She was one of the reasons why we grew to love Oecusse. The little East Timorese enclave inside Indonesia had fabulous beaches and brilliant sunsets and the best grilled fish in the world. But only if you knew Senora Jacinta. I still remember how she did them – stuffed with air manas, barbecued over a wood fire, served hot. It was heaven, especially after an extended stay in Passabe.
She was always the first one up. We’d hear her feeding the chickens or sweeping the yard. And when we finally crawled out of bed, there would be coffee and hot rolls (ten cents each, made fresh every day by a pair of sisters who lived round the corner) on the dining table. She’d laugh at the way we stuffed our faces and ask us what we wanted for lunch.
We spoke no Baiqueno. She didn’t know any English. So food was our common language. She knew that out in the field, away from central Oecusse, we survived mainly on a diet of baked beans and canned whatever. It was her mission whenever we showed up in town, to feed us well.
We’d met at a religious ceremony for her second son. I remember the day well. The white chicken they sacrificed on sacred land; the thunderstorm that followed the ritual; the photographs she showed us of her boy. Fante had died suddenly, violently in Dili. He was just 19. The culprits remain at large.
She couldn’t stop crying at the ceremony and afterwards, when we visited their home, she showed us Fante’s room. Over the years, it would become a shrine to his memory – his clothes, books and shoes, surrounded by bunches of plastic flowers. She would spend hours in the room, praying. She never stopped grieving.
And yet, she was also incredibly strong. There were always people at her house. Some came to see her husband, a prominent community leader. Others sought her help and advice. She made lovely wedding cakes and biscuits and her kitchen was always full of gossipy women and mixing bowls and amazing smells. There was nothing that couldn’t be discussed over batter and butter cream.
As the months rolled by, Fante’s girlfriend became a regular visitor. We’d often see the two women hunched over the kitchen table, patiently crafting roses out of icing sugar. They didn’t say very much to one another. Perhaps they didn’t have to.
A year passed. Then two, then three. People stopped talking about Fante’s death and investigations drew to a close. There were still no answers, no explanation as to why he was so brutally murdered. Fensi would leave to go to university in Indonesia, his younger brother Victor, found a wife and had two children. Morga, their sister, also got married. And over time, we got used to learning that everyone was fine. Everything in Oecusse was fine – Fensi isn’t much of a letter writer.
But last week, we had a longer email. She was in hospital. Cancer. Chemo. Problems with her lungs. She will get well.
We tried not to over-react. Maybe it’s just an early stage thing, we said several times to each other. She will get well.
We were wrong. She died today. We’re still in shock.
Rest well, Senora. You will be missed. Oecusse just won’t be the same without you.