#9 Meeting the Big Two
April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
Timor is blessed with prominent, valiant individuals who persevered against incalculable odds during the Indoneisan occupation, working for the freedom of their nation from foreign tyranny. Their efforts merit historic residency amongst the realms of those that can be truly described as heroic. Few other nations in SE Asia have as many individuals as charismatic or international renown. Of these individuals, foreigners are predominantly aware of the current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Jose Ramos Horta. Whether malai think fancifully or critically about their actions in their current roles as state leaders, many expats arriving in Timor are excited at the prospect of meeting or at least operating within a space that may be proximate to these heads of state.
It’s not long after arriving in Timor that malais get their first taste of eminent politician spotting. Having recognised Ramos Horta driving incredibly slowly in his mini moke while a trail of security guards lament the task of protecting conceivably one of the easiest head of state targets… or observed Xanana charging through a crowded event surrounded by a security detachment of 6 muscled agents that resemble DJs at a GNR party, the average expat gets somewhat titillated that high level politics is so close at hand and so thoroughly visible. Even after a year living in Dili malai will excitedly start a conversation with one another reflecting on their latest Gusmao sighting or how they overtook President Horta’s motorcade on their mountain bike.
If the expat is fortunate (particularly if they are working for a high-profile international NGO) their organisation may host or be invited to a function where Jose or Kay Rala maybe present. Their attendance highlights for the malai the importance and stature of the program the malai is working with… even if the President or Prime Minister ad libs an unprepared address (or worst case falls asleep). Being invited to a presidential dinner may be height of the expat timor experience and reassure sentiments of self importance, assisting the malai in the suspicion they are accomplishing more than what may actually be taking place in their work environment. Rather than the structural integration of impressive system checks or the re-vamping of program implementation so that twice as many households have access to adequate sanitation, meeting the president is most probably the one accomplishment that malai will communicate to their friends once returned home. Nothing says development pro or mission accomplished than a facebook profile with an arm round the president.
Indeed, the Horta dinner invitation is particularly coveted amongst malais for what they percieve as the provision of ample material for especially witty cracks about their presence at Horta’s house or being privy to the opportunity to see his bedroom.
Even if the Malai is heavily critical of government policy or corruption issues, these expats secretly enjoy the thrill of meeting the head of state. This may be especially true if the Malai is engaged with development in a grassroots activist capacity whereby their program’s aims directly conflict with government actions. Such a meeting legitimises the expats secretly held idea that they are important and of high standing, and possibly a development force to be reckoned with. It’s not often one obtains bragging rights about meeting a Nobel Prize Laureate and sticking it to them, even if it is only at a Tour De Timor after race function.
Often before a planned meeting or soiree with the President or Prime minister, malai will jovially discuss with each other the seriousness of framing and unpacking of the challenging issues that they will raise with the esteemed guest. Once the first firm handshake is made the malai will begin to babble about the most mundane pleasantries until the President tires of the uncomfortable awkwardness and 2 min later will attempt to move off to engage someone else who he hopes won’t be another malai working in development. Needless to say, such actions are prematurely in vain, as the malai finds it imperative that this landmark moment is recorded for posterity with their camera so that evidence of the encounter can be delivered assuredly to colleagues or parents back home who unfortunately may not have even heard of the man. An uncomfortable, apathetic hug and two flash mis-fires later and the president departs to ignominiously repeat the ritual again.
Whether the malai has sat for an hour long critical discussion or been endowed with a perfunctory casual greeting consisting of the malai commenting solely upon the uniqueness of the presidents wardrobe, malai are deft at subtly inserting the occasion into later conversations in a somewhat flippant/off hand manner. This is done to impress upon other malai that meeting the President or Prime Minister of a nation is something of an everyday affair for the expat whose work is evidently of the highest concern that it demands extensive attention and engagement on exactly how their program assistance of HIV awareness delivery through mime theatre is progressing.