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May 15, 2017 | by  | in PGSA |
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Postgrad Informer

For the last three weeks, I have had the privilege of researching coral reefs for my Master’s in Timor-Leste, and it got me thinking.

The Timorese people live in, what would be considered in New Zealand, abject poverty. Their houses and their possessions are spartan to the point of dereliction. Living insulated lives (and we do, believe me) can lead to a certain set of assumptions — that they are deprived, that they lead unfulfilled lives, and are to be pitied.

My experiences both in Timor-Leste and last year in Indonesia have challenged these assumptions. Lack of monetary wealth does not diminish culture, happiness, or, most significantly, dignity. They still attend church and school, all of which have a uniform which is rigidly adhered to. They still have fun at the beach on the weekend. They still have hopes and dreams they aspire to, and fears that they avoid. Their lives are no less rich than ours.

As always, it is almost transformative to become a minority. To be stared at, and hear the occasional calls of “Malai!” (“white person!”). To be different and unusual, out of place, and with foreign customs. If you told the people of Atauro Island you spent money on food at a supermarket, they would laugh themselves silly at your stupidity. Why would you buy food, when the ocean and plants are right there?

Being relegated to a societal novelty through appearance alone is something everyone should experience. It makes you realise that context is powerful. What seems pitiable to us is just the world for them. They live it every day — it is normal. The fact that it contrasts so heavily with our normal does not justify condescension. Difference is not inherently negative.

They may appear to lack in what we consider necessities, but this would be an ill-informed view. They require very little from us, least of all our judgment.

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