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The Akha Belief And Life System

In the west we often say a single word to streamline an entire event or collection of events or ideas. However much can be lost in this process, much can be assumed as known and taken for granted by the speaker when it is not. Culture and Religion are such terms. As soon as we use such terms, and have taken the quick judgements to label events under one or the other, we also quickly jump to the pronouncement as to whether they are good or bad.

There is not much way in which a person could quickly have a clue as to the complexity and detail, the subtle tones of meaning, that the culture of another people have.

The culture of the Akha People has often been dismissed by those who don't understand it and would readily replace it with their own alternative.

The chief problem with this, is that it is the culture, the way in which a people live their collective lives, which gives them strength, and to come and tell them that all which they are and know is wrong, and must be abandoned, is to destroy them.

This is true in any instance, but particularly true when speaking of people already greatly marginalized for numerous reasons.

The Akha find themselves in such a situation.

The lives of the Akha people are settled in mountain jungles, a progression over many centuries that has not moved very far geographically. They are erroneously considered nomadic and migratory by some, yet the distance total is no more than what a person could do in a few hours by car, that which has occured over many hundreds of years.

The jungle and mountains bring the Akha life, life up and out of the earth. The elevation brings fog and rain, growing all that they need abundantly, in their farming. They hunt from the jungle, collect many items of food and shelter, as well as till mountain side fields.

The Akha are maligned as slash and burn migratory farmers. This is not true. Stable village sites are many years at the same location, the land being farmed in a circle around the village for years and years on end, rice terraces slowly creeping up from the bottoms of the watershed. Forced relocations and wars have resulted in the Akha villages being relocated over and over, leaving them no option but to cut and farm in the new location. Distant relatives of the Akha, the Hani, in China, are regarded as "The terrace builders" for having used terraces at the same locations for centuries in a fine tuned harmony to get along with what supplies them with food.

But it is more than farming, and it is more than the misperceptions by others of who the Akha are that make their lives go on, carrying out the annual cycles for centuries.

This is the Akha life, not something you can so much name, or seperate into parts, not even name it as of them as compared to their environment, because they are not so seperable from it. Their lives are built in a unique relationship, interweaving with the land, the soil, the water, mountains, jungle and fields around them. Both with the plants, animals and people. They have continued on in an environment of geological isolation that has only known wars and forced moves. Amidst this careful interweaving with their environment, they have built over an incredible history of time, a lineage, that has carried them on better than a thousand years from anywhere anyone can identify. They have their own language, and the names of their fathers and father's fathers and going back so much further than that. All passed down till now, knowledge, careful rules for living safely together and getting on with life, and carrying themselves into the future. Part of it is a law, but it seems so much fuller than that, than a law, as in western terms, it is a carefully orchestrated piece of music, each note in its right place, all done up at once, every instrument going, as Handel's Messiah would require.

The Akha have a couple of items not native to them which they trade for. Salt, iron and silver. The salt for food, the iron for blades and axe heads, the silver for ornament. It may vary from village to village, but these are the intrinsic things that the Akha don't produce themselves in their villages. All the rest of their lives is going on by themselves, the mountains and jungles, and the plants, animals and bugs that grow all about them.

Best descriptions of the Akha, still dwarf who they really are, what they really know.

The Akha have a collective mind. To say that you know something, does not mean that you have those informations in your head, but that it exists in the Akha mind, and that possibly you need to go down to that hut there on the left to talk to the woman who can speak it out of the collective mind and into your ear.

Do Akha songs and recitals carry forward what they know? I don't think so, no more than sheets of music make an orchestra. The songs, in part or completeness here and there, made up as they go along, or well known traditional songs sung by different peoples during different times in the village gives only hint to what resides within them as a group.

Akha Zauh, it is the law, but their villages and life are made up of so much more than that. The law is just like tally marks on a map, which are cause for pause or turning here or there, which is located at the places of chafe or rememberance which they take note of.

This law would appear to be no more than the framework on which all the rest of their knowledge and interactions are reflected to. The law is the top points of collective memory that help remind each person of things to remember to do or not to do, or the settling of disputes, marking of times for harvest and so forth. Long experience in the same family has taught these people, that if you do like this, you get a problem, but do like that and you avoid it. So they make each such item which is crucial to remember to avoid injury, insult or pain, as an event. Some people call this culture. A small spoon for such for such enormity.

Fighters, bombers and missles have computer memories. Culture is the collective memory of already charted waters that a people have lived upon for many hundreds of years. It becomes automatic. You remember your parents, your mother, your father, your grandmother and grandfather and how they lived life such that carefully you got this far, because, unbeknownst to outsiders, a whole lot of people didn't. They died. Early. And so the memory is an ongoing thanksgiving to doing it right, surviving, living on to be old, to have lived to the end of life, after which of course there is nothing else to do for the moment.

And the cloth of Akha life gives testament to this, the Law, the Zauh, the songs, the dances, the festivals, all the goings on, to how people should live their lives by the day, in all the available events which can occur to them.

A wild boar runs through the village. Well, that isn't suppose to happen, and it isn't normal, don't tell me why, but villagers know that boars are not safe, they have long tusks, are generally quite nervous, and can hurt you and don't belong rousting around in the village. And I suppose there is much more to it than that, but they stop the village for a day in the case of this rare event and do a purification ceremony for the village.

Now on a particular day, an old woman in the village gets sick. You don't have to be appointed an elder to be an elder, you get old and you are an elder, they are one and the same. So on this particular day, the village elders take counsel, and in order to cause the illness of the Akha woman to leave, the elders order that today when everyone goes to the fields, no one will work on any soil that has rice planted on it, or is prepared for rice, but can only work on other soil, such as bean fields or corn fields. Not to minimize it, but not a bad show of support. And once again I am sure that there is much more involved.

The point being made is that these people live carefully, not adjacent to the earth, the soil, but within it. Relying on all of it for what they need, what grows up by the year, and what is more complex in making and getting than that is not needed it would appear.

There is this identity, this keen understanding of how the people and the earth best work together.

Eden wasn't lost, people just forgot they were still in it. Blinders put on their eyes, people tried to do a different thing with the land and the elements that came from it. Possibly good, but increasingly looking as though not.

Some of the Akha migrate or are forced into the cities, but there is some understanding that as poets of the earth, they would prefer to stay in the mountain, listen to and write more poetry.

Not all that the Akha do has a detail to it, but the Akha are quick to tell you what is related to the law or a special order and what is not. Generally they say about something that it is tied up in Akha Zauh. So on this day we have a ceremony to this, this is the order. Then when you go into the forest to look for Zah Mah, the mother pig of yours that ran to the forest to have her litter, you take a knife. It is illegal, or against the law to go looking up the trails for your pig without a knife, like a machette. No one bucks the law, or questions why something should be a part of it, just understands that it is part of the formula for knowing and doing carefully all that you need to know and do. Cause when you find that pig, it will have made a great nest of sticks and leavers like a great bundle, and inside you must look for how many pigs were born, and then later load them into your basket and carry them back to the hut where the mother will return and care for them, but you mustn't look into that nest with your hands, you must cut a bamboo stick, with a hook on it, and use that hook to pull aside the nest and look inside.

There is no part of Akha life that is not carefully guided by these traditions and ceremonies of time. They lived completely till now by their use, harming no one, no apparent need to abandon them now.

In any village environment, some people are more wealthy than others, some have better luck with a crop at a season than another has, one's pigs do better than anothers, and in the end, one family may not have near as much meat as other families, thus suffering from less protein in the diet. One can not say this is the sole reason, but certainly bares logic, that many of the ceremonies requiring the sharing of meat, relate to this. If you build a new house, you have a new house ceremony, carefully done, more than another people, and the meat is shared. The poorer in the village get to eat alike. The richer you are, the more meat you will take down, the poor are fed.

Mother in laws. Some people fight with them. The Akha end sentences with certain words that ascribe specific feeling about the event. "I won't do that to avoid being illegal" or "I won't do that due to fear of the consequences, physical fear" not because it is wrong or illegal. In the case of a new bride, there may be many cases when it is illegal for her to return to her mothers house, and the groom seldom will. Married, she moves to her groom's village and the families are seperate, life goes on. There are many laws among the Akha regarding the relationships between the relatives of married people and also the different clans among the Akha, family names.

All order, to carry on life peacefully, know where and who you are. The Akha have great emphasis on relationship. We occasionally say, our uncle, our aunt, our cousin or our friend. In the case of the Akha they speak of people who are related to them by marriage in a host of names for relative position by age and marriage to another person. And each position has a name. Among the Akha names are not much used, as one's name given at birth or family name, but names of position in relationship are used instead. Ah Meeh, one doesn't call her... instead they use the name for what one calls their brother's wife's younger sister, and so forth.

When you harvest rice, (and watch the Akha do it with such fine grace, carefully set amongst just how hard it is on a lean stomach in the heat, on the steep hillside) well, you take a bunch of rice in your left hand, many stalks, grabbing them low, cut them off with a cycle, and take a few stalks and twist and wind them to hold the bundle, then you let it set back gently on the top of the ends of the remaining stubble where it will be allowed to dry for a few more days. But you don't just set it anywhere, you set it with the cut end towards the rice hut and harvest threshing point of the field. Why? Because it is the law. Sure, there is a reason, but it is also now part of the law to do that. You don't do anything carelessly if you live in the earth.

The law, much different than we hear of the history of Jewish law or Christian law, was not about being wrong, or getting punished as much as it was about keeping yourself in a good position with the world of life around you, the elements that produced your food, and that could also leave you with nothing to eat. A code of survival. You don't do it not because you don't want to get punished but because, why would you want to do something that is bad for you to do? Do you know more than all those who lived before you in combination? So will you change the law? Just for today? Just for you?

And all throughout the life of the Akha they adhere carefully to these known ways of doing things in what is for them a well known and finite environment of plants, animals, people, soil, water, rain, and wind. They believe in Spirits. There are some good spirits, but also many bad ones who are accountable for the bad things which occur. Sounds reasonable enough. And the careless actions of humans can increase the damage that these bad spirits can do. So even when you are in the jungle, you must be careful, yes, there are guidelines for it all, such that neither you or anyone else get messed up.

In the west, most people not being able to name their great great great grandfather, we often mock or minimalize these sorts of things. But in this order and understanding of their lives the Akha, as a single race for hundreds of years, have preserved and carried forward their collective knowledge and caution about living long in the jungle and upon the earth, baring children who live and carry forward their people into the future in this way, believing in things which to those who don't know about them or their true meanings and implications, mock them as foolish superstitions or down right evil.

In the west we believe most in the heart's eye of the individual supreme, where as the Akha appear to seem themselves as one link in the long chain of life, adjacent to all the other links, all the other people, all carrying the wave forward to the beach at one time, to throw the newborn on up and to safety. Resulting of course in a very different approach to each other, where and how they live, time and death.

And in travels about the world, seldom will you find such a careful people about how they live their lives. Through this careful life, they live their lives through many eyes, each giving light and focus to each event. Carefully the Akha are wrapped up in the arms of this collective mind and cradle that brings them forward, like the new bark on a tree, their life soon to become the wood, straight and strong, going on, the rings never disappearing, one link of time, in a not so long total history of time for humans, not such an insignificant part of the whole, each and every one of them.

To be Akha is to be a way of being, a way of being alive, not just living, but it is the very definition of life, to have more than one eye, to have many eyes, to have many ears, always one heart.

You are not seperate from anything or anyone, in one way, yet you part down slightly different roads by marriage, the younger sister wailing as they see their older sisters leaving the village to become a bride, their dearest friend, leaving from beside them, to take that slightly one over road, from theirs.

Sitting next to fires, looking at the light in the old woman's face, trying to figure out what it is, within the context of the obvious temporary status of life for all, not shrouded or masked in Akha life. To die.

Carefully she has walked all the trails, farmed every clod of soil, sat beneath every tree, picked one of every leaf, eaten one of every fruit, like she has been so carefully laughing and joking, manicuring the face of the earth for so many years her time on it. You say there is more down off the mountain, different, better? How could she possibly care, she is where and who she is and has done it all, how else can you be old but to have done and seen it all? Someone else has done more, different, not hardly, think they have, maybe done a whole lot less. She threshed the rice and ate on it for the whole next year, fed it like manna to her children, and gave the seeds back to the soil to give her the next batch also. Events came and went, the law carefully guided her to remember the unseen old couple who live in the rice field and take care of it when she is not there.

Enough to make you sing a song, if you can figure out all the lines.

Matthew McDaniel
Maesai, Chiangrai, Thailand


Copyright 1991