We arrived an Akha Hilltribe village to live in a bamboo house, just in time for their coldest spell in 10 years. We were on the verge of having enough warm clothes although I’m willing to admit if I’d had socks – I would have even worn them with my sandals. When its 1 Degree C , you don’t mind a bit that seven of you are sharing four mattresses.
We had a wonderful and very insightful guide; Dusit, from Natural Focus. He’d given up hotel jobs to work with hilltribes, and strongly advocated their healthy way of life. Our hosts’ four children had gone to college in the city and they had no grandchildren yet. The children in the village seemed to come and go as they pleased to many of the houses, in some there lived aunties and uncles, and in others were people that might as well have been family too. Children were given bananas or asked to help out, holding a baby or shelling nuts. I’m pretty sure any adult could discipline any child, without ‘boundary issues’.
I loved watching them cook over the single bamboo fueled fire in the kitchen, sitting on a little stool or squatting while chopping or pounding in the mortar and pestle.
Each meal was based around the rice, thick nutty chewy mountain rice, full of flavour and I’m guessing higher in protein. We ate fried cabbage with pork, eggs fried and poached with herbs, chicken with lemongrass garlic and ginger, soy beans, black beans and mung beans. There was chilli with everything, ground fresh with roasted wild tomato for each meal. So delicious.
Everything was cooked in a couple of pots, with one big stirrer. A true minimalist kitchen. Each dish was kept warm under a banana leaf until the whole meal was ready.
After a couple of days we were finally allowed to help with the dishes. Here’s Meena washing up. Feeling embarrassed about her shaven head, not to mention cold, she made a head scarf like the Akha women wore.
Veggie scraps and washing water were chucked out the door to the chickens, scraps of meat to the dogs which slept under the house. The Akha build houses on stilts, the Lisu on the ground with a mud floor. Kicking our shoes off at the bottom of the steps we learnt to carry Sparky up the steep flight onto the bamboo porch where sat the only two chairs in the house, where the washing was hung to dry, and where the view was amazing, unspoiled by city smog.
So much of what I believe to be good practice in child raising was happening as it had done for generations here in the village. Children were carried about by their mothers or grandmothers as they worked. Tied onto their back for work, swung to the side for spoon feeding and to the front for breast feeding. Our host mother wore Baby Boy every chance she got, disappearing for long periods as she carried him about the village. I have no idea where he went, but I suspect he got fed there.
Bits of the anthropology I’d studied came back to me, as I wondered about division of labour, laws enforment, power and control issues. Our hosts worked together, cooking together, and going to the farm together. Our host Dad took the rubbish out, our host Mum seemed to hold the cash. (when i say ‘took the rubbish out’, I mean, chucked it all off the cliff where everyone else chucked their rubbish.The problem with switching from banana leaf packets, to plastic bags, is that the perfectly good system of chucking stuff off cliffs no longer works. But currently, its the only system they have.)
Our guide explained that 30 years had changed a lot for the Akha. Thanks to their own efforts, missionaries, and government intervention, they now had electricity, running water, and good roads. Their children attended school. The Thai government does not afford to all tribal minorities the same rights as other Thais. Historially there has been conflict over opium farming and landrights or lack of. In fact, groups such as the Chan and Karen are amoung the refugee population at home.
As we talked about Sparky, I asked where were the children with disabilities in the village. There weren’t any. They had all died in infancy. Our host mother was one of twelve children, six of whose had survived infancy. The Akha typically have many children, and although five is not big by their standards, they heartily approved! Our host mother was concerned that Akha youth were leaving villages for the cities, and not having time to have enough children! But she was torn about it, she also felt a college education was important for them.
One afternoon, our guide took a group of village kids on a walk to the next village, a Lahu tribe. Tintin, Meena and I went, carrying Baby Boy. At the village, our guide took us to a family house, and we all peered in the door and met the pet monkey. I wondered how many times a day sweaty white faces peered into their home without invitation. We got a taste of being tourist attractions ourselves when vans of tourists on tours parked up and wandered around for 20 minutes. They all pulled out cameras and snapped me washing Baby Boy in the bowl on the bamboo porch, while the kids played around by the fire. I guess if you book a tour that ‘does’ five hilltribes and some elephants in a day, 20 minutes is all the time there is!
The Akha kids were fit and strong. They spoke very very little English, but Meena in particular made firm friends in the few days we spent with them. No language is required when you laugh and skip down gravel hills holding hands, play spinning tops, or do drawing together.
We spent a morning at the pre-primary, a sparsely resourced concrete building at the bottom of the village. From the recesses of our minds we dug up a few kids songs with actions, and some games. We doubled their classroom pencil collection, by donating a pack of 12. We played a great deal of duck-duck-goose and musical statues. One of the many reasons my husband is wonderful, is his ability to sing on demand, alone, unaccompanied and at length, even with 20 incredulous 5 year old onlookers.
On Sunday afternoon Snowy was feverish and miserable. Chris took the other children off to the church as I lay with him and tried to get him to drink. Our host mother felt his forehead and then prayed for him, she took her bible and placed it on his pillow next to him in what seemed like a mixture of faith and superstition. I opened the cover and read that the bible was translated into the Akha language in 1987. We later learnt that Akha was not written at all until a script was devised by the missionaries. At church, Chris could sing the hymns in Akha by fitting the familiar tune to the written phonetic script. The older folk in the church could not read and had to sing by memory.
At each meal, we served food for Sparky into our tin, and blended it up. Our host parents were fascinated by the cordless blender and laughed as they had a turn. Every meal involved long mortar and pestle pounding session. It made me very grateful for our blender. I once heard of a young girl with cerebral palsy in Nepal, whose mother chewed all her food into puree and then fed it to her, fingerfulls at a time. She lay in the back of their hut in the dark all day. I do rant about the disability system in Australia, resplendant in its ridiculous glory, but there’s no denying, in many many ways, we have it easy. Basic things like electricity, bitumen, and emergency departments set us miles apart.
Actually the community oriented village struck me as an ideal place for a child with disabilities to grow up. In Australia families are so isolated. ‘Help’ is so institutionalised. Daily life is so planned and orchestrated for many with disabilities. Decisions are reviewed by committees, equipment is externally sought and seemingly randomly funded, the individual has little say in the decisions that affect them.
In Australia, a person with a disability could be forgiven for thinking their entire life was one big OHS issue. Or a line item on a funding submission. Or a seat on a bus. Once a school bus staff member st school asked me “Is Sparky a wheelchair?”
‘No’ I said. ‘She’s a little girl.’
Of course, the village was physically inaccessible, and the bathroom made washing Sparky impossible, and there were no medical services anywhere nearby. But access can be fixed far more easily than isolation, access is usually just a matter of equipment and funding. Inclusion needs a whole change in culture; from thinking that our lives are separate and our challenges are our own, to thinking that resources and time and stuff are to be shared. But I bet if we lived there, others would be involved in our lives in a way that does not occur at home. At home, only three adults know how to feed Sparky and use her special seat. There are only half a dozen people we would ever leave her with, and only for 2 hours. No one has learnt to use her PODD to communicate with her. Its not necessarily anyone’s fault, it would be hard for someone to learn these things, we live separate lives, not communal lives. I’m not the only mum of a child with disabilites who has wondered how we could set things up differently, so these things would happen more naturally, as an extension of everyday life, not as a regulated, funded, timed, supervised, approved and extremely safe exercise in bureaucratic gymnastics.
I’ve given up trying to find out who originally said “It takes a village to raise a child”. I know a few homeschoolers who say ” I’ve seen the village, and I don’t want it raising my child”. Of course it’s easy to idealize something we have only glimpsed, but in our four days at the Akha village, I would have no concerns in this village having a hand in raising mine. They asked us to return one day when Baby Boy is all grown up. I really hope we do.