For expats to make a difference they have to stay in a country long-term, writes Gordon Peake in Beloved Land. Former volunteer Pat Martin reviews Peake's book about Timor-Leste's struggle to build a new state, and where development workers fit.
For a volunteer trying to make sense of Timor-Leste, Gordon Peake’s Beloved Country is gold. Here’s a former UN worker, articulate and sympathetic, blending history, travel and personal insights. If you’re struggling to fathom the culture and complexities of a new land, it’s almost a relief to discover you're not alone. After describing Timorese newspaper director Jose Belo meeting his former torturer, now an Indonesian businessman, Peake writes: 'It was one of those rapprochements that demonstrate how much I'll never understand the place'.
I was at the launch of Beloved Land, Stories, Struggles and Secrets on a warm Dili evening at Timor Plaza in October 2013. A northern Irishman, Peake was obviously well connected after four years living in Timor-Leste, and that comes through as he sets about unravelling the strands of a fascinating but baffling little country.
One insight that strikes a volunteer is Peake’s belief that it’s expatriates who stay long-term in the country who really make a difference. He has plenty to say about international development people, not all of it complimentary. One he does speak highly of is New Zealand aid worker, Keryn Clarke, who has lived in Timor on and off since 1998: ‘All these effective workers shared one common trait: they had stayed for a long time and were not hopping from one part of the world to the other’.
The key to their success is learning the language – a challenge in Timor with its 30 different tongues. Peake’s New Zealand-educated friend, Anacleto, was adamant that ‘language shaped thought’. ‘He taught me,’ Peake says, ‘to see the language, not just as a form of words to communicate with, but as a looking glass reflecting societal mores and what the Timorese think important’.
Contrast that with the scene Peake describes at the airport, where a senior mover and shaker involved in a ‘capacity-building’ program in government grows increasingly angry with the Timorese baggage handler who can’t comprehend his nasal Australian English. ‘Good luck trying to explain the concept of a budget if you can’t explain how to shift some bags,’ thinks Peake.
You needn’t have lived in or travelled to Timor-Leste to enjoy Beloved Land, particularly Peake’s observations about expats, aid and development. It’s an excellent read.
- Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets From Timor-Leste by Gordon Peake. 250 pp, Scribe. 2013.