Anne Chapman: The Sacred House Ceremony

I’ve been crazy busy for a month getting ready for the first graduation ceremony. This meant teaching like mad so everyone could pass, testing each student 1-1 because it was all oral (many students can understand a lot of Eng and have the vocab but they don’t speak English. Plus we have been a few staff members down recently as Maria is doing a course in Dili one day a week, which means three days a week she is out of action, it takes a day to get there and a day to return.

Then my assistant teacher John and his family had their super amazing Sacred House ceremony. What an affair that was! My first impressions when he talked about it were that it would be a great big party with lots of food, drink, music, dancing etc. I was thrilled to be invited. Over 500 people, many from Indonesia, came for 5 days to celebrate the rebuilding of the house.

The Sacred House Ceremony

The sacred house represents the family social structure. It is a tall thatched conical shaped building. Every family in East Timor has a sacred house. This new building was to replace one which was about 300 years old. Everyone who was related to John’s maternal grandfather came with meat. It is all about the meat. More about that later.

I arrived in Rairobu at about 10.00 am. We went by motor bike as the road is very bad . It took about half an hour. John walked home the day before because his mum told him to feed the chickens. 2 hours uphill and 1 hour downhill.  As soon as I got there I saw a whole little new village set up in the grandfather’s property . John and family had built long palm leave dorms. Palm leaf roofs and chest high walls. There were about 5 of these long rooms and each was about 50 feet long. Each had one corridor in the centre to make 2 rooms from each dorm. I looked inside to see the floor covered with sleeping mats (woven palm) and people sleeping, talking, and some women chewing betel and tobacco as is the custom.

Outside each dorm there were kids playing with rubbish. I saw a new game which I call ‘pop a lid’. You place the blue lid from a water bottle (and there are thousands of these available as we can’t drink ET water. All water comes from Indonesia at 25c a bottle.), put the empty bottle on the ground and jump on it or shoot the lid off by squeezing it quickly and trying to kill your best friend.

Other visual impacts: The massive, huge, blossoms hanging from the bougainvillia, all the washing hanging on the fences, the guest rooms, four rooms for special guests. I guess that’s where the journalists stayed when they came to make the doco the previous day. This was a big ‘do’ even by ET standards! Also, the water tanker was there delivering H2O for the masses. It is a convenient custom that some people are not allowed to wash (or cut their hair, shave etc) for the duration of the festival.

There were about 4 groups of men gambling. About 20 in each group all playing the same game. The men place a bet on which hole a little ping pong ball will fall into. The board is about 1m square and has minor indentations in it with a colour and a number. Roll the ball and see where it lands. Much like betting on the roll of a dice.

Next was a visit to the kitchen where Maria (one of my fantastic teacher assistants) was assigned as she is not yet officially welcomed into her husband’s sacred house. She had to cook non stop for 4 days, often with only a few hours sleep each night. Her husband has done some gift giving (like a bride price) but the negotiations between his sacred house and her sacred house have not yet been finalised, plus he hasn’t yet got what he might have to give. Maria’s price is exactly the same as the price her father paid for her mother. Tip for men: If you come to ET don’t fall in love with a woman from Los Palos . They are the most beautiful and the most expensive. Maria and Artur’s wedding is however planned for December. I’m here at a good time!

Anyway back to the kitchen! Well I sat next to one of my students for a while and pounded lis asu (garlic, literal translation: onion dog!) in a mortar with a long handled pestle. There were a few huge pots (we are feeding 100s here) of rice on wooden fires so it was a tad smokey. Probably a good thing because every meal  at a sacred house ceremony consists of meat. Boiled pig. And rice. And salt. And boiled cow. There was something being fried as well. I felt sick. The smell of the garlic helped but I couldn’t stay for long.

Next door was the slaughter house.  67 huge porkers all laid out in three rows on green palm leaves under a thatched roof. Men brandishing choppers (machetes) poking at the carcasses and telling how to cut it up. Huge crowds of people were squeezing in to have a look. The poor pigs had just been killed that morning. Already 100 small piglets had been eaten. And I saw the remains of the 3 cows (heads only) and one buffalo on display on the roof.

A Sacred House ceremony is all about the meat. Each family member knows what pig, goat, cow, etc. they have to bring. They then get another bit of meat to take home. It’s like trading but I can see it cements family relationships, consolidates trust, shares wealth, is important for morale and reaffirms each member’s sense of identity and belonging. A hind leg of pig costs $100 and some people are expected  to pay this money.  Students go to school with no shoes and sometimes no exercise books (25 cents each) but the family must pay the price of the meat or get a goat or pig or whatever to give at a sacred house ceremony. The custom is very alive and very strong. Its not just Sacred House ceremonies either. Religious ceremonies are also huge-party and dance all night long, more pig killing. Interestingly nothing happens on birthdays. Many teenagers don’t even remember how old they are.

I was fortunate to be invited to two lunches. This is not like Master Chef. Rice, (about 4 cups each) boiled pig (fat and skin) and a powder they called salt but I think it was musaka which is mainly MSG. And soup which is the water the meat has been boiled in.This was fresh meat that I had seen all in one piece a few hours ago. After lunch I was ready to go home.

BUT….. I did go inside the Sacred House. That was cool. There were a hundred goats all tethered to the poles which formed the basic structure of the building and were sheltering under the thatch. (Its about 35 deg ).  So I made my way through the goats to get to the ladder which is very special because it is apparently made from two long pieces of bamboo with no joins.

Up I went. It was pitch black when I got to the loft at the top. About 20 foot high I guess. I couldn’t see a thing but John said this is my grandmother. Well I said “Botardi” but I couldn’t see her. He said this is where the gold is. I have seen huge metal discs or pendants worn by village chiefs and other important men in traditional costume and I guess this is what he was referring to. It was the size of a tea pate, hanging on the wall. There is someone staying inside, to take care of it 24/7.

I was very lucky to see inside this sacred House. Maria is not allowed inside as Artur has not yet paid the bride price.

It was a very interesting insight into the very strong family structure of Timor-Leste . It will take a long long time for this tradition to change.

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The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress
and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. - Octavio Paz