Lafaek: you don’t eat your grandfather

A long time ago, a small boy found a crocodile struggling to make his way from the lagoon where he was born, to the sea. Suppressing his fear of the crocodile, and out of great pity, the boy took the crocodile in his arms and carried him to the seashore.

The crocodile, although very hungry and needing sustenance, suppressed his urge to eat the boy and instead returned the act of great kindness with a promise. He told the boy that should he ever wish to travel he should come back to the same spot and call to the crocodile.

After a while and during a period of restlessness, the boy remembered the crocodile’s promise and went to the sea to call for him. True to his word the crocodile returned. They were both very happy to be reunited with one another. The boy climbed onto the crocodile’s back and together they travelled far and wide experiencing many great adventures together.

Much time passed and the crocodile was nearing the end of his life. The boy was stricken with grief for his great friend. Sensing this, the crocodile told him that when he died his body would grow into an island on which the boy would continue to live, along with his family and all his descendants.

The crocodile died and became the island of Timor. The descendants inherited the boy’s qualities of kindness, friendliness, and sense of justice.

To this day the people of Timor call the crocodile ‘grandfather’ and whenever they come across a river call out ‘Crocodile, I’m your grandchild, don’t eat me’.


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The paramilitary special forces of the Public Order Battalion (BOP), like other military and police outfits in Timor-Leste, have a soft spot for crocodiles.   Each of the three divisions carry the name of the crocodile who lives next to its barracks: Aminu (Bodyguard), Sparro (Sword), and Rama (Beret).

I couldn’t think of better way to spend an afternoon than sweet talking our way into a somewhat feared military compound with a couple of chickens and two mates.

ita nia lafaek hamlaha ka? (Is your crocodile hungry?)

With a big smile at the heavily armed chaps, I try to look non-confrontational and more harmless than usual. I hold up a bag of chickens.

Everyone relaxes once our mission is understood.

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Mozzy, previously fierce, swaps his machine gun for a stick, and delights in introducing us to the lafaek. Mozzy affectionately calls the crocodiles to him, and beams as he feeds them. The lafaek are happy with our offerings of chicken. Mozzy asks me out on a date. I make it clear that I will only go out with him if he brings a crocodile.

Crocodiles are the ancestors of this island, and have not been culled since independence. I understand that these crocodiles were posing a threat to people, and captured as a way of control.

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Further reading:

https://asia.nikkei.com/NAR/Articles/When-granddad-is-a-croc

http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/356557/crocodiles-the-deadly-totems-of-timor-leste

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