Academic journal article Oceania

The Book of Dan. the Door in the Tree. Emergent Frameworks for Faith and Healing among the Meto of Timor-Leste

Academic journal article Oceania

The Book of Dan. the Door in the Tree. Emergent Frameworks for Faith and Healing among the Meto of Timor-Leste

Article excerpt

Oecussi is one of Timor-Leste's 13 districts, a mountainous enclave on the island's northwest coast bounded by Indonesia on three sides and the Savu Sea on the other. It has one large settlement, the coastal town of Pante Makassar (Fig. 1), beyond which people mostly live in small, often-isolated, settlements where life revolves around the swidden cultivation of maize and dry-land rice. Like in neighbouring Indonesian Timor, its residents (around 70,000 according to the 2015 census) are predominantly from an Austronesian ethnolinguistic group called the Atoni Pah Meto (People of the Dry Land).' Popularly believed to have been the site of the first Portuguese landing on the island in the early 1500s, the centuries afterwards saw the emergence of several competing Eurasian clans, distinct from the autochthonous population in the highlands that, claiming authority as local agents of the house of Braganza, nominally ruled over the district from the coastal plain around its main settlement. It was this enduring (though often fraught) allegiance (2) that prevented the area from being absorbed into the Dutch East Indies, and later Indonesia.

Portuguese/Topasses rule was concerned mostly with the extraction of sandalwood and the maintenance of a strategic outpost in western Timor, and it was only after Indonesia's 1975 takeover that the highlands came under the sustained control of a centralized state. Until this time the mountains were rarely visited by outsiders--their people for the most part unbaptized and usually lacking any exposure to languages or lifestyles other than their own. While this began to change in the 1980s and 1990s with the slow but steady extension of transportation networks, schooling, and government services which has continued (despite the catastrophic unrest and destruction of 1999) to this day, even more than the projection of state power, it has been the pull of urban life that has contributed to the blurring of Oecussi's once clear highland/lowland divide. Pante Makassar, a small colonial outpost 45 years ago, is today a quickly growing town of around 20,000 to which highland families are increasingly choosing to relocate in search of economic and educational opportunity. This article revolves around a case study of a popular spiritual healer referred to as Maun (Brother) Dan who, as leader and founder of a mystical, healing organization, the Sacred Family, (3) ministers to its population. It explores how, through reconciling indigenous (meto) spiritual beliefs revolving around ancestral spirits and sacred landscapes with the newer high-status foreign (kase) institution of the Catholic Church and its associated iconography and scripture, Dan and his organization draw authority, respect, and potency from both realms.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in 2014 and 2015, this article seeks to contribute to the literature on the remaking and renewal of ritual practice in post-independence Timor, (4) an intimate account of how Oecussi's kaselmeto dialectic is giving rise to new ways of understanding health and well-being in the enclave. Although many of its people do make a clear distinction between the indigenous and the foreign, this paper shows how in 2015, daily practice tended to be mediated not through a firm identification with either category but in the ritually mediated work of 'crossing' between them, with new, urbanized ways of life animated and made meaningful by engagement with a sacred realm (le'u) associated with all that is indigenous, invisible, and upland.

The understanding of kase and meto as co-present in daily life is a largely urban phenomenon. Prior to the mid-1970s, the terms were relatively simple categorical markers--kase folk could be reliably distinguished by wearing trousers, meto people always wore village woven beti (sarong). Now, even for those who have remained in the hills, foreign ways (not to mention trousers) have become common, and the utility of the terms kase and meto for describing two contrasting and sometimes oppositional modes of being (e. …

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