Three things foreigners are good for

I’ve written here before about how I think good foreigners in Timor-Leste are the ones who cause little harm and make things about people other than themselves.

While I concede that there are actually foreigners here working hard and doing great things, for the very most part, I think we’re generally awkward outsiders who don’t really speak the language and don’t really know the culture, and to live in Timor-Leste without screwing majorly up because of that is just about as good an outcome as any of us can hope for.

But in the last couple of months, I’ve observed some fellow foreigners doing small and great things, and I wanted to share it here. Here’s what, in my humble opinion, us foreigners can be good for.


1. The malae says no

Yesterday, as we were bumping back from a trip to Baucau, my Timorese colleague and Australian boss were talking about some of the farming groups whose crops we’d just checked out. My Timorese colleague said something about how the extension officers often have trouble saying no to farmers who request new seeds, and mentioned that it’s always easier when our boss is there. “Then we can just say the malae, foreigner, says no, and they understand,” he said, and my boss agreed.

What foreigners are good for: I think Timorese people have great patience and generosity with foreigners, expecting us to be picky and difficult and to ask many questions and want to move faster, so we can use that understanding on behalf of Timorese colleagues who might have a harder time saying no when someone requests something. A malae shield against personal disappointment.

2. Let’s make the call

A couple of months ago, I was heading to Aileu with a carful of Timorese colleagues and one American, a team leader. We were checking out a WASH project delivering clean water to communities in Remexio administrative post through water system maintenance and training for local water management groups. The American, a WASH expert, was telling us the story of how in one village, it was difficult to get all the management group members together, and he’d suggested calling the local village leader to pass the request on from a position of authority. “Oh, yes,” the group members had said, but no one had made a move to contact the leader. “Should we call him? I’ll call him,” said the American and, faces breaking into relief, the group produced his number and the American made the request.

What foreigners are good for: The confrontations and requests–however mild or minor–that may be perceived as demanding from a Timorese person.

3. Bringing Timorese people to the table

An Australian friend of mine here works in radio journalism a local media development centre alongside talented Timorese journalists. She was eager to produce some stories of her own from Timor-Leste, so I emailed her, excitedly when I saw that one of the Southeast Asia-based publications I’d written a couple of articles for launched a podcast and requested story pitches. Perfect, I thought, and told her to pitch.

More perfect — her reply. “Looks great, I’ll pass it on to my colleague,” she said.

What foreigners are good for: Being aware of opportunities that Timorese people can fill and knowing that we don’t necessarily have to take them all ourselves (this is one I’m still struggling with; the delicate balance between a story that wouldn’t be shared if I didn’t write it, and the importance of people telling their own stories).


Are you a foreigner working in Timor-Leste? Do you have any more ideas of what we can really contribute here?

This header photo is from the hills of Baucau, looking over the farmland towards the ocean.

4 responses to “Three things foreigners are good for”

  1. […] doing it tough I will Always. Be. Fine–and that, despite my most romantic ideas about helping in a foreign country, what I’m really most useful for here is spending money. Buying coffee from Timorese-owned […]


  2. […] doing good sound technical work in exclusive English or Portuguese I cracked open for myself ways foreigners could be useful — and permittable — without language […]


  3. […] Back to Tetun school: in September 2018, Laura and I went back for a week of Tetun classes at DIT. They were offering a course they described as ‘advanced’–we were both  unsure; knowing we weren’t at that level, but turns out it was a cheekily-named course for those wishing to progress to advanced level–and as well as useful vocabulary and connecting words, I learned I wasn’t quite as “hopeless as I was last year”, and that foreigners without Tetun could still be useful. […]


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