When my niece Joy, the author of this book, announced in very few words by email to a few of us close family and relatives that she was leaving Timor Leste for good including her husband, Maun Fernando Lasama de Araujo as well (a few months before he died) so many questions swirled back and forth in my mind. To us from outside the country, and who did not know much on what was going on internally, we could not fathom how Joy could have left a good life of being the partner of a high-ranking official(1) , the position of which could potentially offer numerous opportunities at her fingertips to access resources to help in nation-building, community service, or in development work through funded projects, and apart of course, from performing her prestigious social and political obligations to support her husband, for which many women dream to be in.
I could not simply put down the book as I devoured page after page of enlightenment, i.e., answers to many questions I had at the back of my mind as the book unfolds the complete story of how and why she and Hadomi, her son packed their bags and left.
But for those who have a nose for intrigues and exposés, this book is not only about the end of a relationship between two similar human beings so passionately in love with each other that no matter how constant suffering and challenges tested this relationship, their sustaining and unwavering deep love stood firm until the end. Rather, it is almost an ethnographic and socio-cultural study of a post war country which has recently become independent, of the first UN “experiment” on nation-state building and still undergoing some sort of psychological turmoil emanating from the vestiges of the war–and all of which have taken a toll on the family of Joy and Maun Nando. And the rest of society.
The book is first and foremost about mourning, grieving and healing from Maun Nando’s sudden and untimely death. Because it occurred several months after Joy and Maun Nando tried to get a divorce (but Maun Nando refused to finalize), the journey to recovery became even more painful and guilt-ridden. But this book was written to free them from pain, gloom and guilt and make mourning, grieving and healing faster, easier perhaps and more hopeful.
This book is primarily for Hadomi, for Joy herself , for Maun Nando and the people of Timor Leste . Though given in episodes and flashbacks, not in a continuous historical unfolding, it offers three perspectives– from Hadomi, Joy and Naun Mando (and now and then from friends and family) which form a coherent development of the story. But readers in general will find this book worth reading, poignant, dramatic and filled with lessons learned arising from events that could only emanate from a post-war conflict country and how destructive they could be to the people of Timor Leste especially in their path to nation building.
First of all, the book is for Hadomi– to help him ease, if not forgive, his anger towards his father and find peace in the reality that his father loved him so much. His anger centered on Maun Nando’s philandering with women and marrying a 19-year-old woman to replace his mother, the bad treatment that his mother got from him; for being so busy that he almost had no time for him, making him insecure about his future; and allowing their family space to be invaded by the political hangers-on, handlers and police/military “close social protection” which ironically resulted in violent reactions from Hadomi. The author tries in various ways in convincing Hadomi that his father has many redeeming traits and values that can be considered as his legacy to him. The book spent a few chapters giving the good, loving and caring side of Maun Nando especially in Chapter Two which publishes his emails to his son before his death. Unfortunately, these emails are in Tetun (national language of Timor Leste) and the readers consequently fail to appreciate better Maun Nando’s love for his son. There are two chapters in the book dealing with Maun Nando which are written in Tetun, thereby, shortchanging the value and character that the book tries to highlight in him.
Secondly, the book is also for Joy (2)….for her to find meaning and rationale as to how her life with Maun Nando ended the way it did. Was she to blame for it or was it an interplay of the whole gamut of society’s pressures and expectations that caused it? The book reflects Joy doing a tight balancing act. While she did think that if only someone could have told her that Maun Nando would die, she should have not gone on her usual leave of absence from her household and family to pursue her scholarly work. Her best friend did mention in her article that the long absences of Joy from her family to pursue her teaching stint abroad had taken a toll on her marriage where it was during these times that Maun Nando started to womanize and keep mistresses, even to everyone’s knowledge. On the other hand, it also made a lot of sense when one day, she realized enough was enough. Her role of being always an accompanist was never ending and it had to end one day, especially when her contributions and sacrifices to her family and household had always gone unnoticed and unrecognized. For a long time, she was the breadwinner in the family and it was just proper at that time for her to work to support Maun Nando. But the overwhelming burden forced her to seek a space for herself to keep her sanity and spirit and keep alive her profession through her scholarly pursuits in Korea and Melbourne and putting up a music education program.
The author struck a good balance and objectivity in her analysis of the marriage issue and succeeds in leaving it up to the readers to make their own judgment and decisions. The author, in dissecting the history of her love story and family relationship and issues, brings into play the cultural and social phenomena of Timor Leste which have brought severe damage to their relationships and family unity. Examples of these are the lowly role and position of women in their society (her contribution unrecognized and was treated like the maid in the household); being treated as a second class citizen (fetotoun) for being a foreigner; problem of impunity (exemption from punishment) is widespread especially when their house was burned down; the prevalence of a culture of violence in addition to the dominance of militarized masculinities; girls, women and children and other disadvantaged groups feel disempowered and almost hopeless but tasked to be silent about it; and the permeation of corruption in all ladders of society even in Hadomi’s school which make living in Timor Leste unsafe and challenging.
It is also a book for Maun Nando –to showcase his many good traits and bring out the positive things about him, for the sake of Hadomi and for Joy’s healing. For Joy, there are so many—and they are now surfacing because it is healing time and that in order to heal, she should forgive and remember the good things that she admired in him. These included his self-sacrifice, kindness to others, having a purpose to change a brutal, cruel and impoverished world, having a sense of community and learning from others, all of which she wants Hadomi to possess and to live up to fearlessly. For Joy, the best gifts that Maun Nando left were small kind and caring and giving gestures; he was a meditative and reflective person; he was of the people and for the masses. Maun Nando gave Hadomi a sense of belonging, of having roots, of cultural identify, a community and citizenship. It is just unfortunate that two chapters which could have revealed more of Maun Nando’s character and behavior are given in Tetun which short-changed him in this aspect. But Joy explained that she didn’t want to translate from Tetun to English, or Pangasinan to Tetun, Bahasa Indonesia to Tagalog, because she wants to challenge the readers to do more “cross-border” language-learning across the region, and not reduce everything to the imperial language of English.
Lastly, the book is for the people of Timor Leste, the Philippines, Indonesia and other post-war societies, and those working on the role of music in conflict-afflicted environments and the many “personal is political” lessons learned emanating from the story of Hadomi, Joy and Maun Nando.
For the people of Timor Leste, this is a book about the loss of a great leader in the untimely death of Maun Nando who was described to be a most astute, rigorous political theorist and strategist in the country. In the short span of time that he led the country in various governing capacities, his legacies to the Timorese were many, including organizing the youth anti-colonial revolution under RENETIL, co-founding the first environmental program, HABURAS, helping to build educational institutions like UNPAZ, giving a very different, alternative example of the art of governing and many others.
But apart from these, the book also tells the Timorese of the many mistakes and missteps that their leaders and citizens committed to hold up the process of nation-building. The author attempts to shed some light on the character of the political parties, and the character of the state and government: on the psychology of those who are “shaping” it. She asks “Do we have a “compassionate” state? The author rather shows how violence, colonization, militarization, war, torture, trauma, starvation, brokenness, mayhem, and predictions of “merdeka makan batu” slowed down the building a country from zero. Being victims of this violence themselves, the author reveals that in a militarized and violent environment, the only way to get rid of a rival is to destroy their character and family which they suffered This is not to mention the lack of space and respect that the women suffered in the society. Women continue to be marginalized and impoverished, but the author challenged the women to continue to struggle for, create, nourish, nurture, even fight for an independent space, room, house, street, and build a community of their own, outside the political violence of the state and political party rivalries.
ASEAN countries especially Indonesia and the Philippines will find that this book offers a lot of comparative lessons, similarities or commonalities with regard to the teething problems of nation building. New democracies are always plagued with the same issues: corruption, election irregularities and cheating, party rivalries and party switching, militarization, violence, power struggles, classic patriarchy and lack of women empowerment, and the like. Timor Leste wants to join the ASEAN and participate supposedly in its integration program but which could remain a dream rather than a reality because of the country’s ultra-nationalism and minimal cross border activities in language, education, economics, culture and social interests. According to the author, “some Timorese don’t actually want to learn anything at all about these ASEAN countries, they are just not curious nor interested at all. But one can’t really blame them, Timor was closed off for such a long time, that the only other people in the region/ neighborhood whom they “know” are the Indonesians”.
Even the United Nations, for all their experiences in nation building in post-conflict African countries failed to succeed in building a state and planting democracy in the country. The so-called multiparty system that the UN introduced did not take roots because some of the leaders are hostile to democratic processes and continue to run the country like guerilla commandos. The author revealed that the UN sent seven missions and wasted US$7 billion on themselves. The officials and Timorese were not ready for a democratic environment and instead of gradually introducing changes into the systems and the country, the missions probably spoon-fed an overwhelming dose of techniques and strategies in governance that were foreign to the locals and unsustainable in the long term. The author states: “Perhaps democracy based on elections, and the systems of governance we now have, are flawed. It is better to organize without leaders and encourage local communities to grab governance into their own hands”.
Finally, although the book is the story of three people and their personal politics, it has a lot to offer in terms of lessons learned and experiences in nation building—what went wrong, what were the challenges and obstacles that slowed down the progress of nation building and how these could be addressed. The author concludes with a wish: “May this tribute contribute towards illuminating our present predicament, the shapes of violence in post-war societies, the possibilities for public sector reform and anti-corruption, and enlighten us on the challenges we face in creating a better future for our children”.
1 Fernando de Araujo is originally from Manutasi, Ainaro, East Timor. He is the founder of Resistencia Nacional dos Estudantes de Timor Leste (RENETIL), a clandestine, underground anti-colonial resistance movement that played a very important role in the struggle for independence. He was imprisoned in Cipinang, Jakarta for almost 7 years from 1991-1998. After independence, he co-founded a new party, PartidoDemocratico, and served as leader the opposition party and Member of Parliament. After 2007, he served as President of the National Parliament, Acting President, Vice-Prime Minister (and sometimes the Acting Prime Minister), and Minister of Education and Coordinator of Social Affairs.
2 Joy Siapno is originally from Pangasinan, Philippines. She is a scholar and musician, and lived in East Timor from 1999-2015 where she tried to build a home, raise a family, co-found a university, research center, and music program. She is the author of academic books and articles including “A Society With Music Is A Society With Hope”, “Dance and Martial Arts in Timor Leste”, and “Gender, Islam, Nationalism, and the State in Aceh, Indonesia.” For some of her published works, see: https://independent.academia.edu/JacquelineSiapno. Hadomi de Araujo is 12 years old, is in Grade 7, plays the cello and saxophone, and is proud to be a Mambaifrom Manutasi, Ainaro, and also from Pangasinan. For some of his music performances, click here.