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What it was like for David when he first arrived in what was then Portuguese Timor to do his fieldwork
What it was like for Maxine as the wife of an anthropologist to live in a third world country with a 6-week old baby while supporting her husband
The secrecy of the Timorese society then, and how the couple was perceived as one of the very few Europeans in a Timorese village and what this meant for their work
David’s work with The Carter Center to monitor democratic processes in Timor, and the political violence in 1999
The situation of women in Timor in the 1960s vs now
How anthropology has changed over the decades and its recent interplay with sociology, political science, history and literature
The relationship between academic research and development research done by NGOs and international organizations
Finding a middle ground between bottom-up and top-down development
When we want to connect with each other, how do we cross the great divide of different worldviews, cultures or religions? How can we work together effectively? Well, first, we need a bridge.
Welcome to Bridging Peoples. In this Bridging Peoples podcast, we explore the human side of aid and development. Join us as we talk with researchers and practitioners about their work around the globe. I’m your host, Deborah Cummins.
2019 is a year of expansion for Bridging Peoples. And I’m excited to announce that soon we’ll be launching the Bridging Peoples Online Academy, a dedicated space to help you improve your development impact at the local level, wherever you work in the world. It isn’t live yet, but it will be over the next few months. So if you’re interested, give us your name and email address at bridgingpeoples.com. And we’ll let you know when the academy is live.
And if we’re lucky enough to make it onto your training calendar this year, we’ll be delighted to have you. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this interview.
Before we get started, a quick word of warning. This episode contains discussion of some violence. So if you have little ones around and you don’t want them to hear, grab your headphones now.
How has anthropology changed over the years? Not many people have been in the business long enough to be able to provide a firsthand account of this. But this month, we’re privileged to talk with husband and wife team David and Maxine Hicks. David and Maxine first visited what was then Portuguese Timor during the mid 1960s when David was doing fieldwork for his PhD in anthropology.
Since then, they’ve visited multiple times, and have been witness to Timor’s turbulent past, including when Timor became independent from their coloniser Portugal during the 1970s, the subsequent military occupation by Indonesia for 24 years, and David’s firsthand account of the bloody vote for independence in 1999.
“He didn’t bother to introduce himself, if I remember correctly. And then as we started off talking: “what happens if, what happens if” he said “well, if they vote for independence”, and I quote him as best I can “It’s back to square one. There will be a sweeping of this country. There will be a sweeping of this country.”
We talk about their experiences in Timor over the past five decades. What it was like doing fieldwork with a little baby in the 1960s, and also about anthropology and how it’s changed over the decades – and what this might mean for development research and practice.
So David, can we begin with you telling us a little bit about your work in Timor over the past few decades, perhaps beginning with when you first arrived in what was then Portuguese Timor?
Well, it began in 1966, when Maxine and I went to Timor for the first time. In June. We made the transition to Viqueque and the Tetum, partly Tetum, speaking area. And we rented what had formerly been a shop converted into a house.
And that was our base for the next year or so. And in 1967, it just about 19 months after we’d arrived in Timor, Maxine left and I followed about two or three weeks later. And that was the end of our first fieldwork in Timor.
And Maxine, what was it like for you, as the wife of an anthropologist visiting what was then Portuguese Timor?
Well, not knowing what, or completely realizing the situation that we were going into… We never been to a Third World country before, so it was a bit of a shock when we got there. And when we got, finally, the house arranged in Viqueque, we just had a bed. We had a pushchair pram thing for the baby. No chairs, no water. We had to go to the river to get water. So it was… there was a lot of practical work to be done, actually, in terms of making life as comfortable as you could in those circumstances, and making sure the baby was healthy.
And how old was the baby?
He was six weeks when we left England. And so that was my prime concern. So when we actually got settled in, and we got help in the house, who looked after the baby, then I walked with David every day to the villages where he was doing the interviews. And so I did learn Tetum quite well, a little bit of Portuguese. And so I was there as kind of… They wouldn’t let David write down anything when he when he was doing interviews. So I was there to try to remember what they were saying. So when we got back to house, you know, after being out all day, that we’d write out what people had said, according to our collective memories. And that was basically it. It mean, in the end it was really an interesting experience. And I didn’t want to leave when we finished it. So after we got over the initial shock, then it was it was OK. It was pretty good, really. And mainly because we stayed healthy.
So that’s what it was like. I mean, trudging through the villages, talking to people, and coming home. Oh we went to lots of funerals. When they got used to us, they kept inviting us to funerals. And so then we took the baby along too.
But you know, they didn’t mind us writing down songs and poems. Or even words of the trees and animals and that kind of thing. But when it came to information. For example, how many buffalo do they have to, did your group have to give the your wife’s group? “Oh no, Senyor, we don’t know…” The Secret: there’s that sociologist Georg Simmel, and he has his article on ‘the secret’. How people can keep a secret, because they don’t want, of course, outsiders to share that knowledge.
He didn’t call it sacred knowledge, but it’s a way of only claiming something. Particularly, of course, when you don’t have too much, or when you fear it is going to be taken away from you by outside groups. So in that first period in Viqueque, it was terribly difficult getting information. And people might talk to us, but as soon as we started writing anything down, then they’d just be very very quiet. But now when we go back, it’s entirely different.
When we were in the village, in the town of Viqueque, there was the administrator, the administrator’s wife. There was a schoolteacher. There was the schoolteacher’s wife. Just 4 Europeans. No other European. And in some of those villages that we went to, they’d never even seen the administrator or, of course, the teacher. We were the first outsiders from Europe, white outsiders – malae mutin – that they’d even seen, I think, in some cases.
And of course, they wouldn’t have interacted with anybody like us. When I told them what I’m here to: to study your customs, learn your language. They didn’t know what the heck I was talking about! If I were doing whole thing all over again, with hindsight, right, 1966, I’d say: I’ve come here to learn your language. I’d leave it at that. They would have known what I was going to do. They would not have realized fully why I wanted to know, but they would’ve understood that. When I say I’m your local friendly anthropologist, come to ask you all these silly questions, they hadn’t a clue. In fact, in my own culture in America, in the village where I live. You know, when they ask me what you do, and I say “anthropologist”, they just look.
I think that was a mistake, saying I’m an anthropologist, because that defined me. And they didn’t know what on earth they were defining, right. And of course, I was trying to learn their language which had been, of course… Which was exactly what I wanted to do.
But nowadays, there have been so many anthropologists there. See, all these communities have got their own anthropologists now…
Yeah. So, David, after that first trip in 1965-66, you didn’t return for some time, is that right?
That’s correct. We didn’t go back until 1999. We made a short visit about four or five days together. And we were in Dili, we couldn’t get down to Viqueque because of the political situation.
Can you tell us a little bit about the political situation, what was going on at that time?
There were groups of what were already at the time being called militia. And although as far as I remember, they hadn’t actually killed anybody, they were threatening people. And the person that we talked to who had been the assistant of the administrator in the 1960s in Viqueque said, well, he could arrange for a car to get us down to Viqueque, but he didn’t think it was very advisable because of the militia activity.
So we didn’t. And then we came back to Stonybrook here, Stonybrook University. And almost upon my arrival, I found an invitation from the Carter Center, an organization that monitors democracy throughout the world in Third World countries, inviting me to go to Timor-Leste to work with the Carter Center team of experts on Timor. And experts also on the democratic processes of voting and go back monitoring the political scene before the voting, which was on August the 30th, 1999, and monitoring the actual voting on that day. Of course, I accepted the invitation and I met up with members of our group in Jakarta. And we flew to Kupang.
So we we rented these two jeeps. And they took us to the border, and we stopped on the border and spent the night there. Difficult to get accommodation because militias were in the area and people were leaving Timor already at that time. But the next day, we set off and made our way down to Dili. And so we we got to Dili, and the Carter Center had rented a fairly spacious building, and that’s where we settled in. And from that Center, we dispersed to different parts of the country.
And because of my previous connections, I went down to Viqueque. I was there with a partner, the editor of that very good journal that’s now gone out of existence, the Far Eastern Economic Review. And he must almost have been the last editor. But he was coming to Timor because of his experience in the Southeast Asian region, you know. And so we as a team were responsible for Viqueque. And we’ve been there for about four or five days, I think, interviewing all categories of people. Local, ordinary people, xefe sukus, the U.N. personnel, local police, local soldiers and also a local thug who I think was not actually in a militia, but of a kind of a personal militia, just on the outskirts of the town itself.
And he was really, really a hard nut. He reminded me of that leader in the 1970s, I think it was: Idi Amin. And I remember at the time talking to this fellow and thinking, well, you’d fit into Amin’s household. Anyway, that was the kind of person that we talked with. We talked to U.N. people, we talked to NGOs, we talked to government officials. The head of our group talked to the Governor of East Timor.
And we also met with the leader of one of the militias. He was later arrested by the Indonesian authorities, put on trial in Jakarta for human rights violations and all the rest of it. But he got off. I’m sure you can remember…
Eurico Guterres, maybe?
Yes! He came to the Carter Center, sat around a table, and we introduced ourselves. He didn’t bother to introduce himself, if I remember correctly. And then as we started off talking: “what happens if, what happens if”. And he said “well, if they vote for independence, then”, and I quote him as best I can, “it’s back to square one. There will be a sweeping of this country. There will be a sweeping of this country.” And somebody said, “well, what do you mean by that?” He said “you’re going to find out.”
Of course, he was absolutely, absolutely correct. And we came back with the UN people because we thought, well, it’s safe to do that. So we tagged on to this this truck that had the votes, and they went to the UN’s compound. We went to the Carter Center. And we got there to learn that our driver had been killed by someone. They’d actually cut him up with machetes. He was our chauffeur; we had about four or five of them for each area. And that was very sad. But that was just a premonition of what was coming. Then we started hearing over the next 24 hours that the UN compound was under threat, people were being threatened. And journalists, reporters and NGOs and so on, who could, already were being evacuated on that day. It would be August 31st, I guess. And so the Head of the Carter Center in Timor-Leste, he said: well, we’ve just got to go.
And then, of course, for one of the very first, or one of a very few times in its history, Timor-Leste became international news. It was international news, of course, in 1974-1975. It was international news in 1991, in November, after the Santa Cruz massacre, for a few days. And it was news as a result of the killings and the surrounding of the U.N. compound in Dili in 1999.
Well, what a story. And so, Maxine, I’m wondering if we can shift gears a little bit and talk about some of your impressions of the situation of women in Timor Leste, both during your visits in the 1960s and also during some of your more recent visits. What would put the lives of women like there?
Well, there were two categories of women, I would say, that we came into contact with. There were the women who lived in the villages, and then the women, the girls who were the daughters of Liurais, who lived in a Portuguese style houses in Viqueque.
Liurais being the kings.
The kings, yeah. So we had quite a close connection with them, I did anyway, with the girls who were the daughters of Liurais, they used to visit us. And then there were the women in the villages who, of course, were the ones who worked in the fields, who made the pottery, who did the weaving. And to some extent, I think there is still, it still remains, very much the same for some of those women that we’ve gone back to, the villages that we used to go to. And the women still do the weaving. And the people, one person was an informant of David’s… I mean, his house, his life, does not seem to me to have changed that greatly. Yeah. He lives in extreme poverty. He works in the fields. He has enough money to send one of his children to school, but he doesn’t educate the girls. So in that respect, in the very rural areas, I don’t know how much progress has been. Yeah.
I mean, the women in the 1960s, they worked in the fields, take the produce to the market, get a few coins from selling their odds and ends, buying a few things. But it was a very hard life. Their poverty is extreme, and I think in some cases it still is.
Yeah. A lot of our research has found similar sorts of things. So, David, given the raft of experience both you and Maxine have had over the years, can you shed some insights? How has anthropology, the discipline of anthropology, changed over these decades?
Whereas when I went into anthropology in the 1960s, for the majority of students, the goal was to go to some non-literate, local, small scale society and do fieldwork. Preferably a society that had never received any ethnographic interest before. And if you were to read over the pages of journals like the American Anthropologist, you’d find that very much substantiated. If you look at the pages of that journal today and its companion journal, The American Ethnologist, I know this as well, you’ll find that the attention has shifted totally.
In the case of anthropology in very, very general terms, you’ll find in American Anthropology a great deal of interest in American culture. Trends, things that are happening in this country, values, attitudes, how they are changing. And you’ll also find a great interest in various current sociological events. Among them, of course, immigration, which is a big topic of interest in itself. Years ago, there was something called the Occupy Wall Street movement. That perhaps in a sense, was almost at the forefront of this change in emphasis. This change in attention. After that, any kind of movement that came up from the West, and of course, this embraces now the latest one “MeToo”, is fodder for anthropological study. So much so that anthropology and sociology really have coalesced.
Do you think that’s a positive thing?
I don’t really know if it’s positive or not. These local communities… You know, these mythological ‘local communities’ that have been untouched, never really existed. It’s a romantic, perhaps, notion. So what’s happened is it’s really inevitable. But where you get differences between groups of people, I think you’re always going to get unusual individuals who are interested in knowing what, as it were, the ‘other’ does, the ‘other’ thinks. Maybe as reaction to their own conventional lives. They go in, and see what it’s like to be somebody of that group. I think probably as time goes on, anthropology and sociology, and I also think history as well will converge. Because when I was starting out, one of the big fashions with structural anthropology, which I followed myself, practiced a lot.
And although we never really denied history, history was not really much of a consideration from that point of view. But now, particularly now, when I think of Timor, if we can just be specific about Timor looking back, I realize just how much greater understanding you get of what people are doing, if you can see how things came to be what they are now. Now we can know it, because when I reflect back upon the 1960s, we have really a lot of good information, a lot of it!, that we call ethnographic information coming from Portuguese times right up to the present.
And that combined with historical perspectives, the work that political scientists are doing, the work that NGOs are doing, the work that a lot of researchers are doing in Timor. If you put this all together, the result is a greater enlightenment as to what it means to be a person in Timor today. So I think this exclusive partitioning off of these different disciplines, history, sociology, cultural anthropology, geography, if you like too (which was very present in the 1970s), has now gone. It’s now gone.
And so, by all means, make use of what the different tools, and these different specialties, have come up with over the years. But don’t feel that you’re in some kind of way, doing something impure, or not following the faith. If you just forget about these artificial boundaries, and just try to solve whatever problem that you’re really interested in. And in this way, too, of course, what used to be called applied anthropology and theoretical anthropology, also have come together. Because persons who are doing work as consultants, or in development, are also part of the scene. They’re also influencing and being influenced by the community that they’re operating in. And all this is interesting stuff. And if you’re interested in community life, you’re going to be interested.
When I was there in 1966, I always wished I’d been there in 1866. You know, the time before visitations.
Yeah. It’s such an interesting point that you raise, David, and I think really important. I know in our work we tend to take a bit of a smorgasbord approach, really just looking for what will work for, whatever project, whatever research project we’re doing.
Yeah – smorgasbord. That’s exactly it. And also, I’m interested in literature and how individuals themselves care to cast their lives. For many, of course, it would be in an oral form like Maxine mentioned, like David Soares. And he’s illiterate. But many Timorese of course, as you know, are perfectly capable of writing Portuguese, as well as in Tetun, and some indeed in English. I mean, this student of mine is a case in point, he writes much better English than a lot of my students. And so I’m interested in the way in which gradually you’re getting educated Timorese writing about their lives. Either factually or also fictionally.
Now there’s a novelist, he’s I think the first novelist, as far as I know he’s the only novelist writing today. So there’s an example of another discipline, literature, coming into the equation. History, literature, political science, anthropology, sociology.
Yeah, it’s yeah, it’s fascinating to look at how the different academic disciplines say coming together and interacting in these in these weird and wonderful ways. David, what do you think about the relationship between academic research and the types of research, development research which is done by NGOs, by international organizations?
What I understand the goal is the same: to get information. And to understand what’s going on. And I would imagine it’s possible for somebody who is a practitioner, and somebody who is a scholar if you like, to flip back and forth between both domains without any hindrance at all.
When I was working with the Carter Center, I was essentially a practitioner, I guess. And the kinds of questions I was asking were the kinds of questions that I would also ask if I was a scholarly researcher. One was, of course, being put to practical ends. The other would not necessarily be put to practical ends. I don’t see all that much, much difference.
In Washington, they seem to flip between these polls. There’s a time when it’s always top-down. When somebody says, hey, this doesn’t work and enough voices are raised, influential voices are raised. And so then you find, the great craze then is for bottom-up, bottom-up. And then that seems to come to an end. And then it’s back to top-down again. That’s how I tend to see it.
And do you think there’s a way of getting past this tendency towards flipping between these two binaries, David? I mean, it seems so unhelpful to be trapped in this idea that it must all be bottom-up, or it must all be top-down. Can you see a third way? A middle way?
Well, I think it depends upon the imagination and the intelligence of the person who is actually doing the work. And the way in which they would say, well, this is a good idea coming from Washington. Even though it comes from Washington, it’s still a pretty good idea, let’s try it out. But to try it out being aware that it may have to be modified, changed, perhaps even abandoned if it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t make sense at the local community level. It’s not the people who are wrong. It would be the top down attitude, I think, that is wrong.
And so this is where it depends upon the development workers themselves using their imagination to combine the two. Saying: what is feasible? What’s not feasible? Is this doable? Is it not doable? And just hoping that they don’t find themselves in trouble with the folks up above, who say, “well, we told you to do this and we wanted these people to do that, and they’re not doing it, why the hell is that so?”
Some of the ideas that come out of the big international agencies are good and valid. Others are not so good. And sometimes I think the mistakes that are made just result from a lack of knowledge. But as I say, I’ve got no special knowledge about this.
We hope you enjoyed this interview, if you did enjoy it and think others might, too, please do share amongst your friends and networks.
Next month, we’ll be shifting our focus to Syria, talking with Syrian community worker Karam Hilly about his work in some of the Opposition controlled areas.
“I don’t know if you can imagine how a trainer or community organizer will go to community in a war where there is no structure, there is no resources, you will tell people: let’s contribute, let’s mobilize our resources. It will be weird. So to convince them that they can really make change in their society, it really requires a huge change in their mindset. But practices really can change.”
Here we’ll be talking about both the importance and some of the challenges in doing community work in a conflict zone, trying to nurture a sense of hope amongst young people when most of their lived experience has been defined by war.
And don’t forget, if you’re interested in hearing more about our upcoming Bridging Peoples Online Academy, give us your name and email address at BridgingPeoples.com, and we’ll let you know as soon as it’s live.
I’m your host, Deborah Cummins. Thanks for joining me. This is a Bridging Peoples podcast.
David Hicks is a social anthropologist. He received his two doctorates from the University of Oxford and the University of London based on two dissertations (one on social organization and the other on ritual and belief) resulting from field research he carried out with his wife, Maxine, in Timor-Leste, a country that at the time (in 1966-1967) was known as “Portuguese Timor”. His interests are in the politics, kinship systems, oral literatures, and ritual life of the people living in Timor-Leste as well as in neighboring Indonesia, where he has also carried out field research, on the island of Flores.
He has written five books, Tetum Ghosts and Kin, Structural Analysis in Anthropology, A Maternal Religion, Kinship and Religion in Eastern Indonesia, and (with Margaret A. Gwynne) Cultural Anthropology. He has also edited another book, Ritual and Belief: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion, and additionally has published articles in the American Anthropologist, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, various other professional journals, and several anthropological anthologies. He has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the United States Institute of Peace, the American Philosophical Society, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
In 1997 he was a resident scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation Center at Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio in Italy and in 2004-2005 he received a Fulbright Award to carry out field research and teach in the National University in East Timor. In 2005 The State University of New York and Stony Brook University conferred upon him both the Chancellor’s and the President’s Award For Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.
View his professional profile here: http://www.dhicks.com/works