Cooking Circles began as a highly convenient way to get to know people in Timor Leste. I first travelled to Timor Leste in 2012. I was there to support an energetic group of women with the final stages of establishing a YWCA. The YWCA is an international, feminist, not for profit organisation that works for the advancement of women, by running programs and activities, doing advocacy, and supporting women’s leadership, right around the world. It is a locally based organisation in each country or city and its committee and decisions are elected from its membership base. I think the Y is something exciting for Timor Leste because of this membership component in particular. Becoming a voting member of a women’s organisation provides women with a space to discus and raise issues and to vote on what matters to them most. I’m pleased to say YWCA TL has now been established and is up and truly racing in Dili.
That trip in 2012 was invigorating, and it was difficult. Spending 3 weeks in an unfamiliar country with big expectations of myself made it such. I had decided before I arrived that my biggest aim was to get to know the Timorese people a little. After the formal parts of the day would cease, the family I was living with – Berta, Casamata, and their family – would end their workdays by gathering around food. The fire was lit in the outdoor kitchen, water was poured into saucepans, knives were made busy chopping leafy greens. I no longer had a task to complete; I had loose, or slow time to just be, with my new family.
And that’s where the magic happened.
Berta and Casamata, their nieces and nephews, responded to my new found evening slowness. And so a rhythm came over the house and over me. I relaxed into cooking, eating, talking about food. Talking about food led to discussions about gender, nutrition, politics, education, and language.
I returned home to Canberra with my backpack stuffed with recipes written in notebooks, at the bottom of market shopping lists, and scribbled in the columns of newspapers. I kept these recipes because they are the handwriting of new friends. Within days I was pining to return to Timor Leste.
Work to date
Fast-forward 18 months. Every year since its 90th birthday, YWCA Canberra has held a grant round called Great Ydeas. These grants are given to young women who have, you guessed it, a Great Idea! – And where a grant can help a woman turn her business, project, or experience into a reality. In turn, recipients are strengthening the community of women around them and building their own leadership potential.
I was fortunate to win a Great Ydeas grant to create Cooking Circles last April. I used the grant to fund my travel to Timor Leste, purchase resources such as basic recording equipment, cover food costs and attend social media training.
The year that has passed from the grant to now has been exciting, but also a little frenetic! I began the project with a social media workshop to lock in the communication methods between Australia and Timor Leste. Online communication made good sense to me, because Timorese women I would be working with kept in touch with one another and friends overseas on Facebook. I was offered pro bono advice and support from Jessica Schumann, Editor of Her Canberra and social media queen. Jess later established the blog for me. I also secured pro bono help from Mikaela Danvers of the Makers Collective to design my logo.
There has been some interest from the media, a testament to the round the clock work of the YWCA Comms team, who left no suitable media contact’s inbox without a media release about Great Ydeas! Stories by Adam Shirley of ABC Canberra and Kimberley Granger of the Canberra Weekly helped to lift the profile of several of us Great Ydeas grant recipients and to gain the support we were seeking from the Canberra community.
Countless mind maps and Facebook chat sessions later, and I was on a plane to Dili, Timor Leste by August. I stayed with Berta and Casamata once again. This time, Berta was pregnant, and this time, her bustling kitchen and local market had my full and undivided attention.
The aim of Cooking Circles
Cooking Circles is a small project about building networks between women through food, recipes and cooking. Cooking Circles has both a physical, on the ground element where stories and recipes are exchanged and women cook, meet and eat together. The process is photographed and videoed, and this connects it to its other element, social media. The Cooking Circles blog is a collection of pieces about women, culture and cooking in Timor Leste.
Cooking Circles aims to help women build social connections for their own wellbeing, in their communities. It is fairly well known that when a person is connected in their community, their vulnerability to social problems such as domestic violence decreases, and their resilience improves because they are better supported to deal with illness, loss of income or family breakdown. Not to mention ‘downtime’ can be more enjoyable, having people around you who make you feel good about yourself, who you enjoy the company of, and who you have fun with.
It’s definitely not new that people can form connections and build relationships around food. That’s one of the main reason people cook, eat, and celebrate- it is the space that opens up for people to meet, connect and reconnect. It’s not new, and that’s exactly why the same practice is the means of social connections of the women of Timor Leste.
The second aim of Cooking Circles is to promote a positive, strong image of Timor Leste. Social media, mainly through the blog, promotes the women, food and culture of Timor Leste and so strives to build a wider network of support and friendship among non-Timorese women, the expat community in Timor, and other Australians. The blog helps to do this by painting a fuller picture of the country, alongside the challenges it faces. Most of us here know Timor Leste as one of the world’s poorest countries, the poorest in the Asia Pacific region. It is only the second newest country worldwide established in 1999, the first newest being South Sudan, and I’m sure you can imagine the struggles that can come with growing into independence and coming out of poverty.
However there is more to Timor Leste than its struggles. Timor has the highest rate of female Ministers in the national parliament in the Asia Pacific. It is known as one of the most spectacular countries to visit for diving, cycling, and travelling across. Timor Leste grows diverse crops of root vegetables in unpolluted, mountainous country, grows tropical fruits and has plentiful seafood. A lot of work has been done already to teach farmers about permaculture to help increase the quality and diversity of their crops and to increase the amount of food being produced. The music playing when you arrived is by Timorese musician, Ego Lemos. Ego runs a not for profit, permaculture foundation and he has taken a lead in Timor Leste and the region in farming practices and produce. Australia could no doubt learn from the Timorese.
The Timorese people I know have recipes and tales that have been handed down from one generation to the next, during Portuguese and Indonesian rule, and the fight for independence. Timor Leste is a magnificent place. The people I’ve met are determined, compassionate, hard-working, generous, and hopeful. I invite you to come on a short journey to Timor with me in the Cooking Circles blog.