History and Culture:
Atauro Island has a population of around 8,000 people living in 5 village areas.
Most are subsistence farmers and fishers – growing annual crops of corn and beans and supplementing their diet with fish, fruit and seasonal vegetables. Cash income is mostly from the sale of fish, chickens or goats, and vegetables on market days (Fridays in Vila, Wednesdays in Macadade, Saturdays in Beloi).
Atauro’s history and culture are unique. Separated from the mainland by the deep (over 3,000m in parts) Wetar Strait the islanders’ experience of colonialism and conflict has been different to that of other parts of Timor.
In Portuguese colonial times the island was a prison and criminals and political prisoners – even from other Portuguese colonies (Angola, Macau, Guinea Bissau)- were banished there. Descendents of some of these prisoners still live on Atauro today and have integrated with the indigenous population.
From 1979 to 1983 (during the Indonesian period) the island was used as a place of exile to which supporters of the resistance movement and their families were sent in an effort to weaken the mainland resistance. In the early 80s several thousand people were exiled to Atauro in a ‘survive or die’ manner - Atauro people received and assisted them and the International Red Cross sent food but it was a harsh existence. By the mid-80s most people had returned to the mainland but some have remained by choice.
Indigenous languages of Atauro are the dialects of the Manroni (Beloi and Bikeli Villages) Adade (Macadade Village) and Humungili (Makili Village) clans which are used for daily communication, songs and ceremonies.The Tetun language is widely used as lingua franca between people of different clan groups and also with mainland visitors.
Indonesian is understood and used when appropriate by most people between 12 and 50 years of age (although younger children are now forgetting it). It is quite acceptable to use Bahasa Indonesia as people are happy to communicate with you in any language and there is no negative feeling about Indonesian
Portuguese is understood and spoken by some - a few older people are fluent and some younger ones who have been studying in school have the basics.
English is not generally spoken but the Tua Koin staff and some of the Roman Luan team are mastering it. High school students and teachers and Tua koin staff will be more than happy to practice with you.
Animism - Atauro is traditionally animistic and many of the animist beliefs, rituals and ceremonies are still practiced (eg through ritual and sacrifice, spirits of the ancestors are asked to give their blessings on activities related to land or sea use).
Protestantism- unlike mainland Timor the majority of Atauro people are Protestants (about 57%). Protestantism came from the missionaries in the Moluccas and was established on the island prior to Catholicism.
Catholicism – was brought to the island in the 1950s from mainland Timor. Many Catholics still practise animism along with their Catholic beliefs and practises.
Music and Dance:
Music is part of every day life on Atauro. You can hear wonderful traditional singing and chanting as people harvest their wine from the tops of palms, as they row past in their dug-out outrigger canoes, as they stroll along the beach or road, as they work. Old people, young people, children - all sing. There are songs for every occasion – some accompanied by traditional drums and gongs, some by guitars or home-made ukuleles. If you are not satisfied with serendipitously discovered music we can arrange performances for you at Tua Koin – Atauro people are happy to share their culture with you.
Traditional dancing is usually not performance dancing but social / ritual dancing – however, to give you a taste of Atauro dance, the people of Makili or Macadade Villages will be happy to show you a sample of traditional dance.
Art and Craft :
Atauro is known for its woodcarvings and, at Tua Koin or in the villages, you can see (and buy) traditional and modern statues, carvings, eating tools, decorations and miniature boats produced by local craftspeople. Weaving which is unique to Atauro, in the form of baskets, mats, hats etc can be watched, learnt, or bought on the island.
We are currently reviving two nearly-extinct crafts – the unique Atauro cloth weaving and the production of clay pots. We hope to revive these skills over the coming months by facilitating workshops for older women to pass on their skills and knowledge to younger generations.
Atauro people welcome you as their guests, to their island and are delighted to share their way of life and culture with you. They ask that you, in return, respect the values and beliefs that underlie their culture and form the basis for their daily lives.