Lost and found

Sunday, day 102

This has been a very full week, and an intense one. It’s my last week in Lospalos and we have done one or more workshops or jams every day this week.

However, in the middle of the week a series of events transpired in the space of about 14 hours, that shifted everything for us. That’s what this post is about. It’s a long story but a significant one in the context of my whole residency.

On Tuesday night (or early Wednesday morning), Tony and I woke up suddenly to find someone in our room. A burglar. Tony gave a yell, I started to scream, and the burglar neatly jumped out the window. Tony got himself out of the mosquito net and over to the window in time to see a small, light-footed young child running up the driveway to the road, turning right and continuing to run.

At first we thought we’d surprised him as soon as he’d arrived in the room, and that he hadn’t had time to steal anything. Then we remembered that earlier that day I’d taken the saxophone out of the cupboard and placed it in it gig bag on the floor at the base of the window. It was now gone.

Valda and the landlord’s family were all awake too. My screams had woken Valda and Ona, and it appeared that the burglars had also entered the landlord’s hosue (just behind ours), and stolen some money from the table. Everyone was outside in their pyjamas, talking in excited voices. Some of them lowered their voices as they pointed to the next-door house. “It was them. Thieves,” one said ominously. Another told me a detailed story that involved the UNPOL police who used to rent this house in the past. I didn’t really undestand it, other than it somehow lent evidence to the accusations being levelled at our neighbours – the very people we had befriended and who had got us started on the instrument-making just a few days before.

None of us got much sleep that night. It was unsettling. The loss of the instrument was distressing, but the idea that someone had broken into our home made us feel incredibly insecure. We thought about the way we had opened our home (albeit only the verandah) to any young people who wanted to come and play music with us, every day, and now wondered if we had set ourselves up for this. Maybe… on the other hand, so many people I know here have been burgled, perhaps it was more irrelevant. I couldn’t sleep so got up and sat in the kitchen, writing blog posts (hence the last flurry of seven posts in a row). When I climbed back into bed around 5am, the sun was soon to rise, roosters had started crowing, and the sounds of children and their parents starting their day were beginning.

I didn’t really get much more sleep. Around 7am, a rumble of voices discussing and talking reached our ears, and Tony got up to see what was going on. I arose more slowly (my chikungunyah legs are very slow to get moving in the mornings, I can only hobble) and as I emerged from my room people began to call to me. “Mana! Mana! Maun Tony has found a bag, a black bag!”

I gathered with the others on the verandah and saw Tony walking slowly back with the sax bag on his shoulder. This is what we’d hoped might happen – that they had grabbed the nearest bag on their departure from the room, and then dumped it when they realised it didn’t contain anything of value for them. This is probably to only saxophone in Timor-Leste. How would you even sell it without drawing attention to yourself?

But it wasn’t all there. Tony looked rueful. “The neck is missing, and both the mouthpieces,” he told me.

The bag had been found in front of our next-door neighbour’s house. A friend of ours had been the one to open it and look inside. He told us that he’d been going up the rod to buy bread and seen this group of people standing around a black bag. I gathered that no-one wanted to be the one to open it. They could see straight away that it wasn’t a Timorese bag – it’s shape was too unusual. They knew it belonged to a malae. No-one wanted to touch it in case they were later accused of taking something that was missing. We learned later that people had been standing around looking at that bag since 5am that morning.

Our friend told us that the man whose house it was found in front of was very upset. He felt that it made him look like he – or someone in his household – was the thief. This man was the man who had helped us make the instruments. So, after breakfast, Tony and I went around to speak with him. He invited us into his house. I told him, right from the start, that we did not believe that he had anything to do with the burglary, and were not worried that the bag had been found in front of his house. “We know you are our friend,” we said. “Your children come to our house to play music. You have taught us new things. We trust you. We know it wasn’t you.”

We sat in his house for a while as he described to us how he had seen the bag a 5am when he woke up. He’d thought it perhaps belonged to someone who had got on the bus to Dili and left it behind by mistake. He describe the way people had been looking at it and talking about it, and how he had told everyone not to touch it. He said he knew that people would say bad things about his family and he was upset by this. He elaborated on our own speech, describing himself and Tony as being “family”. The day before, we had brought the ANAM students to his house to see how the koke (blown instruments made from leaves) were made. At the end of the visit Maun M had given Tony the bamboo flute he had made. Tony reciprocated by going back to our house, and bringing back the recorders that he had bought in Dili, in response to the interest in the one recorder that had turned up in the street. Maun M referred to this exchange of gifts as well, as something that had cemented the friendship between the two men. There were lots of things that he said. I wasn’t sure if I understood everything correctly. When we left, it felt like that air was much clearer.

Later that morning we went to the police. We went first to UNPOL (UN Police) and they took us, with an interpreter, to the local police station. We made a detailed statement about what had happened, what we had seen. We knew we’d need a full police incident report in order to make an insurance claim. Tony had drawn a picture of the missing parts and the police took a copy of this to include in their report. Then we took Sarah to the clinic – she’d been feeling sick for the last two days, with a headache, aches and pains in different parts of her body and a fever. Another part of the Timor experience!

Tony was really upset by what had happened. He felt ready to pack up and leave. So much of the music we have made here has been with men and boys, and Tony has been the main conduit for all that bonding. He also had an uncomfortable sense that he knew which of the boys it was that he had seen running away up the drive. That child had such a particular way of moving, that it was hard to shift the image. Neither of us wanted to point the finger at anyone, but we knew this child. We knew his father. We didn’t know what to do with our suspicions.

We looked over towards that house at different points through the morning and could see Maun M looking around in the grass around the front of his house.

I felt very sure that the missing neck and mouthpieces might still be around. I figured that – as often happens when instruments are stolen, in any country – they would have been thrown somewhere once the burglars realised they were of no immediate value to them. We looked in the long grass near our house, thinking we might see a glimpse of the black velvet bag that stored the neck, or a glint of silver from the ligatures.

We saw three of the young local boys that we knew walking past our house. One of these was the small boy that we suspected had been the one to come into our house. I called them over. The oldest of the three boys was 11, and he had big, solemn eyes and a serious face. Earlier that morning I’d already spoken with him, asking him to keep his eyes open in the street for the missing saxophone parts. The other two were younger. All three boys had come regularly to our house, so we already had a good relationship with them. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to ask them; mostly I wanted them to know that we were only sad to have lost part of our instrument, and wanted people to help us. We weren’t angry, and we weren’t trying to blame anyone, or catch anyone.

It was a gentle and warm – even motherly – conversation that I had. I asked them if they’d been to school today (which they had) and how old they were. They’d been picking flowers and grass bits that they were carrying with them, and I asked them about these. Then I explained that we needed their help. I asked them if they knew that someone had come into our house. (I didn’t use the Tetun word for ‘burglar’ – in a chance conversation earlier that week I’d learned that this is too strong a word and it is better to say “the person who made a mistake” – so that is what I said). They nodded their heads, eyes wide. Tony brought the saxophone over to show them. He spoke and I translated:

T: Do you know what this is?

All three nodded, seriously, and gazing at the instrument in its bag.

T: This is the saxophone that was taken. But it’s not complete now.

He took it out of the its case and showed it to them. He also got the picture that he had drawn for the police, showing the neck and the mouthpieces. It put the picture against the saxophone body, to show how the parts fitted together.

T: The thing is, without these parts, we can’t use the saxophone again. We can’t play it. We can’t share it with you.

At this point, I took over. “We think maybe the person who took it might have thrown these parts away. We think maybe they were looking for money, and didn’t know what to do with these parts. We think that maybe they are in the long grass, or ever near the river. Can we ask you to help us?”

The boys nodded again, two of them not taking their eyes from me, the third a little less focused.

“Maybe when you are playing, just look really well around you. Maybe you can tell other children to look too. Or maybe someone else will find it, and you can tell us, or bring it to us. That would be a really big help.”

They nodded again, more energetically this time.

“We know you boys. We know you are our friends. We aren’t angry with anyone, but we hope that we can find the parts that are missing so that we can play the saxophone again. Thank you so much for helping us.”

They went away at this point, two of them to the long grass across the road (perhaps to start looking straight away, perhaps to continue picking the flowers and grasses they’d been picking earlier). The third boy – our neighbour – walked across our garden and down the shorcut path to his house, and disappeared inside.

Tony and I looked at each other, now feeling very, very tired. Tony took himself off to bed.

Two of the ANAM students arrived. We settled ourselves on the verandah and chatted awhile. Valda came home from school and made lunch. I felt distracted and unable to concentrate or do anything productive. The police had told us they would come to our house around 2 or 3pm in order to interview people as part of their investigation, so I was waiting for them to arrive.

Doug from ANAM took Sarah back to the medical clinic to get the results of her blood test and they arrived back with the news that Sarah has malaria, cerebral malaria, no less. We sent her to bed straight away.

Then around 2.30pm, one of the older boys from next door and some of his mates walked up the drive. As I saw them, I wondered what they were coming over for. “Surely they aren’t expecting to play music!” I thought to myself briefly. But no.

“Hetan ona!” they called out to me. “It’s been found!”

It took me a moment to translate what they’d said. I repeated it back to them in surprise. “Hetan ona? Where?”

“Come, we’ll take you! Our father was cutting the grass, he found it!”

I turned to one of the ANAM students. ‘Can you go and wake Tony? I think he needs to be part of this.” Then I walked with the boys up the drive, turned right at the end and then along the road.

I wonder if I can sufficiently describe how energised and intense this all felt. The older boys led the way. Younger boys joined the procession, and there was a huge sense of anticipation and building excitement in everyone. As we walked, they told me excitedly about how it had been found, and asked how I was feeling.

Past our neighbour’s house (where the saxophone and bag had been found) was a block of vacant land with very long grass and a pathway worn down over time by people’s feet. Our neighbour Maun M was there, cutting grass with his scythe. My entourage led me down a path, and pointed out a hollowed out place underneath a bush. The grass there was flattened as if it were a place where animals often slept. There on the flattened grass was the black velvet bag with the saxophone neck in it, and the Explorer sock in which Tony stores his mouthpieces. You have to take it, they told me. Noone had touched it – presumably because, as with the saxophone bag on the street, no-one wanted to risk being accused if it turned out something was not there that should have been.

“Is it all there?” the waiting crowd asked me anxiously.

“Yes, everything is here,” I confirmed, beaming. I turned to Maun M. “How did you find it here?” I asked him.

Maun M was looking tired and anxious. “This is the place that we bring the pigs to eat some days,” he said. “I came here to cut the grass and see.”

I stood out on the street, holding the small black bag and the Explorer sock in my hands, and smiling at everyone. I tried to express my thanks in a coherent way. I said how happy we were to have the pieces found. I said thank you to everyone in the community to had helped to look, or been worried. I had my hand on my heart, alternating with my palms together. Where do these gestures come from? When you have to say something important in a language you can’t speak fluently, you need to incorporate international gestures of heart-felt expression, I suppose. I explained how scary it had been to wake up and find someone in the room, but that now we felt much better.

The boys then offered me a coconut to celebrate. One of them started climbing the coconut tree in the neighbour’s garden.

“I want to bring Maun Tony now,” I told everyone. “I know he will be very happy. Let’s go and get him now. And he loves coconuts.” In fact, it was through asking for a coconut that Tony first began his relationship with the family next door.

As we commenced our triumphant procession down the street back to my house, it seemed like everyone was coming out of their houses to watch. The elderly man who runs the kiosk over the road was beaming and nodding at me. He had a small crowd of customers who had gathered there to watch. Back at my house, Tony had emerged, and I passed him the bag and the sock. “It’s all here,” I told him.

Doug, one of the ANAM students, got his Frisbee out of his bag and within seconds a huge game of Frisbee, involving all the young boys in the street, had begun.

My landlady was sitting on a blanket with her children at the side of the house. She called me over. All the women from the compund of houses on the other sie of our house were coming over to join her. “We heard you screaming last night,” they told me excitedly, all talking over each other. “We all woke up. We knew it was a burglar.”

“No,” said Ona. “I thought it was because you’d seen a big lizard.”

I looked at her in mock disgust. Really Ona, what kind of wuss do you take me for?

Another woman said, “Next time, you have to scream ‘Burglar! Burglar!” I laughed, and told her that I had been so surprised, and so sleepy, that I didn’t think any Tetun words would have come to mind.

A young girl started to tell me about how at one time, their house was being burgled at night at least once every week.

Yet another woman joined the conversation, gesturing towards a large bowl of roasted kulu seeds (these look like roasted chestnuts and taste similarly dry and nutty). “Have some!” she urged. Suddenly three or four people were peeling the skin off the kulu seeds and pressing them upon me faster than I could eat them.

In the middle of the Frisbee game the police arrived to begin their investigation. Tony and I were able to walk up to them and tell them that it was all resolved, everything had been found. They too, were visibly relieved. In English and Tetun they confirmed, “So it is all okay now? The case is closed? The case is closed!” In this moment too, we were able to show the good relationships that should be possible with local police (which is not something that is typical in Timor, I gather).

It felt like everyone was feeling a great sense of relief at this fabulous outcome. No-one had really talked with us about what had happened earlier in the day, apart from the people we had directly approached and drawn into conversation. Everyone had known what was going on and it had caused anxiety for all of them. Now that the situation was resolved everyone could breathe a sigh of relief and relax again.It felt like the community had rallied around, firstly to find the missing parts, and then to show their support for us, and friendship towards us. It felt like they were saying, you are welcome here. We like you. We are looking after you. The community had taken on the problem and sorted it out.

That evening we had a gig at the local community radio station, to perform live with our Fataluku version of the pop song Forever Young. We had a rehearsal that afternoon, and arranged for everyone to gather at our house at 6pm and to walk to the radio station together. Maun M and his son from next door (the one we suspected) joined us, Maun M with his recorder that he had only started learning to play the day before, and his son on the chime bars. (His son is incredibly musical, and quick with his brain as well as on his feet). Valda had gathered together a group of friends to sing with us, and to play guitar. As always with these kinds of plans, you never know if anyone will turn up or not, but we were a joyous and united group as we walked together up to the radio station that evening, settled ourselves in to the tiny studio and performed our song. People don’t tend to walk around at night-time here. It was another act of faith and commitment, I think, on the part of the local people to be part of this gig. We walked home singing, playing drums, and on a complete high from the success of our broadcast performance. I don’t know that anyone in the group had taken part in a public performance like that before. I think they felt very proud and uplifted by the experience and their own courage to do something new and risky. And for us it felt like a further confirmation of our acceptance within the community.

We started the day on a confusing, depressing low, and finished it on a wonderful high. It felt like something transformative had taken place – for us in terms of the tangible sense of acceptance we felt from the local community, and perhaps for the community in their capacity to demonstrate their support for us. Over the last few weeks, since we’ve started these informal verandah jams that have brought people into our space and into our lives, I’ve been thinking that one of the great learnings for me here is very much about being a musician within a community, and the essential principles that determine how those interactions can work to bring everyone together. Community music from within a community. We’ve been given the privilege of experiencing something of this, in a completely different culture to our own.

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3 comments so far

  1. simmone howell on

    wow. i think you described it sufficiently! that was like a mini-movie 🙂 So glad to hear you got the sax back but more glad to hear how everyone pulled together for you …xs

  2. timothy jones on

    Some days I read your posts on the train on the way to work. Just as well it’s Sunday and I was at home, or my fellow travellers would have been shocked to seem me gasping in my shock at reading about your burglary. I follow your news regularly here in Madrid , Spain, and yor posts are an inspiration.Thank you for writing…and keep safe.

  3. […] we – Tony and I – are attuned to the challenges of working in cross-cultural situations. Like the experience of the burglary in East Timor, we instinctively handed the problem over to the community leaders to solve for us. We knew that we […]


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