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Joao Lere

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Joao Lere was a famous ritual specialist and local ruler (liurai) of Wani Uma who railed against the Catholic Church and the Portuguese administration. His actions led many to seek his downfall, but try as they may his death was only possible when he surrendered his own body to the authorities and gave them specific instructions detailing how to kill him. In the 1930's Baucau's colonial administrator, Armando Pinto Correia (1935: 108-110, 132-136, see below for the English translation), transcribed a story of Joao Lere. While the details of Joao Lere's socio-political connections and life are only partially recorded in this version, it is clear that this is a regionally significant story. One clue to this is Joao Lere's connection to the coastal cave and subterranean water source of Kai Hunu near Bundura [Ponte Bondura]. Associated in Correia's account with the most sacred house in the Baucau region, Oca Ba'i (W: 'sacred cave') in Baha-Kai-Lale (W: 'the hamlet in the forest'), this cave was the site of a regionally important pilgrimage involving the collection of holy water and a rainmaking ceremon. In Correia's account all of the Baucau sub-district savanna and wet rice growing communities are said to have participated in the pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, in the version of this story told to me in 2012 by the cave custodians and senior ritual and political leaders of Wani Uma, both the socio-political genealogy of Joao Lere and the extent of the community participation in this pilgrimage of holy water stretches to include people from the far east of Timor and the southern kingdom of Luca. The people of Wani Uma state that in the pre-colonial era the clans of Bundura region had jurisdiction to the west as far as Fatu Ahi (the hills above Dili) and to the east as far as Los Palos, as well as to the islands beyond. This, they say, was the time of the dark earth, when the people worshipped rocks and water. 

The story of Joao Lere in contrast traces the period of colonial encounter, missionary activity, trade and rule in the east. Joao Lere is characterized by his own people as matenek liu (too clever/wise/powerful) with extraordinary powers, including the capacity to make the sea waters rise up and the earth crumble into the sea. At one point in his story, he even attempts to split the island in two leaving the area from Bundura to the far east under his control and the other half of the island to the Portuguese occupiers. 

Below is a summary of the version of Joao Lere's story told to me by the Wani Uma ritual leader and 'historian of the dark earth', Moses Nai Usu:

His father came we think from Luca. His name was No Mori. He was in Luca hunting birds with a blowpipe. When his golden arrow pierced a bird it flew off with the arrow to the peaks of Mundo Perdido. He followed it to there but it flew down to Leki Loi Watu [on the Baucau plateau]. Again he followed it, but it flew off through Hare Ite before arriving in Baha Kai Lale [between Caisidu and Wani Uma]. He followed it once more and in Baha Kai Lale he encountered a woman called Maria weaving cloth (tais). 

No Mori asked the woman if she had seen a bird pierced by an arrow. At first she said she had not, but No Mori said to her 'Noi, you must lie to me. If you tell me the truth, I will only keep the arrow, you can keep the bird to cook.' Then Maria admitted she had found a bird pierced by a golden arrow and had put it in the house.

She fetched the bird and arrow and No Mori gave her the bird to cook. Later No Mori asked Maria to go inside to fetch him a drink of water. Then No Mori secretly placed a cigarette inside the bamboo hollow of Maria's cotton reel. 

After he had drunk the water, No Mori announced he must leave. He returned back through Leki Loi Watu [W: 'Leki Loi's rock'] where he looked back and saw that Maria had begun to weave the cloth again. When she did this the cigarette fell from the bamboo hollow.

She said, 'I have found something sweet smelling'. She decided to light it with her fire flint and as she did so lightening suddenly struck in the sky.

A week or so after this she realized she was pregnant. All we know was she smoked a cigarette and became pregnant.

When the baby was born she gave him the name Kai Ho'o Wau Bubo Leki Loi Wau Bubo. The child was a huge eater. When he was born he cried and straight away ate ten pots of rice. Whenever he cried, he would eat ten pots of rice. It was always like this.

Eventually his [maternal] grandfather Kai Dau Naha Dau also assisted Maria in the task of feeding the child, but the food supplies were still not enough. 

He grew up eating all of his uncle's food, yet his real father took no responsibility for the child. When he was grown he said to his uncles, 'In gratitude to all my family, now I must feed you'. He began to cook and placed a chicken in a pot and later divided this into many pots. But when it was placed in the other pots the chicken meat transformed into the meat of pigs, goats and buffalo.

After this he went off to school in Larantuka [Flores]. In the morning he would leave the house for school and return in the afternoon. He would travel to school by crocodile. When he had finished his schooling, he and his uncles went to the fields to make swidden and fencing.

At this point his mother said to his uncles that they must kill him because he eats too much. His uncles agreed and tried to kill him by felling trees on him but he simply carried them off on his shoulders. 

When they returned home that afternoon his mother asked 'Did you kill that child?' His uncles replied 'we killed him but he didn't die'. Next they tried to kill him with a large rock but the child, whose magic was so strong, simply caught the rock. The child who was also known as Degu Tina (W: 'dark cooking') was unable to be killed. Because of this they decided to send him off to school again, this time to India. He set off to school (travelling by eagle to India) but was quickly home again already knowing everything. This child was also known as Joao Lere.

By the time Joao Lere had reached the peak of his revealed and acquired knowledge and power (matenek), the Portuguese had arrived in Timor. They and Joao Lere were set to oppose each other. In order to demonstrate his prowess and control over the land and the sea, the young Joao Lere decided to divide the land by calling forth the waters from the sea. His mother warned him against these actions, which involved the forbidden act of opening a sacred western door to the sea in the Kai Hunu cave (known as Odamata Losi-Tasi). So instead, he decided to open the door to the east. When he did this, he found a tobacco pipe (which was also manifest as a golden snake) belonging to his 'magician' uncle who was away in the far east in Tutuala. With the assistance of a pair of giant bellows (W: tuha), Joao Lere light the pipe and began to smoke it, as he did so fire from the force of the bellows began to spread across the area. His uncle in Tutuala saw the smoke rising from Mamau-Tuha (the 'place of the bellows') close to the Kai Hunu cave. He leaped across the land from Tutuala to Laga to Dasu Buinau [a hill and 'place of divining justice' in Seisal] finally alighting near Bundura where the fire was raging out of control. He quelled the fires, but given the proven recklessness of the young Joao Lere, his uncle returned to Tutuala with him under his care. It was in Tutuala that Joao Lere was discovered by a priest who was returning to Dili and ordered the young man to carry his many possessions to a nearby port. While the priest set out first on horseback, by the time he had arrived at the port Joao Lere and the bags were already there. Joao Lere had used his magic to move the items through the air, but he hid these powers from the priest telling him a team of porters had carried them. Next the priest set off for Vemasse but again when he arrived there, Joao Lere and his possessions had again arrived ahead of him. This happened as well on the next stage of the journey to Fatu Ahi (between the ports of Hera and Dili). By the time he reached Fatu Ahi the priest realized the extent of Joao Lere's magical powers (matenek). Returning to Portugal, he relayed this story and discussed Joao Lere's threat to Portuguese power. The priest then returned to Timor as a Bishop and a plan was made to kill Joao Lere. The colonial authorities seized him, tied him up and threw him from a boat into the middle of the sea. But before they got back to shore, Joao Lere was there still alive. After this they tried many times to kill him, but he would never die. 

In the end Joao Lere told the authorities that if they wanted to kill him they needed to bring some black palm fiber, rice stalks and a salt basket from Wai Wono (near Bundura) to the port town of Manatuto. He then instructed them to put these together on top of a flat rock. Following this, at four o'clock in the afternoon he sat atop the rock playing a bamboo flute. He instructed them to set him alight the fibers and as the fire burned he continued to play the flute (calling forth his dai or ancestral spirit). He played until the evening and then suddenly the smoke of the fire rose in a single column and he disappeared. All that was left on the rock was one large goat dropping. After his death Joao Lere's (magic) basket was carried by the wind from Manatuto all the way to Kai Hunu, where it turned into a rock known as Watu Tege on a nearby coastal shelf platform (see Figure 5.2). The wind signaled its imminent arrival to his mother who ran to the shore and began to sing a song: 

Loi Kere Kuru LaleLoi Kere Kuru Lale 

He Watu Tege, Bali Watu TegeI am waiting for the basket, waiting for the basket

Watu Tege BuniniThe owner of the basket

Kii-Leki Kuru-An-Leki-Kuru.Kii-Leki Kuru-An-Leki-Kuru.

According to the people of Wani Uma it was Joao Lere's own uncles who had told the Portuguese that they must kill him. They feared his reckless and excessive powers and told the colonial authorities that if they did not kill him he would come to rule the land and drive out the Portuguese. They locate these events in the time of Padre Antonio Taveiro (Tavares) who they say arrived in 1512 (as noted above, the historical record tells us that he was the first missionary who arrived in Timor from Solor in 1556. See McWilliam 2007: 225, 233). But in their telling of Joao Lere's life story these events span a long historical period which includes the time of the Dutch and a time of 'civil war'. Along the way Joao Lere and his various namesakes were firstly pitted against a priest, then a bishop and then the Portuguese government. While all of these outsiders are also present in the version of the story told to Correia in the 1930s, in this telling Joao Lere is characterized as a threat to the power of the rival king of the port of Vemasse and it is he who urges the Portuguese Governor to kill Joao Lere. Downplaying such power dynamics between local rulers, today the people of Wani Uma assert that it was the coming of agama (I: religion) that killed Joao Lere in order that this religion could rule Timor. Indeed the hilltop site in Manatuto where Joao Lere was killed now contains a chapel dedicated to Santu Antonio (many other lulik sites in the region are also now dedicated to a Catholic saint). Despite this colonial Catholic transformation, when people from Baucau familiar with the Joao Lere story pass by the site of his death near the main road in Manatuto they still pay their respects by placing an object (a rock or a cigarette) in their mouth and throwing it on the ground in the direction of the site. 

Meanwhile the site near remote Bundura where Joao Lere's uncle alighted as he leaped back from Tutuala to put out the fires is known as Dai Kele Fatin (W: 'the foreigner's footprint'). While Joao Lere was said by Pinto Correia (1935) to be descended from Timorese and foreign parentage, the elders of Wani Uma state that this site is known as the foreigner's footprint to disguise its real meaning and power. Like Joao Lere, his uncle was a powerful 'magician' from Wani Uma house of Wata Huu Ana and his influence stretched as far as Tutuala where his footprints are also found. Meanwhile they say another footprint connected to Joao Lere can be found in Lifao (the first colonial capital in Oecusse).

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