Who were these Motolori boys?

I’ve written quite a lot about the ‘Motolori boys’ who were our main participants in Lospalos. In this post I want to try and assemble what it is that I know about them, and the kinds of impressions they made on me. Together, we went on quite a learning journey.

Motolori is a sub-sub-district – like a suburb – of Lospalos. The town is divided into these areas. Others have names like Bee Moris, Natura… Motolori (I’m not sure if I’m spelling it correctly, but this is how it sounds) is near the river, and seems to refer to the houses that line the main road leading into town. Thus it is close to the town.

The house I live in is solid and old, from Portuguese times. It’s on relatively high ground, and is surrounded by grass. When it rains, the land surrounding the house isn’t immediately reduced to mud. Most of the other houses in Motolori aren’t like this. Most of them are simple wooden structures, with dirt floors and walls made of palm leaf shingles and flat rooves. No ceilings. Most of the land is not grassy, but bare earth, so on rainy days there is a lot of muddy, or slippery brown earth.

Over the road from us, there is a long row of houses – I think of it as a kind of family compound. To reach the houses from the road, you have to cross a stream – perhaps more like a drain, in a deep ditch. There is a rather precarious looking crossing point a little further down the road (a bridge made from bits of scrap wood, it seems), but if you want to cross over immediately opposite the block that my house is on, you have to scramble down the ditch and jump across the stream. I think this is the way the kids usually do it, because who could be bothered going all the way down to the crossing point?

On either side of our house are other family compounds. One side has families that are the relatives of my landlords – the women often sit together with the youngest children in the shade of the trees that border the two properties, and it was on this neighbouring block of land that Tony and I bought our first long piece of bamboo. The houses in this group are a mix of Portuguese brick houses, and more recent wooden structures.

On the other side lives the family of mostly boys that my landlords didn’t seem to like much. We got to know this family one evening when Tony was offered a coconut from their tree and went around there to seek their help in opening it up with a machete. That evening they had a visiting family member, a young woman who’d only recently returned to Lospalos from working in England. She was pregnant, and as she and I chatted, I asked her about her plans. She explained that after the baby had reached six months her plan was to leave it with her family and that she would go back to England. Such is the scarcity of work in Lospalos and Timor, and the significance of what she could contribute to her family by continuing to work in England. My heart ached for her when I thought how difficult it would be to return to England without her baby, her first-born.

The first time children from our local area came to jam on the verandah with us, they were a big, noisy group. They were excited to play music, but they snatched and grabbed at instruments, and weren’t very good at listening. In those early jams, we did a lot of unison rhythms and call-and-response patterns. On the days when some older boys came too, we tried out some more structured ideas – these would only work if we had a critical mass of people who understood what we were trying to do.

I’d noticed way back in Dili in my first verandah jams that there was a marked difference between the children who had experience of school and those who hadn’t. In Dili, the difference tended to be revealed by the children’s ages – there, some of the group were too young to have started school. Here in Motolori, I started to get the sense that some of these boys (and they were nearly always all boys), no matter what their age, had had very little experience of schooling. They weren’t used to being organised as a group, and they didn’t know Tetun. It took me a while to figure this out. The lightbulb moment came when I realised the boy who was telling me the words for “it might break” in Fataluku wasn’t doing this for my benefit, but in order to translate what I was saying for the boys who didn’t understand Tetun.

I wasn’t always sure I liked these boys at the beginning. They were hard to read. They didn’t like making eye contact, and sometimes they were so rowdy and aggressive with the instruments it worried me, and made me want to pack everything up and send them away. They would hit things until they broke, if we let them (which by the way, I know to be a standard thing for some kids, the world over. It certainly happens at Pelican Primary where I teach in Melbourne). I also found their apparently short attention spans frustrating, and wondered if, with this group, we would ever be able to develop some more detailed musical ideas. Also, they were all boys. I’m particularly sensitive to how quickly music can become a very ‘gendered’ activity, with girls electing not to take part if it becomes dominated by boys. I had hoped to avoid this kind of all-boys scenario, and wanted to model female music participation for the local girls and young women who might be looking for ways to get involved but needing a female leader to guide them.

For Tony, it was a bit different. They loved calling out to “Maun Tony” in the street, and giving him high-fives. He was a bloke, he was twice the height of most men they’d seen before, and he had a pronounceable name. I used to grumble good-naturedly about Tony’s apparent charisma for the children but actually it was an important part of the relationship-building in the local community. I was just as friendly and approachable, and I was the person with the language skills, but I know that without Tony and his bloke-iness, we might never have built the in-roads we built.

Basically, our impression was that these kids were the ones with few opportunities. Only some of them went to school, when school resumed in January, and even then, they didn’t seem to go everyday. When I began to compile my list of complete names for the certificates, one of the boys came up to me to say that “those boys there can’t write their names, because they don’t go to school.” “Well, can you write their names for them?” I asked, and he was happy to do that. Another boy’s ‘complete name’ turned out to be just one word, one name. This seemed highly unlikely in Timor, where a typical ‘complete name’ will honour various Catholic saints and relatives and can have up to four names in it. But the boys writing the list said to me, “He doesn’t know it.”

Whenever all these boys turned up at our house to play, the landlord’s two children would quickly and quietly leave the group and head back to their house, behind mine. I asked their mother if everything was okay.

She told me, “They don’t really like playing with those other children.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Oh you know…. They are very dirty. My two don’t really like to play with children whose clothes are so dirty.” She looked at me and explained, “In Timor, if you go to someone else’s house to visit, you should put on your clean clothes. When these children come to your house in dirty clothes, you should tell them to go home and get changed.”

I laughed in surprise. ‘I couldn’t ask them to do that!” I said. “I’d feel embarrassed to say something like that. I don’t mind what clothes they are wearing.”

“No, you should tell them this. You don’t need to feel embarrassed, it’s your house. And that’s the way it works here.”

It started to seem like a division of class and advantage and I didn’t want any part of it. I thought about how there could be loads of reasons why these kids might not have clean clothes to wear very day. There might not be easy access to water in their homes, so water usage might be prioritised for washing food, drinking, and washing bodies, rather than clothes. They might be the children of a single mother, who was doing the best she could just to keep looking after all her children. And, given the way these children seemed to spend most of their time hanging around the street, just entertaining themselves without any adult input, I wondered how many of their parents even knew they were coming to our house each day. The kids weren’t likely to think of changing their clothes all on their own. Music on the verandah was just another activity in the day of play.

In time, I began to see how the group of boys who came to us most regularly were becoming the leaders of the jam ensembles. They were the ones most familiar with the instruments and with the cues Tony and I used. They could still get rowdy, but they knew how to quiet down when asked, and they were beginning to shush others who were less familiar. I saw how, as Forever Young became part of our repertoire, they took it in turns to play the chime bars, and would watch all the players before them very intently, memorising the progression of eight chords so that they had a good idea of what to play by the time it was their turn.

In fact, I’d say the Forever Young chords were a big motivator for the Motolori boys. It was something that initially seemed complicated and difficult, and that sounded very musically proficient, and yet, one by one, they saw how each of their peers was mastering this pattern. They took me by surprise too – I hadn’t imagined everyone learning how to play this pattern. In fact, I’d only taught it to two of the older boys and had expected they would be the only ones to play it. Instead, others began to pick it up, and would take over the mallets at every opportunity once they’d learned it.

At one jam early on in the last week, a melody appeared that I knew had been invented in the very first jam by a teenage girl named Linda who’d never returned to any subsequent jam sessions. Amongst ourselves we called it the Brown-Eyed Girl tune, as it reminded us of a riff in the Van Morrison song. One of the Motolori boys must have been there that at that first jam, had learned the melody, and was now rejuvenating it with a new group. As with the Forever Young chords, it was quickly learned, peer teaching peer, by others in the group and became part of the repertoire.

The changes in the group that I am writing about now are things I am becoming aware of only in hindsight. At the time, we were just responding to the groups day by day. They were always noisy, highly energetic and exhausting groups – the fact that there were small but significant changes taking place was not always immediately apparent in the jam itself. Only later, thinking back, would I realise that there was a level of musical independence and clarity emerging in the way the group worked together.

A key day for me started with a boy sitting on the bridge into town calling out to me, “Hey malae! One dollar!”. This kind of thing could happen in Dili but I’d never experienced it in Lospalos. I don’t like being called ‘malae’ in this way, and the ‘one dollar’ thing is not something any of us should encourage. Culturally, begging is something that is frowned upon in Timor and it’s unlikely any parents would approve f their children asking neighbours for money. I looked with annoyance over at the boy and saw that he was one of the boys coming regularly to my house. I gave him my usual joking response to that request (“One dollar? Why should I give you one dollar? Or do you mean you are giving me one dollar?”) but he could see that I was angry that someone like him, who knew me, would ask this and he ducked his head down quickly.

I was so cross! I imagined barring him from all future jams as I continued on my walk to town. But when I saw him again later, my irritation had subsided and I was walking chatting with Sarah and waving to the kids I knew. I waved to him, and he flashed me such a cheeky smile that Sarah commented on it. “Hmm, yes,” I said grimly. “He knows he was out of line with me. I think he’s relieved to see he’s forgiven.”

At the jam that afternoon, this little boy held my eye when he smiled at me. Others did too. I felt like a good, trust-based relationship was starting to build there too, finally.

I’ve already written about the day of the burglary  – Wednesday -and the good energy that seemed to flow on from that. That Wednesday evening was the  live radio performance and it is worth pointing out that all the participants in the community radio broadcast turned up in different clothes to the ones they wear for playing throughout the day. They were all clean and smartly dressed, well aware of the occasion.

The following day – Thursday – was the day of the kindergarten project, and a small team of local boys had very enthusiastically, proudly and professionally assisted us to bring the all the instruments to the kindergarten in the centre of town. The boys followed us into the kindergarten hall and helped us get all the instruments unpacked and set up on the table. Then they stayed in the room, milling around, their usual energy abundant and happy, but certainly not causing any problems for anyone. Lots of other parents and older siblings were hanging around in the room too.

The kinder children had started to assemble by around 9.20, I’d say. As it got time for the class to begin, the three kinder teachers very gently but firmly ushered excess parents, older siblings and our team of Motolori boys out of the room.

“That’s not fair,” Tony said to me indignantly. “Our boys should be allowed to stay. They are our assistants. Besides, we’ll need their help at the end, to get everything home!”

He was right, but I had a few tiny concerns that the boys might end up dominating the workshop if they stayed. I also felt insecure about stopping the teachers doing what they were doing. I didn’t want to tread on their toes. I also probably wanted to focus my language efforts on what we were about to do with these sixty or so very little children. But in hindsight, I should have had a quiet word with the teacher about letting these boys stay. The teachers didn’t know they were with us, and that we know and trust them, and appreciate their help. They were in fact much more disciplined and considerate (by this stage) than I was giving them credit for. This enforced departure at the beginning of the workshop frustrated Tony in its unfairness; also that he himself didn’t have the language skills to sort it out himself.

Later, he told me,

It annoyed me also because it seemed like such an assertion of class power. Our boys are the kids who haven’t been able to go to kinder, and now they don’t get to go to school. They weren’t all ushered out of the room gently – some were physically manhandled out of the room, one by his hair! It was like a support of the belief that ‘education is a privilege, not a right’. They start off with just as much potential as everyone else, but the environment and opportunity shapes who they will get to become, and what they will get to access… Still, if some boys off the street wandered into Scotch College, the same thing would probably happen. And those teachers didn’t know they were with us. But it made me angry at the time.

The last big event of my residency was the Toka Boot, on Saturday 22 January. In a way, I’d planned the music of the Toka Boot with the Motolori boys in mind. We imagined them being an important part of the event, taking on roles as section leaders, their skills and experience with us now being brought to the fore for all to be impressed. We were planning to incorporate their Brown-Eyed Girl riff (now renamed melodia Motolori) in the first big section of music.

So we were a bit alarmed to meet a significant group of them – all our favourites, in fact – decked out in football kit heading into town at 2pm, an hour before the start of the Toka Boot.

“Where are you going?” we asked them.

“Football,” they told us.

“Oh…” we said in dismay. “Whereabouts do you play football? What time does it finish? Do you know about the Toka Boot at 3pm and 4pm? Can you come?”

“Football at 2pm,” they told us. “It’s near the Old Market, we can come afterwards.” They assured us they would be there.

So we weren’t able to follow through with our plan to have a mini-parade through the streets at 3pm, bringing all the instruments to the Old Market with the wheel barrows and Motolori kids, as we had hoped. Instead, we enlisted the help of the ANAM students and some of the local children – more girls this time – and walked in a very laden way to the market. We passed the football game on the way and saw lots of our kids. They were happy and interested to see us, but made no moves to leave the game at that stage.

In the end only a few Motolori boys came along to the Toka Boot. Lots of the football boys never made it. The rest of the neighbourhood gang (including lots more girls now – interestingly, ever since the burglary affair when everyone heard me scream, more local girls had been venturing over to our place to join the music) were waiting for us at our house when we came home at the end of the afternoon. Perhaps this also tells us something about the kinds of psychological and cultural barriers that might be present for kids taking part in something in another part of town. Perhaps venturing to a more public space felt quite threatening and risky for some of our kids, despite the level of comfort and familiarity they feel with Tony and me. Perhaps some people in Lospalos are more segregated or separated than we can really understand. Or perhaps an event like this – any new event – needs a few repeats before it can really get embraced by a large group. People don’t always like to participate in something that is new – they want others to participate first, and then tell them about it.

And ideally, an event like this wouldn’t clash with something as important as the first day of the local football program! No-one in Lospalos should find themselves torn between two nice things to do. However, you obviously need to be even more embedded within a community to find out about the soccer program – I’m not sure who we’d have asked to find out it was on, and obviously no-one knew or thought to tell us. Never mind. The Toka Boot was still a huge success, and it meant that our relationship with the Motolori kids remained close to home.

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1 comment so far

  1. victoria Ryle on

    I love this explanation of your experience of the class system of Lospalos. It all makes so much sense… sad, but great that you were able to weave a way through it that had good outcomes for all.
    I wonder what opportunities the Motolori boys will get in the future…


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