East Timor – Cultural and IT

The next post on the recent East Timor trip…….

Cultural Observations

Here are some ideas about local culture that I picked up from talking to locals and Westerners who have been long term residents in Timor. However even people who have been living in Timor for years told me they still have trouble penetrating some of the cultural issues. This is a daunting point for people who would like to be agents of change.

The local people I met seemed fairly content. More relaxed than most people from the developed world for sure. On observing us some of the Timorese say “Foreigners have too much”. Not a bad observation I think. It also raised some questions – for example exactly why do we want to develop East Timor?

Housing is basic, here are some examples from Lospalos, belonging to reasonably well off Timorese:

Concrete walls and floors. Just enough housing to deflect the frequent heavy rain and heat from the midday sun. People often sleep on woven palm-leaf mats. I found it thought provoking to compare this minimal approach to housing to my own house and others in Australia and the Western World. How do $40,000 bathroom renovations and $250,000 house extensions fit into this model?

It was fascinating for me to actually get inside houses in the developing world. I wanted to find out how people really live. It’s really hard to get a feel for everyday life in the developing world from the regular media, we just have too many preconceptions from the developed world. The kitchen in these houses is a raised concrete slab with a three rock fire under a corrugated iron roof. The bathroom is four sheets of corrugated iron for privacy in the back yard.

Here is another example, from just outside of Dili:

We saw several houses like this with large (2m) satellite TV dishes carefully installed next to them! Apparently even in refugee camps the satellite TV dishes soon pop up!

Superstition and Animism is common here. For example if someone gets sick they may blame a curse from a neighbor that they recently offended. Then they die, rather than see a doctor.

To get something done you need to talk to the head guy in the village (a village may be a small suburb or a few blocks in Dili).

There is a pecking order. Father eats first, then Mum, then kids from oldest to youngest. My friends run a pre-school class for 2-3 year olds in Dili. As part of the class they like to give the kids a decent meal. They have to make sure it is eaten at the pre-school as if the little kids take the food home an older sibling may take it. However this sharing approach also helps sustain people despite 70% unemployment. The culture is to share any food or resources amongst their extended family. There are few street children or homeless in East Timor. So this approach works well in a survival situation. Unfortunately it is also extended to government – where family tends to hand out jobs to other family members. It is nice to feed cousin Mario but not necessarily install him as your Minister of Defense.

Information Technology

Learning computers and English are very popular subjects. With computers people are very keen on the MS Office suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) – this is seen as the road to employment.

Mobile phones are remarkably wide spread via pre-paid cards down to $1. They are seen as a status symbol – a family may sleep on the floor but they will still have a mobile phone. However relative to incomes mobiles are very expensive for people to use – many are kept for incoming calls only. You know the GSM mobile phone is a wonderful invention. We were in remote town in one of the poorest countries in Asia with no electricity and still receiving SMS messages from Australia. What a pity mobile phone technology is closed.

Internet is expensive, slow, and unreliable: a 40 kbit/s dial up is a good connection. However this is better than non-available, which was the case a few years ago. Officially, only the incumbent Telco (Portuguese Telecom) is providing Internet access. However several small companies are providing Internet via satellite, with wildly varying quality depending on how many people they distribute it to. Point to point Wifi links are used to distribute it to customers – you can see Wifi towers all over Dili. A good quality 128 kbit/s always on connection can cost $400 per month. If you live in the right suburb and have landlines available, you can get dial up for $45/month plus a fee for usage. This works OK for email but many of todays web sites assume a broadband connection so a lot of time is wasted downloading images and adds.

Dili is quite flat, so some impressive towers are required to get a reliable line of sight Wifi link. People often overload poor Internet links by connecting many people to them or extending the links to other sites. These Wifi links aren’t always reliable – one of our friends had a wifi link that only worked in the evening, perhaps due to interference during the day or propagation issues. Another problem is the quality of the up-links, for example an ISP serving 8 NGOs is working through a single 56 kbit/s uplink to Indonesia. However I get the feeling that the uplink problem is slowly being solved, and bandwidth should improve over the next few years.

A Dili mesh network would be a great idea; it would remove the need for all these large towers, which are expensive (and in some cases dangerous). Not many nodes would be required to blanket the whole of Dili with a Metropolitan WLAN. Perhaps the local culture could be harnessed to ensure the nodes were looked after and always powered up (e.g. get support from Village and family heads).

Poor Internet up-links are a common problem in developing countries. A useful solution would be a mail server that operates via dial up. There is a huge difference between no Internet and just having email. Something like a WRT54G could be programmed to accept mail from laptops via Wifi then periodically bring up the dial up connection for sending and receiving emails. The user experience would be nice – emails uploaded the the mail server quickly, then next time they connect to the server their received mails appear.

Virus infection of Windows computers is a big issue. This is a common problem in developing world IT. Linux desktops would fix that. Info Timor are a local social enterprise doing just that – they recycle computers from other countries, install Ubuntu Linux, and sell them locally in the town of Baucau. Remarkably – Info Timor is self sustaining from revenue – no external funding required.


First Post on East Timor Trip – We Really Do Have Road Rules Now!

6 thoughts on “East Timor – Cultural and IT”

  1. Why develop Timor? I think they would welcome improvements in health and education, having enough food to eat, and then infrastructure like electricity and decent roads … Maybe they don’t need the materialist, consumerist, advertising-driven culture that we have in the West, I agree.

  2. Hello Luke.
    As much i could see until now, Timor-Leste will have a voice/power, on the international situation, especially in Asia, and it’s vote/voice look seam cheat to be bough with some international Aid.
    And Petrol (energy) one of the common interests of any one.
    There are some other factors, but i think are smaller.

    Honestly can be count those who do for the others, and think on the side effect of they actions/decisions.
    NGO representative words: “Let them to make the same mistakes that we made, they do have the right”.
    We have change they language (see the actual dictionary).
    We have grow the prices. Local people start to have problems o buy some local products.
    We have repress them. See some security forces actions.
    We are imposing our game rules. See all this international advisers.
    May be is a pessimistic vision, but is real.
    I hope one day the human been will learn.
    Ata luegu.

  3. Regarding a dial-up email server… sounds like it would be useful to resurrect uucp support as was used in the olden days before access to a commercial internet was available. People with computers formed an ad-hoc network using dial-up. The code is still out there. Sendmail had support for that transport for a long time, though I expect it is gone in current versions. Could be resurrected.


  4. Hi Carol,

    Small world – I am also working for Shuttleworth on the Mesh Potato project. Yes a UUCP type system was what I had in mind.



  5. Hi

    Just wonder what food do they eat? Any blog about the way their cook?
    I thought they consume spicy food just as other part of Indonesia but apparently they do not.

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