Paper short abstract:
In Timor-Leste, houses are not just containers for human life, but involve tracing robust connectivities to broader ecological and cosmological worlds. Post-conflict governmental efforts to rehouse the displaced in prefabricated dwellings have run up against indigenous notions of "house life".
Paper long abstract:
This paper argues that failed post-conflict efforts to rehouse 'vulnerable' persons in pre-fabricated modular housing programs reveal the tensions between dissonant cultural conceptions of houses in contemporary Timor-Leste. Paradoxically, despite an extreme housing shortage and the widespread lack of monetary resources to rebuild housing stock following East Timor's independence, most governmental housing projects lay abandoned. What can account for this abandonment? Desertion of social housing under conditions of dire lack suggests that for Timorese there is more to houses than shelter. Throughout Timor, houses are more than containers for human life. Rather, Timorese cultural ideologies and reflexive sensibilities about houses frame them as one particularly privileged 'form of life' among others. Indigenous Timorese houses act as channels of connectivity between people, the natural world, and the 'dark world' of ancestral and other spiritual beings. I explore the contrast between the classical Greek categories of domos and oikos as a heuristic device for indexing current divergent Timorese views of housing. The former, domos, the etymological root of "domestic" and "domicile," emphasizes containment, boundedness, and separation, while oikos, the root of "economy," "ecology," and "ecumene," points to houses' generative connections to a broader lived world. I show that while indigenous Timorese house concepts entail both of these inflections, contemporary Timorese governmental housing policies emphasize houses as utilitarian vessels for the containment of human life - to the detriment of a more commodious conception of "house-life" as a dynamically interconnected and morally inflected structure of kin and place-based belonging.
Containers / Containment