn’t know the word for plunger to ask for at the shops, I took a picture of our plunger and took my camera with me to a small Chinese run hardware shop (we went to the one located near Food-L-Do on Comoro Road in Fatu Hada). With the plunger firmly secured on my motorbike it was time to return home to fix the problem. Some takeway lessons: 1) Every home in Timor-Leste is in need of a good quality plunger; 2) Go easy on the toilet paper or put it in the bin rather than the bowel! 3) If you don’t know the word of an object in Tetum, just take a picture of the thing or find a picture of it online and show that to people

Rural Life in East Timor

Rural population: 71.7 percent of total population (2011), rate of urbanization: 4.25 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.). East Timor is one of the few places in the world where people are migrating from the cities to the countryside rather than visa-versa Net migration rate: -3.87 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 189.

Many people walk around machetes. Girls carry buckets on their head. Many people fetch water from a stream. Maree Curtis wrote in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine: In rural areas there is “a severe lack of infrastructure: food shortages, 80 per cent unemployment, regular blackouts, patchy phone lines and destroyed homes occupied by squatters. Land disputes choke the courts. The tiny nation's production of rice, corn and soybeans is almost completely organic, but foreign companies are offering inducements to buy fertilisers and genetically modified crops. The last stands of native sandalwood were taken by the Indonesians when they left in 1999. Re-planting of the burnt-out plains could take years, but who will fund it when even basic health care is scarce?

“We are in the back of an old Toyota Ute, heading for the hillside village of Ermera. It is only about 100km from the East Timorese capital, Dili, but the road is rough and winding. Wild dogs sleep by the warm road or run out in front of us as we dodge enormous potholes. I can just make out the coconut trees merging into coffee plantations, the bamboo huts becoming stone dwellings, as we climb higher towards the tallest mountain in Timor, Mt Ramalou. It is dark when we arrive. Gas lanterns light tin sheds that double as market stalls where men gather to drink beer and chat. We are directed to a restaurant where a crowd is gathering to watch a Jackie Chan film. The Timorese are big fans of martial arts — the Falitil freedom fighters began as a martial arts group. [Source: Maree Curtis, Sunday Telegraph Magazine(Sydney)August 18, 2002 /]

“After dinner we are taken to an abandoned house to bunk for the night. Candle-lit, it is so dark I can barely make out the front steps. But in the following morning's soft light I find a gorgeous house with tiled floors, wooden shutters and a white, Portuguese-style exterior. It is hard to believe someone could leave this behind. /

“We head for Los Polos, a mountain town in the north-east highlands. On the way, roadside stalls sell everything from rice in little cane baskets to pumpkins, melons and monkeys. And every village has a war memorial, the new flag taking pride of place above it. The bridge into Los Polos is down, so we walk into town in search of its famed market and run into a gang of teenage boys. The boys of Los Polos — a town virtually destroyed by fighting — wear T-shirts emblazoned with images of Che Guevara, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley, even Osama Bin Laden. Freedom fighters and rebels everywhere are heroes. One of the boys has a guitar and plays us some of his own songs, about a place in his heart for the right girl. /

“Throughout East Timor even very young boys keep roosters. The kings of the back yard, they herald a new day, make a nice meal or could be a prize fighter. Handfed corn and regularly groomed, they're encouraged to fight other roosters as training for big bouts. When Timorese lived as tribes in forests, they were gifts from the Mother Earth and Father Star, the first star seen at night. The rooster started the day with its crowing, the buffalo held the tools needed for the day, the dog would show the way through the forest. Once the rooster crowed again, signifying the end of the working day, the dog would lead the way back to the campsite. If the rooster didn't crow in the morning, it was believed danger lay ahead, and the family would stay home. /

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.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.