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Thailand’s Akha: The Old Ways Are Still The Best
By Jim Goodman
Postcards, posters and tourist brochures give us a very romantic picture of the Akha hill tribals. We see women dressed in their best embroidered jackets, loaded with beads, silver ornaments and fancy head-dresses. They are busy with their needlework, or posing with a baby strapped to the back, who peers from beneath a colourful cap, festooned with coins, cowries and chicken feather tassels. Or maybe they're moseying around the village area, tiny figures in a landscape of bamboo houses, dirt paths, forests and hills. The portrait implies a carefree life, grounded in exotic traditions, relaxed and close to nature. But our instincts tell us the presentation is incomplete. There must be more to the idyll.
Actually, it's not easy being an Akha in the hills of Northern Thailand these days. They are subject to various pressures to change their way of life. After centuries of existing on the outskirts of more economically developed societies, the Akha are being drawn ever closer to the mainstream, into the assimilation process modern nationhood requires. They cannot, as of yore, retreat further into the wilderness, for roads reach everywhere, while the wilderness itself has shrunk, even as the tribe grows, and now there's less space in which to live as their ancestors did.
Change is coming to the Akha world, at a rate beyond their control, as every aspect of their existence is up against new challenges. The Akha must even change their basic, time-tested method of farming, for they are traditionally swidden agriculturalists, burning a patch of jungle each year to make a farm, which they use for up to two years and abandon to the elements and then clear a new one.
The method used to work fine, for the farmer returned to the original field after several years and burned it again. But due to increasing population, there are more Akhas trying to wrest a living from the jungle than ever before, while due to migration from both nearby plains and the hills of neighbouring countries, as well as to logging and development projects, the forests themselves are shrinking. Overpopulation means used fields are not left to rejuvenate as long as before and thus yield less each time. And there's nowhere left to move to and start afresh. So the Akha are being asked to stay put, use their fields for longer periods, raise cash crops that put less strain on the soil, and use fertilisers and insecticides.
As it's harder to make a living, the Akhas often hire out as day labourers in others' fields, while their villages shift into a money economy unknown to their ancestors. New schools teach them how to become Thai and cope with urban life. Missionaries try to persuade them to abandon their own religion and get modern with Jesus. And development workers urge them to get in step with the march of progress, though no one can quite explain what the Akha should expect from such strange endeavours. All in all, it certainly looks like a difficult time for the tribe.
Then again, it never was easy being an Akha. They have been a minority group since as long as their collective memory can remember, a people without a built-in warrior tradition, and so at the mercy of those who had them. Their songs lament the loss of their easier life centuries ago in the plains of Yunnan, China, yet they have developed a precise, ecologically tested, detailed culture that covers every aspect of life in their mountain environment.
The rules of behaviour in the Akha world are contained in a long, didactic and narrative poem, composed at least eight hundred years ago, memorised by at least one man per village, called pima, and passed down the generations till now. It tells Akhas what to plant and when, what to do when babies are born, the youth get married and the old folks die, how to appease angry spirits, when and how to honour the ancestors, what's taboo at certain times of the year, and what's required at others. In fact, there are so many rules to follow that nobody but the pima knows them all. But since ideally, there's a pima per village, this means the Akha way of life in China, Burma, Laos and Thailand is essentially the same.
According to the old poem, these rules came from a mythical ruler named Bah Jui, who used to ride a flying horse to fetch them from the Creator in Heaven. The constant flow of regulations eventually angered his subjects, who one day broke the horse's wings. Bah Jui's mother repaired them with wax, but he then flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, he was forced back to Earth and the Akha Way was fixed.
As visitors, our first sign of the Akha Way will be the gateway on the trail into the village. This demarcates the boundary between the spirit world--the jungle from which we are emerging, and the human world of the Akha village. Affixed to it are symbols of what they want kept out of their village, everything from birds of prey to violence and wild marauders.
This tendency to dividing continues. The year is split into the major one, when the harvesting, clearing and planting takes place, and the minor one, when they wait for the rice to ripen. Certain types of behaviour, such as the playing of gourd pipes, are only for the major year. Spirits play them the minor year. Construction too, as well as marriage, is for the dry season. Spirits do that in the rainy season.
Division extends to their living quarters. There are two entrances, one for the women, one for the men. Inside, a wall separates the sleeping quarters. If there are not two hearths, then the single one is in the middle, at the end of the wall, but the food responsibilities are also separate: women cook the rice and vegetables, men the meat and tea.
The Akha Way further divides nearly all work by sex. Men do the heavy work of clearing fields, punching holes during the sowing, the construction of buildings, the making of tools and implements, the hunting, the slaughtering of domestic animals, and the conducting of rites during festivals. Women mind the fields and gather food for the family and their livestock, fetch the water, do the laundry, prepare most food and keep the family clothed.
Before they got in touch with cheap clothing stores in the towns, Akhas made all their own clothes from materials they either grew, found in the jungle, or traded for with travelling tribal merchants who toured the hills in winter. Many women still spin their own cotton thread and use a bamboo frame hand loom to weave a tight, strong bolt of cloth. This they dye deep indigo, cut into pieces of clothing, decorate with embroidery and appliqué, and embellish with things like beads, coins, silver studs, cowry shells, tassels of chicken feather or horse tail, seeds, silver ornaments and shiny green beetle wings.
At festival time they are dressed to the hilt and are bold splashes of colour in a setting that's otherwise shades of brown and green. It's the same for weddings, but even more so at funerals, when women don their most heavily embroidered jackets and all their ornaments to give the deceased a proper send-off.
The glue to these rules, these obligations and role assignments is the Akha notion of harmony. So long as the rules are followed, the outer world stays in balance, the inner world stays at peace, the spirits are kept at bay. Omissions and transgressions upset the balance, cause turbulence, invite trouble from the spirits, and lead to disharmonious things like sickness, quarrelling, crop failure, general bad luck and discontent. But the Way also provides the remedies for such conditions, so that by certain acts one can put everything back into balance and restore harmony.
This has worked for the Akha for so many generations that they have mastered the art of living in the jungles of remote mountains. From it they derive their food, their building materials, their clothing and even their medicine. They know a whole range of useful plants and how to employ leaves, roots, barks, and berries to stop wounds bleeding, reduce swellings, lessen tooth pain, end stomach-aches, and a variety of methods for treating headaches, sprains, muscle pains and minor injuries. And for major illnesses, they will still call upon the shamans to chant the formulas for bringing back a wandering or captured soul, a custom still considered very efficacious in the Akha world.
The Akha Way is not so rigid as to preclude change. Rather, the system allows for adaptation and admits to having learned from others in the past--the cultivation of tea and tobacco from the Chinese, for example, and embroidery from the Shans. Its major value is its having succeeded in holding together a people for so long. Its emphasis on harmony has created a collective self-confidence that encourages good humour, high spirits and warm hospitality. Akhas appreciate laughter, sing when they're in a good mood and like to call on one another in their spare hours.
Enjoyment peaks during the many festivals throughout the year. Big dinners mean special meat dishes, wine and conviviality, the meeting of close kin and friends, the time when the children learn what it means to be Akha as the elders explain what they're doing. It can also mean a lot of physical fun, such as riding the big swing set up for a few days in mid-monsoon, or running through all the village houses, brandishing swords to chase out spirits, and trampling to pieces weak balconies (where spirits like to hide in order to cause accidents) on the way out.
As travellers, we tend to evaluate a tribal village by how traditional it looks. What's the percentage of old-style houses? How many wear ethnic clothing? How much is changing? How many cars or motorbikes? Or TV's? To an Akha these are all extras. There is nothing in the Akha Way to preclude them, anyway, and they do not affect the basic way the Akha make a living up in the mountains. And that is where nearly all of them still live today and in the foreseeable future. So within the village environment, within the clan and family circles, in those long familiar mountains, the Akha continue to follow the same rules and customs their ancestors did. The old way's still best.