Parallel islands

I’m writing this from Timor Leste (East Timor) where my wife Pip and I moved in April to begin a two-year stint with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA).

We’ve settled in well but home feels a long way away, and Ireland even further. Quite a few Kiwis live here and there are enough Irish to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the capital, Dili.

At our Tetun language classses I met two young Irish women working for the UN and, in the town of Maliana, a woman from Tipperary whose mother lives not far from where my Martin forebears hail. Many Irish are here for the same reasons as the Kiwis – to help rebuild a new, very small country.

Pat and Pip in Balibo, at the house where five journalists (three Aussies, a Kiwi and a Brit) were murdered by invading Indonesian forces in 1975. The house is now a memorial.

Pat and Pip in Balibo, at the house where five journalists (three Aussies, a Kiwi and a Brit) sought shelter before being murdered by invading Indonesian forces in 1975. The house is now a memorial.

Timor Leste is the world’s first nation of the 21st century. It was a priority for Irish aid when the Celtic Tiger was roaring in 2003 but Ireland closed its aid office in Dili last October

In a piece for the April 2013 Donegal News, Irish journalist Rosie Nic Cionnaith quotes Meabh Cryan, an Irishwoman working in Dili, on similarities between the two countries:

‘I think in many ways they’re the same place, separated by time, and a lot of distance as my parents keep reminding me! A small country – there’s just over one million people here – a long and complicated struggle for independence, a small island nation trying to develop around bigger nations, a very rich culture, lots of music, very Catholic. You have so many parallels.’

A roadside shrine on the Aran Islands

A roadside shrine on the Aran Islands.


A roadside shrine near our home in Dili

A roadside shrine near our home in Dili.

One parallel is joblessness and the export of young people. Unemployment here is officially 20 percent but some claim it’s more like 50 percent. Down the road from our Dili home, we got chatting to a 27-year-old Timorese man who can’t find work. Through a cousin, he’s lined up a job in Belfast, possibly working in a chicken factory.

Another parallel is Catholicism, the legacy of 450 years of Portuguese rule before the Indonesians invaded. It’s a different variety than the Irish Catholicism that I grew up with, although the roadside shrines and religious icons in homes remind me of what I saw in Ireland.

And let’s not forget that the Tetun word for potato is ‘fehuk’. Surely an Irish link there. I might write more on these matters later. For the time being, however, I’ll park O’Kiwi while we concentrate on our new life in Timor. Of course, if you have anything to contribute, please do so.

And if you’re interested in two Kiwis in Timor, you’re more than welcome to follow our blog, Dili dally.

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2 Responses to Parallel islands

  1. Matt Desmond says:

    Lonely Planet notes that “the One More Bar has a fine second-storey position on the Dili waterfront, behind the Virgin Mary statue.” Does that count as an Irish bar?

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