Category Archives: Timor Leste

Candlenuts? Never heard of ’em

On my flight into Timor Leste I sat next to an Australian dentist.  She comes two times each year to provide pro bono dental care to Timor Leste’s 1.2 million inhabitants.  I doubt she gets around to them all.  Nor do the seven resident dentists, six of whom reside in the capital Dili.  That means outside of the capital of 200,000 there is one dentist to serve the remaining one million people in a country the size of Connecticut. It is safe to assume that most people will never see a dentist in their lifetime. Some people brush with a tooth brush.  Some with the blunt end of a soft and fibrous stick. Some do not brush at all.  There is not a lot of dental hygiene taking place in this very poor Asian country.

When I arrived in country several people greeted me, “hello maun.”   I suspected they meant to say, “hello man,” but mispronounced it.  However, I soon learned that maun is a local Tetun word literally meaning brother but is used as an honorific.  Not as strong as the British, “lord,” but stronger than “sir.”  The female equivalent is mana. The people I work with call me Maun Bill or Mister Bill.  I am honored.

My client, ACELDA company, runs a factory that produces rice, soap, and candlenut oil. For bonus points, what is a candlenut?  Such nuts were unfamiliar to me until I took on this assignment.  The candlenut tree grows in tropical climates, which explains why I am not familiar with them in Boston.  When pressed the nut yields about 50% of the its weight in oil.  In the old days the oil was burned in lanterns, hence the name, candlenut.  Today it is an ingredient in lotions and soaps.

The factory gets its nuts from 750 candlenut farmers who receive $0.40 per pound.  This translates into less than one penny per nut. Coincidently that is what I used to pay my kids to pick up fallen chestnuts in our backyard.  Farmers do not really cultivate and harvest the nuts.  The trees grow semi-wild.  Candlenuts fall from the trees when they ripen in November.  Usually women and children collect them from the ground, crack the outer shell – – soft, a bit like a chestnut – – by placing the nut on a rock and striking it with another rock. They extract the inner nut, then bag their collection for delivery to ACELDA’s oil pressing facility.

The founder, Mr. Higino, started his business in the late 1970s.  At that time Timor Leste was in the throes of a war of liberation to free themselves from Indonesian occupation.  Higino used his candlenut transportation activity to disguise the movement of freedom fighters and materiel from the notice of the occupying Indonesians.  He was never caught.  Timor Leste broke free from Indonesia in 1999. Now his business has expanded from being an aid to the resistance into a bona fide producer of candlenut oil which he sells to cosmetics makers in Hawaii and China.  Higino asked me to help ACELDA develop market outreach skills to find additional customers.  He also asked to improve marketing knowledge among his staff.

I have worked with a Timorese translator to allow me to communicate the finer points of marketing. Like the need for a big ACELDA sign in front of their shop.  Several hundred people pass by the store daily and nothing tells them that ACELDA is here. The passersby just see a large building. I recall a sign maker in my childhood hometown who had a logo posted in front of his shop, “A business with no sign is a sign of no business.”  I am trying to help ACELDA find more business.

Finding more business requires me to teach in a language that the staff understands. It is not Portuguese despite 450 years of colonial rule by Portugal.  Portugal terminated its colonial control in 1975 but that language is still taught in school.  While most Timorese receive many years of Portuguese language schooling, few speak it well. At home and with friends they speak one of Timor’s 32 indigenous languages. If they need to speak with someone from another language group they will not use Portuguese.  They will turn to Tetun – the lingua franca of the country.  Tetun contains many basic Portuguese words: Thank you, yes, no, good morning. And also some Indonesian words, but it is mainly a Timorese-based language.  So, my 20 words of Portuguese and 0 words of Indonesian don’t get me too far here since I don’t understand Tetum. Good thing Agapito, my translator is fluent in Tetum and English. And not bad in Portuguese.

One day after work Higino offered to drive me 30 minutes to my hotel in town. Partway there he suggested we stop by his retail shop along the road.  He pulled over and we both exited the vehicle.  But then he apparently changed his mind, got back into the car, and drove off.  I was left standing by the side of the road. After a 20 minute wait I saw him hightailing it back.  He apologized profusely for deserting me.  He explained that he was sure I was seated next to him carrying on a conversation.  He claims he talked to me – – or so he thought – – for the next 20 minutes until he realized I was not with him in the car.  He later concluded that he had been speaking with my spirit.  I was not aware that I had physically exited the vehicle but left my spirit behind.  Next time I will be careful to take all of me. 

Speaking with my spirit for 20 minutes is an example of other worldly beliefs by the Timorese that we in the west don’t always understand.  Another example: Talking to my work colleagues I learned that even though there are plenty of crocodiles in the sea around Timor Leste and the meat is pretty good, most people will not eat these reptiles. They believe crocodiles are their ancestors.  If someone were to eat the meat, he would afterwards perform a purification ceremony to cleanse his guilt.  I did not have the courage to tell my colleagues that I have eaten alligator in Florida. And I don’t feel particularly guilty about it.  But I do apologize if it was your ancestor.

The Crocodile Whisperer

Most Timorese carry first names befitting 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule: Osorio, Luis, Santima, Raul. And most last names likewise: Correia, Fernandes, Guterres, Pinto.

But despite 450 years of Portuguese presence (ending in 1975) few people speak that language fluently. Those older than 50 tend to be more adept; they were of school age when the Portuguese ruled. Timorese between 30 – 50 do pretty well in Bahasa (Indonesian) for they were students during the Indonesian occupation. Younger folk, under 30, are showing substantial interest in learning English – – not an official language in the country – – but a fair bit more useful internationally than the others. Fortunately for me, my local work colleagues all speak English.

I can always get one of them to translate the finer points of business planning to the local fishermen who aspire to become mud crab farmers. And they want to become mud crab farmers in order to generate supplemental income for their families. Many live on less than $2 per day from their fishing and subsistence farming activities. These farmers are rural. Most are illiterate. Most are innumerate. It is difficult for them to calculate the amount of food to toss into their crab ponds. My NGO (ACDI/VOCA) is providing a technical expert to help the farmers get started…but eventually they must proceed on their own. I hope that food calculation can be picked up by illiterate and innumerate farmers. That will be a challenge.

After working on the Mud Crabs of Timor Leste business plan and observing the excavation of the first of 20 crab ponds, I took a weekend break on Atauro Island. This Timorese paradise is 15 miles offshore and sits on the Eurasian tectonic plate. Timor Leste itself is on the Australian plate. The ocean depth between the two plates plunges to over 15,000 feet deep. I put on my snorkel, mask, and fins, but try as I might, I never got much closer than 15,000 to the bottom. Actually, close in to shore are some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs; the most beautiful and diverse I have ever seen. In fairness, I should point out that I grew up in the middle of the desert. The main island of Timor Leste also has excellent coral for diving and snorkeling. At a few of the sites, however, one must be alert for saltwater crocodiles.

Timorese are predominately Catholic (95%) but with animist beliefs interwoven. For example many believe that crocodiles are ancestors of people. In fact, the county itself is a giant croc that rose up from the sea. The rugged mountains are its back. One of my colleagues told me that one should always speak to the reptiles before entering the sea. He always tells the crocs that he is not there to harm them but to fish or to swim or to collect crabs. “Then they won’t attack me.” “Once I saw a crocodile near my boat and I spoke to him nicely and he swam away.” “That is key important.” “Only if you don’t speak to the croc will he harm you.”

I asked if people were ever attacked even after speaking to the crocodile. He admitted that if you don’t speak in the right way they might attack. “Or also even if you speak to them, but you did something bad like murder someone or say bad words.” (There seems to be a fairly broad range of crime in this example.) He knew of a lady who stole a pig from her neighbor. She cooked it, fed her family then hid the carcass in her well. “But she forgot that she would need to go to the sea sometime. When she went to the sea, a crocodile ate her.”

He told me his brother has special skill to speak to the crocodiles. He can address them in any (human) language and the crocs will understand him. Once a villager stole someone’s cow. When confronted, the thief said a crocodile had taken it. “So my brother went to the sea and asked the crocodiles to line up. They did. Then he said, ‘If you took the cow, please open your mouth.’ All mouths remained shut, so he knew that a crocodile was not the one who took the cow.” “Later the man that took the cow was in the sea and a crocodile killed him.”

I offer these vignettes with no judgment, merely as a neutral reporter of cultural beliefs. You may draw your own conclusion.

One of the great joys for me of these assignments is that I always learn something new from my experience. In this case the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center sent one of their leading experts on mud crab cultivation to train our farmers. I have paid attention so that I can help you with your backyard mud crab cultivation. This is assuming, of course, that you have a tidal mangrove forest in your backyard. And no crocodiles, because once I used bad words.

Mud Crabs to the Rescue

I suspect many of you may find Timor Leste a rather obscure country – – perhaps even an unknown country. But its obscurity is what attracted me to it.

The third newest country on earth (2002) is in the Indian Ocean, northwest of Australia at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. (For Business Trips to the Edge bonus points, name the world’s two newer countries.) This island nation is about the same size as Connecticut and is one of only two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia. And the other would be…? If you guessed Indonesia you couldn’t be more wrong. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. But if you selected the Philippines you are correct. Congratulations.

Timor Leste is commonly referred to by English speakers as East Timor. Leste is the Portuguese word for east. And in an unnecessary bit of redundancy, Timor, in the native Tetun tongue also means east. East East. Sort of like the redundant names in my home state of New Mexico. There we have the Cerrillos Hills and the Rio Grande River. But I stray from topic.

Timor’s recent independence followed 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia preceded by 450 years as a Portuguese colony. Neither the occupier nor the colonist spent much time developing home grown businesses and an effective government. So country governance and business management skills are sparse. And the country faces a few additional challenges.

The population is among the fastest growing in the world, with each woman having on average 5.5 children…well, they are Catholic after all. The literacy rate is just 58%. And then there are the languages.

There are 32 indigenous languages spoken here. In a country of 1.1 million people that means an average of about 35,000 speakers per native tongue. With so few speakers, several of these languages must be candidates for extinction. Tetun is the most commonly spoken and is used as the lingua franca in the country. Clusters of towns and villages have their own language. Just cross a mountain ridge to the next valley and find another one. My Timorese colleague, Osorio, says his home village has three indigenous tongues. And throughout the country three international languages have all been taught: Portuguese, Bahasa (Indonesian), and English. It is difficult to make economic progress and create a sense of national unity with such a linguistic fracture.

And speaking of fracture you ought to see the roads. This very rugged county has mountains, hillsides, and valleys radiating down to the sea. The only major paved road system winds its way along the coast. Since independence in 2002 the UN and many development agencies have patched some of the potholes. The tortuous highway holds max speed to around 50 MPH but frequently slowing to 10 MPH to round a hairpin turn. There are few airports and no regularly scheduled domestic air transport. All this means lots of infrastructure impediments to compound the language challenges in conducting business.

But the country needs business to advance. I am here to help with one small business: cultivation and sale (maybe even export someday) of mud crabs. Despite the unappetizing name – – who wants to eat wet dirt – – mud crabs are a popular (and expensive) delicacy in Southeast Asia. One could pay around $30 at a decent restaurant. Of course this is far out of range of the poor Timorese. But nevertheless mud crab production could be an attractive income supplement when sold to the local restaurants catering to the many NGO and development workers in the country. But there you would order a chili crab or a coconut crab, not a mud crab; but they really are mud crabs, just with a more tempting name.

My job will be to help mud crab producer groups develop a business plan that will guide their efforts and that can be used to seek private investment in their burgeoning (we hope) business.

You can do your part by visiting your local Red Lobster and ordering up a large mud crab.

And finally, the answer to the quiz from above. Newest countries on earth:
1. South Sudan (2011)
2. Montenegro (2006)
3. Timor Leste (2002)