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At home with the Akha


“Every Akha village has two gates,” Explained my host, Daniel McMartin, a man who has lived with and advocated for the Akha for more than thirteen years. “One at each end.” The bamboo gate, which keeps out evil spirits, seemed simple enough. We had gates back in Brooklyn too. And if you replaced gang members with evil spirits, the intent was the same. Simple. I thought. Who needed an anthropologist? Even a boy from Brooklyn could understand this Akha stuff. But I would soon learn that the only thing simple about the Akha was their material needs, which were none at all.
“If they have food they eat it.” Said McMartin. “When they don’t, they don’t.” Apparently, when harvest was bad they would live, for long periods of time, on a diet of rice, chili, and MSG.

“Everything they need they make themselves.” He added.

As for the gates, there were two kinds of gates, depending on the age and condition of the oldest elder in the village. The time and season of gate building, like every other event in an Akha village, was done in accordance with nature. There was a gate building ceremony, in which every member of the village took part, and which was preside over by the oldest member of the village. Even if all of the Akha wanted to build a gate on a given day, they would wait until the “proper” gate building day, and they would only build the appropriate kind of gate.

We hadn’t even entered the village, and I was already a little confused. “How do they know when to build a gate?” I asked. “How do they know which kind of gate to build? And who tells all of the Akha what to do in the ceremony?”

“It’s all in the Akha Law.” Explained Daniel, with a laugh. I didn’t know it at that time, but this one sentence would become the answer to almost every question I had during my week long stay with the Akha.

Apparently the Akha lived by a strong code, often referred to as the Akha Law or the Akha Way. The Way was at once a religion, an oral history, a genealogy, a set of morals, and a body of law. Most outsiders have had a faulty understanding this singularly most important aspect of the Akha culture. Missionaries, who have destroyed Akha culture by forcing villages to convert to Christianity, have referred to Akha traditional religion as animism. This is a very western term, however, which has often been applied to belief systems which are closely tied to nature. But, it does not take into consideration the deep complexity of the Akha way, or its relevance in every day life.

I asked Daniel if education were available to Akha children, living in these remote mountain villages. He said that there was a Thai government school, which most of the young people attended, but then laughed at my Western interpretation of the word education. “Because of the Akha Way, children know every leaf, every bug, every plant, every stone, and every animal in the forest.”

I realized early on, that if I were going to understand the Akha, I would have to overcome my own prejudices, and stop thinking of them as primitive people. The jungle is their world, the same as the streets of my concrete city, on the other side of the globe was my world. I called them primitive, because they didn’t know how to ride the number six subway to Wall Street in the morning, do cold calls, and peddle internet stocks to widows. But now I was in their world, the jungle. And they knew all their was to know about that jungle.

“Out here,” Said Daniel, “You’re an idiot compared to them.”
What’s more, where I had to go to twelve years of school, follow by six years of university to survive in my world, the Akha, learned everything they needed to know, from the elders, and without studying.

The Way dictated when and what types of crops were to be planted, when to build a house, and when and how to marry. “Every house in an Akha village has to be laid out in a certain way, in harmony with the other houses.” Explained Daniel, as we traveled the dusty roads. “Every Akha child is taught to recite his family genealogy, back hundreds of years. This teaches them respect for their ancestors and elders. It also prevents them from marrying too close, as the names have to fit together a certain way, for the genealogy to work out.”

Back home, we had to go to a hospital, where a doctor in a white coat, with ten years of higher education charged us $150 to see if two people could marry or not. Here, you would just need to ask a nine-year-old.
Out the window, I saw coffee and tea plants dying in the prolonged draught. Actually, I just saw plants. Daniel had to explain to me that they were coffee and tea, and that they were dying. Coffee to me was something that came in a styrofoam cup. Who knew that it also came from the mountains of Thailand? I asked, but Daniel said that there wasn’t a Starbucks in the village. Even more alarming, the nearest McDonalds was about a six hour drive.

Traditionally the Akha grew food crops, such as rice, and vegetables, which they used to sustain themselves. This diet was supplemented with edible plants, provided by the forest, and birds, which they hunted with old fashioned muzzle loaders. At certain times, a pig, ox, or dog was slaughtered and the meat distributed throughout the village.

“The whole village is usually happy when they slaughter a pig. There aren’t any vegetarians in an Akha village.” Laughed Daniel.

And how did they know when to slaughter a pig? The Akha Way told them. I was beginning to like this Akha Way. I liked any system that provided me with pork ribs.

As complete a system as the Akha Way seemed to be, unfortunately, life was changing in the Akha villages. The introduction of Christianity in some villages caused them to drop the Akha Way completely. Other aspects of modern life also threatened to destroy Akha culture. They couldn’t hunt birds anymore, as most of the muzzle loaders had been confiscated by the army. In recent years, economic pressure had forced the Akha to join the cash economy. Now, instead of growing rice, for sustenance, many Akha grew coffee and tea, which they sold in town, using the proceeds to buy food and other necessities. While the Akha were living in a cashless society, they tended to share food and other resources communally. Somehow, cash just doesn’t seem to be a resource people share with their neighbors. And with an average family have a cash income of only 500 Baht, ($10 USD) per month, there wasn’t much to share.

As is often the often the way with indigenous peoples, the Akha didn’t actually own the land that they lived on. In their minds, their was really no concept of land ownership. They lived on the land and farmed it. So, it was theirs. They didn’t understand how strangers, from the city, who had never been to the land, could drive them off, simply with a piece of paper.
One aspect of Akha culture that made outsiders believe they were primitive was that they believed in evil spirits (or, more accurately, unseen forces). The people from the cities said it was silly to believe in the power of invisible forces, which held sway over the lives of human beings. But yet, they could uproot an entire village with the power they believed was inherent in the paper they carried. To the Akha, this piece of paper was a charm, no different than the star shaped ornaments they attached to their gates, to keep out unwanted spirits.

I realized, we all believed in magic.

As we drove past the bamboo huts, careful not to hit the numerous children, chickens, and dogs who ran freely about the village, it was clear that the Akha had missed the twentieth century. But now that the village had electricity, the twenty first century was creeping in. Almost every home had a television, and most had a satellite dish. There was a phone booth, and some families had cell phones. I asked Daniel if he believed that the shiny images of the exciting, modern life depicted on television would lure the young people away from the village.

Although he is an American, Daniel identified with being an Akha. Further, he is an Akha traditionalist. His children probably know more Akha Way than any other children in the village. As he fights for the continued survival of the tribal life style, it is clear that he refuses to admit that young people would ever want anything else.

“Well, a few might go to the city to find jobs.” He said, reluctantly. “But when they see all that they are giving up in terms of community, culture, and security, they will come back.”

I wasn’t there to argue, just to learn.

He did explain that financial pressures, mostly caused by the seizure of their farm land, had driven a number of Akha young people to seek jobs in the cities. Unable to get any other kind of work, they often took jobs in restaurants and factories, which provided them with lodgings. They would “share” the job with a relative, who would fill in, while an Akha went back to the village, to spend time with their family. Although these departures from the village were not in keeping with the Akha Way, the communal spirit and family attachment was. To the extent that it was possible, it seemed most of the Akha were trying to hold on to their way of life.

Daniel dropped me at the home of his mother in law, one of only two brick houses in the village. “You’ll be staying here.” Said Daniel. “My hut is at the far end of the village. When you want to come over, just tell the Akha, and they will lead you.”

My experience so far was that the Akha all communicated in Akha language. “How will I tell them?” I asked.

“Some of the young people speak Thai.” Answered Daniel, “If that doesn’t work, a lot of the old men speak Chinese.”

How uneducated could a village be if they spoke three languages? I asked, rethinking my position on “primitive” culture.

It is believed that the Akha originated in Tibet, some few centuries ago. Their physical appearance seems to support this theory, as the Akha are shorter than the average Thai, and darker in complexion. The Akha migrated across Asia, eventually settling in five countries: China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. But no one ever told the Akha that there was such a thing as a country or a border. As a result, the Akha simply crossed the border whenever they chose to. As they are officially stateless persons, without Thai or any other citizenship, I had asked Mathew what they told the border patrol soldiers, to let them pass. “They simply say that they are going across to visit a relative” He said. Here, only one and a half miles from the border, a number of the Akha personally came down from Burma, or still have relatives there.

Outside of my house, all of the village men gathered about, what looked like, the butchered carcass of a pig. The bloody meat lay in dripping piles, as the men debated over price and quantity. One man, who seemed to be in charge of the operation, knelt in the bloody mess, with a cleaver, slopping handfuls of entrails, eyes, and organs into bowls, which were then weighed. I would later learn that before a pig, or other large animal, was slaughtered, the head of each household would “buy into the pig,” place an order for a certain dollar amount of meat, which he paid for in advance. Although the shouting and animated, almost heated, discussions occurring over this unappetizing mound of flesh may have looked like selfishness, the truth was just the opposite. Every villager wanted to ensure that every other villager got his fare share of the meat. If one family felt cheated, the whole crowd would come to his aid, surging in on the man with the cleaver, and demanding the meat be re-weighed. After everyone agreed on the weight, the village headman would nod his approval, at which point, the family could go home and eat.

If not for the blood, the meat sale reminded me of the trading pits of the New York Stock Exchange, with everyone shouting orders and energetically giving hand signals. If asked , the Akha, would say the whole procedure were necessary to ensure a fair market. But I got the impression that the sale of the meat was a form of entertainment, a diversion from a life of very long days, spent toiling in the fields.

Young westerners will often go through a period of “being lost” or “trying to find themselves.” This period of confusion is not part of Akha personal development, however. Because of the Akha Way, every man woman and child was doing, at that moment, and at every moment, exactly what he was supposed to be doing. The oldest members of the village, stood beside the headman, verifying the weighing, and arbitrating in disputes. The heads of households haggled. The smallest children ran naked, in a huge gang, giggling and playing among the huts. The women sat off to the side, talking among themselves, and looking, with smiling eyes, to the meat market, which they knew would soon provide them a much needed break, from a steady diet of rice and peppers. The older children were walking on bamboo stilts, which they or their fathers made for them. Young teenagers were racing their homemade, three wheeled scooters down the mountain side. Using rollers, rather than wheels, and set on a triangular bamboo frame, the scooters looked like a car from The Flintstones. The older, unmarried teenagers, were playing a volleyball type game, in which the ball was kicked over the net. No hands were allowed. Perhaps they were dreaming about their own marriage, which would come very soon.
And I, with no other purpose in the Akha village, took photos, and scribbled notes in my book. Although they were all engaged in different activities, the one similarity between all of the members of the village was that they were all happy. Meat day is a day of celebration in an Akha village.

Walking into the house, I forgot that the Akha make very low doorways, to keep out evil spirits, and I smacked my forehead on the door frame. I stowed my backpack, and then smacked my head again, on the way out. My skull was throbbing, but to the Akha, this was the funniest thing they had ever seen in their lives. They took the Thai word for fun, senook, to new levels, as they imitated me, first by putting their hands to their eyes, as if they had a camera, and then by banging their heads on imaginary doorways. In spite of my pain, I had to laugh hysterically. Even the headman did a passable imitation of me. I was glad that I could bring some joy into the lives of a marginalized people. If only more foreigners would come to the village and bang their heads, I thought.

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