Ruth Mackenzie

Mother Tongue



We’ve been in Timor-Leste for two weeks. Just long enough to unpack the bags and realise at least half of the treasures we brought from home will be mostly useless here. VSA gives you a baggage list. A concise, alphabetically ordered inventory of must-haves, nice-to-haves and best you leave that at home. In the months before we left, we started a collection on the end of the spare bed. Motorbike helmets, good-quality insect repellent, can opener, a battery-operated fan, an Italian coffee pot, white sheets, big prints of favourite photos, sunblock, new sandals, long-sleeved floral dresses and beige undies. It’s only a matter of days until we find a store down the road chock-a-block from floor to ceiling with a hodgepodge of kitchen equipment, assorted hardware, tools, electronics, pills and potions. A warehouse of stuff from the corners of the globe, knives from Europe, whitening lotion from Indonesia, bikes from China. Plastic flowers, dolls, Christmas decorations. Like someone plucked the remnants of every container ever shipped anywhere ever and gathered it up and tossed it here.


We’ve been here for two weeks. We’ve bought scooters and navigated the surging streets. Slept in pools of sweat when the power goes out and the fan from home sits unusable, a sticker still attached from Australian customs explaining why they had to confiscate the battery. We’ve worked out to expect three temperatures—hot, hotter and hottest—with highs of 37 degrees, lows of 24 degrees and a seven-month rainy season still to come. Our brains are full of new information. Some nights I lie still and I can actually feel the newness of everything throbbing in my head. The sounds, the heat, the strangeness of it all. It pushes out the things I thought I knew and pulses with images and tastes and smells that are unfamiliar and jarring.


We’ve been here for two weeks. We find ourselves in a tin prefab, a makeshift classroom. Like five-year-olds, we shuffle behind our desks, our notebooks clutched in sweaty palms, wondering where the toilets are and who our best friends may be. Our teacher writes new words on the whiteboard with a squeaky pen dried out over time, leaving only the faintest of marks. We’ve spent too much time with the same words in our fat mouths and we can’t move these strange ones in any direction with our thickened tongues. Their mother tongue grows in the villages, nurtured by generations of ancestors and held tight and close to home. It changes in the city, force-fed by the colonising Portuguese, and again when the Indonesians left behind the legacy of Bahasa, the language of invasion. Different words for family, for authority, for commerce and then finally melting into Tetun, the blending of all three, incomprehensible to us as we sit, sweating in the new entrants’ class. We go home and wonder what we will do, how we will get on without a common language.



We learn a lot. We can now recite facts. Yesterday was a holiday. This is a place full of chaotic energy. More than 62 per cent of the population of 1.5 million are under 25. Children attend school for a half-day because of limited teachers and classrooms. The ones at the church school next to us arrive at 9am in orange and green uniforms and then are replaced by a fresh crew in red and white uniforms at 1pm. Overall education levels are low, maybe as many as 78 per cent of primary pupils can’t read.


And while it appears green and fecund, with nearly everyone living in rural areas, the truth is the ground can be ungenerous, the stock small and stringy, leaving large numbers of children facing malnutrition and stunting.


And there’s an extremely high infant and maternal mortality rate, a demographic explosion with average fertility rates of 7.8 (one of the highest in the world) and 40 per cent of the population living below the national poverty line (55 cents per person per day each year). Life expectancy is short.


We didn’t know anything. And now we do. That after 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and a brief civil war, Timor-Leste declared independence in 1975. Nine days later it was invaded by Indonesian forces and incorporated in 1976 as the province of Timor Timur.

The next 24 years saw a campaign against resistance fighters during which the occupiers killed between 104,000 to 183,000 Timorese citizens. That’s about 20 per cent of a population of around 800,000.


In 1999, talks began at the United Nations to hold a referendum to decide on Indonesia’s offer of an autonomous status within its territory. Ninety-eight per cent of registered voters went to the polls and 78 per cent of them said no.


There’s no way to wrap this up with a fancy bow: between August and September that year, pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. Killing approximately 2,000 Timorese, they displaced over two-thirds of the population and destroyed the bulk of the country’s infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100 per cent of the country’s electrical grid. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared overnight. Finally on May 20, 2002, after three years of United Nations administration, Timor-Leste was formally recognised as an independent state.



“Don’t go swimming at the beach, over there,” one of the locals  says as she waves vaguely in the general direction of main street Dili.


It’s blue and inviting. No waves, just a gentle lapping against a mostly sandy shore. I expect she will tell me about the crocodiles. They are known to patrol up and down the coast. Locals say they only eat the bad, not the unlucky. They’re part of the origin story here. The spikes of the mountains rising in the middle of the island are the spines on the back of Grandfather Crocodile, who saved a boy riding to his new home. “Lafaek Diak”, the good crocodile, is sacred to the Timorese.


“No, no,” she says, “the rains, it’s bad from the rains.”


There’s no real sewerage system up in the hills. During rainy season whatever sits up there flows downward and into the sea. In the dry season the air is full of powered fecal matter fluffed up by scooters and cars. You’d be wise to wear a face covering.


I wake one night to find myself lying in a pool of lukewarm, dark tea-coloured liquid. It smells like metal and rot. No gripping guts, just my body freeing itself from the latest round of parasites.


Don’t drink the water, even the locals don’t. Don’t brush your teeth or wash your vegetables or your dishes. Don’t stand under the shower while you wash your hair with your mouth open. Maybe best to wash your face and hands with the water you buy in five litre bottles.


Don’t get sick. Fifty per cent of the people who go into the main hospital don’t ever leave. Try not to have a baby here. Currently there’s no anaesthesia, no antibiotics and no sterilisation equipment for surgeries. They sold the antibiotics to some other local clinics and now need to buy them back at twice the price.


On the front page of the newspaper, three young women in orange jumpsuits are standing outside the prison. They’re 15 and 16. They gave birth in the bushes and left their babies there. The headline should read “let that be a lesson to you”.


I see a man die on the street. His scooter has collided with an SUV. He lies on the road while a crowd gathers around him. At first, he moves slightly, just his hands, twitching. I think I see his head move. Hundreds of people around him, a father arrives holding his young son by the hand. In the distance a siren, but first, police move the crowd, they’re carrying guns but it doesn’t seem to matter, every time they open a gap it fills like sand flowing into a too-deep hole. No one is with the man. He is not touched or spoken to. He is only watched. I watch too. And then he dies. The ambulance arrives to lift his body into the back. And the crowd leaves. The next day at the site, candles and crosses and Jesus figurines lying on the still-bloody road.



I know you’re not  a kind place. When the scrawny dog, skinny and scabby, suckles her pups and nips at them to leave her alone. Then scatters, driven away by big stones thrown by small children. The woodworker round the corner who stacks up the coffins outside his shed, so many tiny ones, like shoeboxes. The roosters held down while blades are tied to their legs in preparation for a battle to the death in a ring where men bet their meagre wages and watch, hopeful they’ll take home an extra few bucks.

And sometimes you’re not gentle, when the traffic roars past and the dust fills your nose and eyes and the relentless heat finds every gap between the shade. When the rains come and tear through the gutters, into the houses, pushing rotting mud under the cracks. When a father and brother carry a newborn baby three hours back to the village, preparing to come back the next day to lift the tired, empty husk of the mother and return her home to the six children who await her.

And sometimes you’re not quiet, when the roosters crow from 5am and join the drummers and karaoke through the wall, they’re discordant like too many songs with no conductor. Or in the traffic where the mikrolets laden with people toot toot toot their way through every street, bad Indonesian pop music blaring from tiny speakers, too much distorted bass, battling for space in the mess of scooters and shouting riders calling to each other to get out of the way.

But tonight, I’ll slip into something less comfortable, abandoning the T-shirt and skirt for a proper dress with buttons and sleeves, and shoes with a heel, and dab the perfume on my wrists and neck, where it’ll last in the cool instead of sliding off with the sweat. I’ll ride my scooter through the quiet streets to watch the sunset, woodsmoke fragrant in the air, wobbly home-made barbecues lining the street and a gentle breeze against my bare skin. I’ll watch the boys in the retreating tide, picking through the sea-washed coral for small fish and crabs, anything to put something extra on the table to bulk up the rice and bread. And as dark falls I’ll be surprised by a man, walking along the road, wet-footed, web-footed, carrying his spear and fish, the sea still drying on his skin, salt glistening under a blinking street light. He’ll nod to me, “Bonoite mana, diak ka lae?”

“Diak,” I’ll say. I’m good. It’s a good night. I am in love with this night. The softness, a contrast from the day. Where tonight Dili embraces me with warm hands and whispers the words of family and hope and reminds me of the people who bring me sticky banana fritters and their children to hold. I know we have found our common language of love. The broken traffic lights flashing orange, beating through the night until dawn, welcome me home.






Ruth Mackenzie

A background in writing copy for radio for many years extinguished any love I had for the written word but now with a completely different career and many many more miles on the clock I am able to reignite the flame.

I have a great serious job which I love because I don’t take it too seriously and live in a tiny village in the Manawatu with my husband, 4 chickens, several tui and more wax eyes than we can count. Our blended family has 7 adult children plus partners, 9, soon to be 10, grandchildren ensuing a lot of complex planning, exhausting group chats on messenger and the need to always have at least one bed made up. I made the mistake very early on in asking what they would like me to cook when they come to visit and now suffer hours in the kitchen on a variety of difficult dishes catering for an ever-expanding list of dietary requirements. One day I’ll make mince on toast and there will be tears.