By Irene Gavieiro Agud, UNDP Timor-Leste
The hands of the Atoni women in Oé-Cusse tell the story of an entire region that, despite having been subject to numerous external influences throughout their history, have managed to keep alive a culture that belongs to them and of which they feel proud.
Since the Portuguese arrived at the port of Lifau in 1515, Oé-Cusse has been a disputed territory due to its geostrategic position. The Japanese, Portuguese and even Dutch fought in the following years to control this land until 28 November 1975, when the Timorese gained independence from Portugal. Then, the Indonesians saw their opportunity to occupy Timor-Leste and began 25 years of painful invasion until that ended in 1998 with a referendum supported by the international community which would allow Timor to regain independence in 2002.
All these events, in addition to having enriched Oé-Cusse –that already possessed broad cultural strength due to its geographical isolation from the rest of Timor-Leste – developed a special popular motivation to keep alive the cultural aspects that identify its population as Atoni.
Throughout this process of protecting their cultural heritage, the Atoni women have played a fundamental role in Oé-Cusse’s history. They are the ones who since ancient times have overseen the traditional weaving of tais (main textile for cloth dresses used by the Maubere population in ceremonies), or other crafts such as traditional pottery or palm weaving, known as ‘Homan’ in Tetum.
Gastronomy has also been their responsibility. Traditional Atoni dishes such as Katupa (rice cooked in palm leaf), desserts such as Utobe made with cassava and coconut, or the famous homemade Ai-manas (Timorense piri-piri) are key to extending Atoni culture along borders.
However, over the years all these creations have acquired other utilities. The Tais, for example, despite continuing to be the usual dress of many people in Oé-Cusse —mainly the katuas (elderly people) in the mountainous areas— are increasingly relegated to the exclusive role of traditional dress in cultural ceremonies.
The improvement in communications and the opening of borders, have facilitated imported clothes reaching main urban centers such as Pante Macassar and the population, especially young people, have stopped using the Tais as a daily cloth. In the same way, the traditional ceramics used to cook certain dishes or even to filter the water have stopped being exclusively used for these purposes after the arrival of new water sanitation mechanisms and kitchen utensils coming from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.
These are just two examples of how times evolve, and globalization threatens to affect the protection of Oé-Cusse’s cultural heritage. Therefore, in this context, the role of the Atoni woman as protector and bearer of culture to future generations is essential for the maintenance of Timorese identity.
UNDP Timor-Leste is aware of the importance of supporting these women who continue to write the Atoni history. Through our work with the Regional Authority (SAR-ZEESM TL) and strengthening of regional capacities in Oé-Cusse, UNDP provides economic and technical support to women of different ages in the region to continue their important task of preserving their culture.
Through the Oé-Cusse Business Incubator (OBI) program which helps micro, small and medium businesses and builds regional business capacity, dozens of women have received training and economic resources. Out of the 10 working groups that were selected through an ‘Ideas Competition’, three of them (dedicated to palm weaving, coconut refined oil and tais weaving) are formed entirely by women and out of the 47 people who benefited from the program, 26 are women.
In community tourism, UNDP's and the Regional Secretary of Tourism's commitment is also firm. We structure our work in the communities by creating working groups that must have equal gender representation. Also, we support women to innovate with traditional crafts to create attractive souvenirs for potential tourists.
UNDP Timor-Leste knows that there is a way to go for the development of Oé-Cusse, but we know for certain that we cannot reach it without the active participation of the Atoni women.