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Indonesian Textile Arts
Timor Island

New Roads to Modernity

Of all the communities Threads of Life works with in Timor, Boti best exemplifies the challenges and opportunities faced by all. Where most Timorese speak of three seasons--rainy, dry and hungry--Boti’s animistic conservation of its forests provides food and water year round. But a new road to the village brings new challenges, not least of which is how to maintain identity and tradition in a changing world.

The Atoni and Tetun peoples of West Timor plant relatively drought-resistant crops: corn, sorghum, and a dry-field variety of rice called padi ladang. But in Timor, they talk of three main seasons: the rainy season, the dry season, and the season of starvation, before the rains begin. Weaving brings vital dry-season income to families across Timor, and Threads of Life provides fair trade prices for their work.

The rigors of dry season

From the market town of Oinlasi, turn down into the valley. Find the riverbed, and follow it up into the hills. Walk for five hours, and you’ll reach Boti, in the dry season. The annual rains cut off Boti’s seventy families and their weavers’ cooperative from Oinlasi and the world. Even a new road--itself passable only in dry weather--has yet to change life’s rhythms in this corner of West Timor.

Gardens of cassava ring a traditional house, Boti

West Timor’s two mountain ranges are full of such pockets, each self-reliant in their isolation, and each with a unique traditional culture. Differences in language, traditional architecture, clothing, community structure, and religion distinguish each village, even from its closest neighbors. Each village has also accepted modern influence to a differing degree. Modernity has brought many changes to West Timor, some better than others.

A traditional house, a non-traditional technology

Ama Nune Benu was the traditional leader of Boti until his death in 2005. He encouraged his community to leave school after grade six. ’’It is good to learn to read and write,’’ he said, ’’but then the land can teach us everything else we need to know for a good life.’’ Without schooling, the people of Boti never developed strong Indonesian language skills, limiting their exposure to outside influence.

Ama Nune Benu

Poor forest management has depleted West Timor’s aquifers, severely aggravating the annual dry seasons. In contrast, Boti’s community forest is a green oasis in the barren countryside. When drought and famine menace the rest of Timor, the springs in Boti continue to run. ’’The trees are life for birds, birds continue to re-seed trees, and trees hold the waters that sustain our lives,’’ said Ama Nune Benu.

Inhabitants of Boti

Although the government encourages all Timorese to build cement houses with tin roofs, the local traditional architecture holds some inherent advantages. Thick grass roofs keep out the heat of the day, and hold in the warmth of the fire at night. The thin haze of smoke from kitchen fires keeps malaria mosquitoes at bay. A traditional, ancestral home is also the anchor for clan and community life.

A traditional thatched house

Each family maintains an usi, a traditional house where heirlooms and ritual objects are stored, and where clan ceremonies are performed. Portuguese and Dutch missionaries never completely supplanted local ways, and although most Timorese profess Christianity, three-pronged hau monef shrines stand in front of many usi, holding up offerings to the clan ancestors. This family embellished their hau monef with another sacred three-pronged symbol: a cross.

Shrine and house, Oenenu

The three branches of a hau monef represent sky god Uis Neno, earth god Uis Pah, and the deified ancestors of the clan. Ceremonies honoring the gods and ancestors are performed at planting and harvest time, the dedication of new houses, and important moments in life’s cycle. Textiles, sacrificed animals, and the fruits of the garden and the forest decorate the three prongs.

Shrine after a ceremony, Oenino

The death of Ama Nune Benu and the new road are slowly changing the complexion of Boti. Young people leave their traditional enclosures, travel to the nearby city of Kupang, Bali, or even Malaysia in search of work, and wonder why they would ever go back. Easier transport has allowed the most ambitious and talented Timorese to leave, and set in motion the homogenization of Timor’s countless unique cultures.

A young girl, Boti

Ama Benu’s son is the new leader of Boti. He is a young man, without the standing to enforce the traditional ways that his father defended with such passion. Trucks rumbling to the village gate each morning herald the changing times. The Boti community faces a question that reverberates throughout Indonesia: how can they sustain their traditions and their environment, and embrace the promise and opportunity of the modern world?

Traditional tattoos and jewelry