bikan ho kanuru baku malu

Her thin, ragged hair was matted with blood and sweat. When I first entered the ER, I couldn’t quite see her face–she was covering it with her hands, with only an occasional whimper passing through her fingers.

Three of the sutures were already done. It was a beautiful sight to see–a young Timorese girl with budding aspirations for medicine–skillfully sewing up a patient with the finesse and confidence of a third year med student.

“What happened to her?” I asked the other nurse. She was giggling through the sliding glass door at the Timorese staff in adjoining room, clearly amused by something. “Did she fall?”

“Oh, no, she didn’t fall,” she replied, shutting the glass door. She furtively slid one hand over her face, muttering to me out of the corner of her mouth. “Her husband. He has another woman.”

I stared blankly at her. “You mean they got in a fight?” I glanced back over to the table. The woman’s suturing was almost done. I now noticed the locks of hair that had been cut off from her head. The straggly black knots dangled off of her face, some falling to the linoleum floor. I wondered what her husband would think of her makeshift haircut.

“Bikan ho kanuru baku malu,” I murmured to myself, letting the words stumble out of my mouth one at a time. “A fork and a dish are bound to hit each other.” It was an old Timorese idiom about husbands and wives clashing. I wasn’t aware of any Western idioms about domestic violence. At least not any polite ones. I had learned that idiom from the little Tetum-English phrasebook I carried around with me at all times. Paul had lent it to me back in May, instructing me to study it a little bit every day. It had saved my hide more than once already. Today, it was just served to qualify an unfortunate cultural standard. Women were dis-infranchised in Timor. Plain and simple. They cleaned, cooked, tended to the fields, tended to the children. They put up with the highest maternal mortality rate in all of southeast Asia. And they have a TFR of > 7.0. Lovely.

“Nono, not a fork,” the Timorese nurse chuckled grimly. “A stone.” She mimed picking up a rock from the ground, leering at an imaginary figure as she bashed its imaginary head with her imaginary rock. Meanwhile, the other nurses looked on as our trusty Indonesian doctor wove a pad of gauze onto the patient’s head. The hair secured the dressing far better than tape ever could. And we lacked any Ace bandages of course.

Good lord, the absurdity of it all was almost comical.


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