During our trip to Timor, I attempted to learn different Tetum expressions. These mainly focused on greetings, a note of thanks, and, to the bemusement and perhaps horror of our group, asking people "are you married?" (It was an ideal
ice-breaker, I found.)
There was one word that, when I heard it early in our trip, I found myself unable to grasp its full meaning, I needed to sit with it, sound it out in my head, repeat it to myself, to fully absorb the power of this solitary, Tetum word.
Before I share the word with you, I want to digress slightly and share some notes I took down while visiting a museum dedicated to commemorating the Timorese journey towards independence. These notes are offered without comment and editorialising; they say enough without my foreigner's perspective being added to the mix.
One display shared this: "In 1974, Timor Leste had 653,211 inhabitants. In 1978, that figure had dropped to 498,433. This means that Timor Leste had lost more than 23% of its population in the first four years of Indonesian occupation."
On another display, I read this: "In July 1979, an Indonesian census reveals that more than one-quarter of the population has died as a result of the war and starvation. The Catholic Church estimates that more than one-third of the East Timorese population has been wiped out."
In a part of the exhibition entitled simply "Shackles of Tears", the wall carried these words: "It is estimated that by the end of 1979, more than 300,000 people were detained in concentration camps. Many [people] were abandoned along the roads without food or medicine and were repeatedly controlled or interrogated by the invading forces. Whole villages were evacuated."
These are the quotes I noted down. I share them with you now so you can understand why I needed to wrap my head around the significance of one, simple, but profound, Tetum word: Chega.
To the Timorese, Chega is how a country is able to go on after losing what the quotes above estimate to be between one quarter and one-third of its population. Chega is what you say when you see your family, friends or fellow villagers detained in concentration camps. It is the word you scream when the thought of revenge or the desire for retribution becomes so pervading that you cannot function. It is what a Timorese mother tells her children when they see their Fretilin father taken to prison or what a priest tells his congregation when they come to him for inspiration and comfort.
The word, it seems, is variously translated as "no more", "finish", "to draw a line." Another interpretation is it means "never again."
It was the word settled upon when, after the conflict was over, the invading forces had departed and a reconciliation process was begun, that the word was uttered. Chega. Never again. We will not let this come to define us. No more. We are drawing a line in the sand and we will move forward together, from this moment.
I have come to love the word Chega. It has an air of resolve and determination about it. It speaks of truth borne out of struggle, of hope emerging from despair. It is a language all of its own.
Consider introducing Chega into your own vocabulary: It can be the word you use when you ruefully stare down at the scales and wonder why the weight keeps piling on. Never again. No more.
It can be the word to draw upon when you realise that a personal relationship is taking more than it is offering or when you are no longer passionate about the job you hold. Never again. No more.
Chega: it is a word the Timorese have used, not to forget the past, but to shape their future. They know that holding on to transgressions only weighs a nation down and that bitterness and hatred cripples one's ability to grow and transform.
Of all the words I will take away from my time in Timor, this is the one I pray I will always remember.