Last part of Maesai Section 1.
Developing a Vision
Slowly my ideas and hopes to help the Akha became more focused. I could see clearly some of the symptoms and knew there were causative factors I could not see fully yet. These I pursued over the years, filling in the pieces, but really the gut instincts of those first months and year carried on for over ten years, not changing much, just getting more solid with time and experience.
Much of my work was developing resources and helping solve the same old problems over and over, just there were so many people and so many villages, it was to be expected. I didn't get bored, there were many people to meet and villages to discover and so much to learn of the language and the culture which of course was all a mystery to me.
The business went by the wayside and I carried on, much in poverty, would be the best way to put it. I could not seeing very many ways to make a living and stay here at the same time to keep doing what I desired, so I was often dependant on people to throw me morsels of cash that helped pay for translators or writing materials or medicine. Sometimes when I got a little extra I would hire a teacher and a small building and have the Akha women teach the street kids. It was not so often I could afford that over the years.
There were some people who supposedly knew a lot about the Akha, but I didn't meet them for some time, just heard of them. Mostly I wanted to learn on my own, from my own vantage, what I could come to perceive about these people.
Many non Akha people wondered why I helped the Akha. I found this odd, but also it motivated me more to go on, especially when I heard them speak ill of the Akha on what appeared to be an unfounded basis. I noted it and explored the case more to see just what the truth was about these people.
I see the Akha as underdogs and definitely on the bottom wrung of the social economic ladder.
Besides being spoken evil of without basis, the Akha were often exploited for being poor.
I did not think that any people could be this bad to be the cause of all the Akha were blamed for, nor deserve to be treated as they were treated. Many people in the region lived fat off their drug fortunes and running brothels and took little blame for anything. The missionaries, who spoke some of the worst about the Akha, lived well off money intended by donors to help the Akha, certainly a good life by western standards, and far above how any Akha could live, save those few Akha Christian Elite who know who they are.
Early on I developed some theories about my work with the Akha.
I could see that in the desperate situation of the poor, some people wanted you to put all your energy into just their need and maybe a project and forget about anyone else. To me this was the failure of many projects, and I preferred to do things that slow as they might be, in the long run would end up raising the level all at once for all the Akha, not just a convenient few.
All my work that I did, since I had such little experience and money,
I did by first consulting with the Akha on what
they felt was needed, what they wanted.
Not just one person or one family or one village but many villages,
many people and from all kinds of various situations in both
Sometimes I was driven to great despair by both the work that I wanted to accomplish and how slow it moved, and great poverty, often with very little food or none at all. Once I had not one dime for six months, signing for my room and one or two meals a day, with the kind China man who owned the Plaza Guest house, and then when my money would come in, from somewhere (that was it, I never knew where, but I didn't tell him that) always hopeful, I would pay the bill.
But the despairing events went on and got so bad that I began making a personal year by year contract with myself that I would not quit quickly, but would finish out the year, and then Jan 1 I was gone unless I had compelling reason to prove that I should stay on despite all that had happened.
Few people would have known or endured the conditions, but it seemed to me that quitting would not finish what I wanted to do. I would quit after. Maybe. Maybe not.
So each Jan it turned out I found reason not to give up, sometimes only because the kids did not deserve to suffer so much.
It was like maybe I would go back to life sometime. But when I went back to the
Sometimes I wondered if it was worth it?
But then I began doing more photography and it was around this time that I forgot about the "yearly contracts" and realized that if I was going to get anything done, ten years was going to be the basis, and then after five more years I might see one of my goals done and some real excitement might be in order after twenty years.
I would hardly have advised anyone to think they could do any of this in less time to be realistic. People who wanted to come and do a money making-paying project over six months appeared nothing other than a joke to me. What could you do in six months I wondered?
I hadn't worked with poor people a lot before coming to
You won't find people jumping up and down to help the poor. You may find people who have figured out how to make money off helping the poor.
Poor people are like a lense on money. When people see poor people they often recoil, because it reminds them of the money they have, which they will immediately have less of if they help the poor person. The fastest way to get out of this mental conflict is to blame the poor in some way, distancing oneself from the fact that the same events might happen to ones self. Because a person can often see destitute people in life, people who obviously are not having a good day, people gather to themselves prefabricated answers. "You can't help everyone". "Charity starts at home". "Teach a man to fish". "If you help them once they will want you to help them twice". This makes looking the other way easy, naturally.
But some people went to greater length on why they didn't help the poor, they had to convince themselves that the great disparity WAS justified, the poor were to blame, they were not victims of life's hand, but had actually worked very hard to get to their current state of affairs. Maybe they had before lived in regal splendor, and had squandered it? Karma of course was a great rationalization for viewing the poverty of others. Maybe the poor refused every opportunity to climb up? So how could it be possible to help the poor when they act and think like this, far better we didn't help them, maybe they deserved it, maybe they were experiencing only a small part of what they deserved? Maybe the poor should be punished for being poor, should be made to pay society for their crime? Certainly in the US it is a crime to be poor, and as soon as you get done doing that crime you will find many other punishments quick to follow, all targeted against the crimes of poverty. The truth might not have anything to do with it.
Naturally one could find not so nice behaviors among the poor, like looking ill, dirty, poorly clothed, soiled clothes, bad odor, and persistently needful or begging actions. This was the ultimate proof of the crime of poverty.
I worked on what I could see that was obviously a need, then tried to find out why this need existed, who might have been causing it or who was blocking its resolution. Why one problem was so chronic or blatant, and another problem "just next door" was not. I sought to uncover the reasons behind patterns that made themselves apparent.
Real truth is often at the very top of the ladder and sometimes we must climb a very long time in order to get there.
My work was to give care to the Akha, but
focused on a few chief points as I first discovered them. A stable written script, phonetic and easy
to use, good medical care and water.
Both impoverished me. Business
had not been that good and got worse, and I decided not to go back to the
First aid and medical bills wiped out my tiny moneys and to save the life of a child would cost me dearly, leaving me often without food for days, and without cash for even longer. I became increasingly stubborn. People ridiculed my commitment to the matter, but I saw such an array of nay-sayers lined up against these people that I would not walk away. I paid whatever moneys I could get for language work, renting motorcycles, going out to the villages, trying to learn the language, and being frustrated by not being able to see into nearly what I wanted to understand. But each step along the way turned some new corner, refreshing me a little, with new insight, and somehow I kept on, year after year. Money often would not drift in from family or friends for weeks or months on end. Sometimes a slow walk through town was all I had energy for. Entertainment was watching the ceiling fan in the guesthouse spin. I was very far away from a world where I could get things done quickly.
Giving up was a desire, not a temptation, but a desire. When I had money, language work went on, and when I didn't the people who helped me would hardly speak to me. I was suppose to pay for everything, and I didn't trouble myself to ask anyone to understand what I was doing or why, I believed in it, that was enough and I would be satisfied when I was done going where I was going with it all. The discouragement was so intense. I watched as my dreams sat, sat, and sat some more, on the shelf, never moving an inch, my mind going in endless circles as to how I could move forward.
At one of my lowest moments I had a tiny word book worked out in Akha, some idea of the alphabet and how I would spell
it. I met an Akha
who could speak English in
I began to work with Nimit. Money, I could
find very little, so I was soon with a bill that I was betting against my
very computer that I worked on, just as long as I finished the alphabet and a
basic children's book by the time I was done.
I set my scanner and printer up in his village, worked day and night
with bugs flying around the room and waited endlessly for our sessions to
take place when I could ask my questions, trying to draw some final
picture. He did not have a complete
grip of the alphabet in its written form, but with many scraps of paper from
other Akhas I was getting most of it. After more than four months at his hut, I
had found some barely satisfying level of success at the alphabet and
completed the children's book. It was
very crude, but very done. I sold the computer, as much as I hated to
do so, and paid the bill. I hauled the
rest of the equipment down the mountain, stored it, and got a ticket back to
I was uneasy that the alphabet was really not complete. But something was happening. I was getting a picture drawn from fragments of information that I now had from several unwilling helpers, none of who would give me the whole picture. I was getting leverage.
Time changes things.
After seven years, I completed the alphabet and tone system to my understanding and satisfaction with the backing of numerous Akha and printed prototype copies of the first rather large Akha reader.
I was very happy. But soon I faced all the difficulties of taking it to the next step, regular books, publishing. I needed a press and more money, but neither happened very fast. The writers expected westerners to run well funded projects. I did not. I had a very hard time finding money and most people scoffed at my project, particularly all the professionals who would somehow do better at it than I but never did.
My goal was not just the language or books, but to help the people on all available fronts of need.
Naturally my work became increasingly complex, the obstacles overwhelming, and the distance between the villages added to the work.
Now the clever thing about service to people, is that you don't have to spend much time figuring out what to do. Really quite straight forward. Travel and life are great, but service pays the rent on staying here on earth someone once said.
The idea to help the Akha in a broader kind of way didn't come all at once, it came in pieces, like thoughts blowing into the mind. Despite many discouraging moments, ideas on how to help them would come along, to give them some chance, some hope, with all that was happening to them. They worked very hard to feed their children.
They were appreciative in both the interest and the help, and bottom line, it stopped a lot of suffering of the babies, young and old alike. With a little first aid medicine I could clean wounds, care for people with cuts, fungus, and things like that, help they had no money for and with no one who would take the time. Mostly that was it, no one who would take the time, and I had time, so I enjoyed it.
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by Matthew McDaniel