The first cohort of MEAP grants from 2019 included the project Digitizing the Justino Valentim Collection of Vaihoho Sung-Poems, Lautem, Timor-Leste, funded through Many Hands International (MHI), a culture and community development program in Australia aiming to preserve and promote traditional practices, primarily in Timor-Leste (East Timor). Through their project, MHI succeeded in collecting, documenting and digitizing a set of written notes and booklets collected by Justino Valentim, a late cultural leader of Timor Leste’s Fataluku people from 1999 to 2014. These materials capture a sacred form of storytelling known as vaihoho, the Fataluku’s primary form of oral tradition. The Valentim Collection is now fully published online, allowing users and the local community to access handwritten records of the endangered practice of storytelling.
This collection was the first in what has now become a dominant thread of MEAP projects: collections that preserve communal memory through traditional oral practices and languages. As we move into our sixth year as a program, MEAP’s Savannah Dawson connected with members of the project team to discuss their work from 2020-2022 and reflect on the collection’s overall impact since publication. Dawson also discussed the legacy and work of Dr. Kim Dunphy, who served as the first primary lead and applicant on this project. Dr. Dunphy was the Director of MHI and a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne, and held these roles until her death in October 2020. The project team, including Amy Stevenson and Lucia Pichlet, Directors of Many Hands International; Ilde da Silva and Nelinha Pereira, Project Leads, and Thomas Lopes the Community Engagement Lead completed the work after her death.
The conversation below honors Dr. Dunphy, speaking to the ongoing relevance of the vaihoho collection and the value of preserving cultural heritage as part of how new generations learn about their own identities.
Dawson: How had Dr. Dunphys’s contributions to this project (starting from its conception to completion) impacted its outcomes?
“Dunphy was committed, caring and intellectually engaging. Kim was passionate about culture, social justice, and the environment,” reflected Stevenson and Pichlet. “[She] was instrumental in the development of MHI, sharing her knowledge, skills, and experience with MHI staff and communities in Timor-Leste and Australia.”
Da Silva and Pereira echoed these characteristics, noting, “Dr. Dunphy was a smart and generous woman. She dedicated herself to developing Timor Leste culture to provide good results for future generations. She worked hard to [connect] people, organizations and groups who were committed to developing culture in Timor Leste.”
Dunphy’s work extended beyond just the success of this MEAP funded project. As Stevenson and Pichlet note, “She played a key role in MHI’s collaboration with the Government of Timor-Leste and the Lautem community to establish the Lautem Cultural Centre - the country’s first regional culture centre. Kim’s academic research on culture-based development has been widely published in both English and Tetum, and her commitment to deliver projects such as this one with communities which document Timorese cultures has ensured much cultural knowledge is now safeguarded and accessible to future Timorese generations.”
We loved seeing how much your project in particular brought in the community to document and reflect on the collection. How has the project impacted the local community and users?
Lopes noted, ”Through MHI’s work, Fataluku people are now able to see their tradition with not only ease of access, but on a public platform, garnering a sense of community and pride.”
Stevenson and Pichlet elaborated on the origins of the project and how the MEAP funded digitization was a realization of a much longer ambition, established by Justino Valentim, to document, preserve, and share vaihoho:
“When Valentim began recording vaihoho song-poems, his intention was to keep the oral tradition alive for future generations so they would know their own culture. But Justino’s untimely death in 2014 abruptly halted his work, leaving his handwritten notes locked in a cupboard in his family home in rural Lospalos. The project enabled his son and another young local cultural researcher to revive his work and realize Justino’s vision.
The process both young men undertook allowed them to engage with their cultural past. They revisited villages, tracing Justino’s steps to check poems were accurate and attributed to the right village or singer. Of the twenty-three vaihoho practitioners who had contributed to the collection, they were able to identify only sixteen of these elders. Of those, seven had passed away and one was in hospital. With an aging generation, it became apparent that these young men had become the carriers of a conversation that considers the place of vaihoho in today’s community. The honor and pride this instilled in them was heartfelt to observe.”
Da Silva and Pereira echoed this idea, saying “We hope that this collection can attract the attention of young people to learn about their own culture because culture is a person's identity.”
The collection also had an impact for the elders of the community. The team shared a story about how engaging with this collection helped address old conflicts: “One amazing insight from the collection was when two tribes from the community realized they had once been allies, as a result of hearing one of the poems.”
What is one of your favorite aspects about this collection overall?
In thinking about the collection, da Silva and Pereira noted, “One of the favorite aspects about this collection is being able to learn how people convey feelings of sadness, joy, and anger to someone through poetry and it is also a great opportunity for those of us who work to document these handwritings to be able to learn how to convey them.”
Stevenson and Pichlet echoed the value of preserving these documents to understand how the community expressed a range of experiences. In particular, they appreciated how “many of the stories tell of love and war but many are about simple village life. We appreciate them all and how they give insight into the values, beliefs, and day-to-day lives of Fataluku ancestors.”
Looking back, what are the outstanding highlights of conducting this work?
All team members felt proud to preserve Justino Valentim’s work and to continue Dr. Dunphy’s efforts in the community.
Stevenson and Pichlet reflected, “[The work] was so important to Valentim, and therefore important to us. The project then also became about finishing the work that Kim had started too. I think we all felt proud we were able to carry on their work and commitment to safeguarding culture.”
For the team in Timor Leste, the work continues to resonate as the collection is used in youth theater programs and performed. “Both the young performers and audiences learn about their culture and stories that have been reimagined and brought to life through theater.” Lopes sees these performances as part of the legacy of this project that will “inspire Fataluku people to respect and value their cultural expression…and encourage social changes.”
da Silva and Pereira added, “We hope in the future the collection can be developed and can engage new generations to learn Fataluku and to preserve cultural heritage.”
The generational value of this project stands out. Stevenson and Pichlet reflected on the joy they saw in “the young researchers as they learned of their culture” alongside the recognition this project offered to the community elders… after years of turmoil and struggle to protect their cultural identity.