Interview by Manu Luksch, Jinghong, China PR; january 2000
Translated by Paul Lewis
[Paul & AhChau sitting next to each other talking in Akha. Paul starts translating.]
Paul (translating): The way we walk, the way we comb our hairŠ Of course, all tribal people tend to be different to the low-landers, especially the city dwellers.
Paul (translating): Walking along hereŠ oh there's a Lahu there, oh there's an Akha
there, oh there's a Chinese there, she knowsŠ
Q: We wanted to talk about projects to develop and help Akha. How did the project you were involved in start and how did you see the need in this field to do something?
Paul: OK, lets do a little bit of background here. (Paul asks in Akha, AhChau answers)
Paul (translating): When I was very small I wanted to go to school, I could just die, I wanted to go to school so much but my father was an opium addict, he didn't have the money for me to go. (AhChau talking).
Paul (translating): My mother had a total of seven children, three of them died, four are livingŠ (AhChau talking).
Paul (translating): the three oldest of us never had a chance to go to schoolŠ (AhChau talking).
Then the elder sister, she got married and you go live with the husbandąs family, of course, and I was left to be the one to help my motherŠ (AhChau talking).
When I was still very young, my father went to a camp where they had detoxification programs, so he got over an opium addiction. But my mother said, using her words, we cannot stay in the village because there are other opium addicts throughout the village. We go to a Christian village so that's when we moved to [Š] (AhChau talking).
We were new people there we hadn't made fields yet so it was very difficult so I had a lot of work to do looking after my younger siblings and my family had a hard time. (AhChau talking).
After we'd been there two or three years they did have a school there.
(AhChau talking) but I couldn't go to school then even because I had to look after my younger siblings.
Oh, not just her siblings but other children, too, and then, [Š] she did that so those people would give rice to my parents to eat. (AhChau talking).
So, when I was twenty I got to speak Taiwanese even if I could not read it. (AhChau talking).
Every day I would have to get up three o'clock in the morning and work till four o'clock in the afternoon at the meat-packing place.
Paul (not translating): Uhuh, three in the morning till nine at night. Good grief I didn't realise it was that bad.
I got 300 hundred Baht a month working there. (AhChau talking).
I worked for over a year, but I was living in Chiang Mai, too far away. My mother and father said come back and live in Chiang Rai. At first I felt a relief there.
People I was working for they had relatives who were opening a new restaurant, The Hill People Restaurant, so they asked her to go to work there and she wears the Akha outfit, she has a beautiful outfit, and work in that restaurant. (AhChau).
Oh, I met Paul Lewis and Elaine Lewis whilst I was working in that restaurant. (AhChau).
And my wife and I asked her: are you really happy doing that kind of work? (AhChau). She said: no, I'm not at all happy here, and had to work late hours. People are drunk and so they had a lot of problems.
And the people thought, well if she works in there, she's a loose character, she'll sleep with men and so she didn't like that. (AhChau). But if I don't do bad things like that in there it's all right I can make it out in there. (AhChau). But it was difficult for me working in the restaurant because I didn't know how to write Thai. (AhChau).
Yeah, the owner is Thai of the restaurant. Because she couldn't write Thai she'd get angry at her and she took tongs that she used, you know, to pick up ice and she hit her on the shoulder so blood came but .( AhChau). So, I said, I'm not gonna work here anymore. (AhChau). But they didn't wanna let her go. (w).
Every month they were holding out fifty Baht, every month, and if she left, they wouldn't give her that money. (AhChau) So first time I said, well, my mother's sick she's in the hospital. I've gotta get all the money to help her. So when they gave her the money she left right away. (w).
So I've lived with a Chinese family in Chiang Rai. (AhChau) but the man of the house wanted to sleep with me and would do all kinds of advances, and so on that I was very uncomfortable with (AhChau).
He thought, well she's working in a restaurant like that, she must be wanting to sleep with men. (AhChau). I told him I said I'm not that kind of a person, if you want me to work here you gotta back off.( AhChau). I'll tell your wife.
Oh, I won't do it anymore, don't tell her, don't tell her. So, the son who'd been working down in Chiang Mai, when that place was closed he came back to Chiang Rai.( AhChau). So the son jumped on her back and was trying toŠ (AhChau). So she threw a metal thing at him. (AhChau). if you do this I'll tell your mother and father. (AhChau). I didn't wanna sleep with him. Both the father and the son had bad ideas (AhChau).
So I left that place (A) and then I was looking for a job. (A). So she met us one time and said, hey where are you going, I'm looking for work. (A). I said, I told her, look, if you have any problems give us a call, we'd like to help you. (A).
I'd never used a telephone before, she said, I kept looking for work (A) and I just had some little money I couldn't go anywhere (A) so she telephoned and said, well, lookŠ
I'm telling a little more, OK?ŠThe Akha committee, there was a committee, they asked me to work on a hymn book, dictionary, or medical book and something else, there were four books they'd asked me to work on.
So while she was living with us and working and lived beyond these books there was the time when the New Life Centre was started. (A) . Well, I want to describe it, I was 23, felt like an old woman (A) and I went back home and asked my mother and father (A). They said, look if you go study who is gonna help us? (A). We don't have enough to eat (A). She has a younger brother and they said, oh, we won't be able to study. (A). No matter what I'm gonna go study I want to read Thai. (A). If I can't make it I leave and get a job (A) so they said OK, if that's what you want to do go ahead and do it. (A). It was extremely difficult for me at that time. I didn't know how to read and write and the same time, back home my mother and father were having a very difficult time (A) but I worked very hard for 5 years? And you graduated from high school and adult school. Then what did you do after that?
(A) OK, the 2nd year that she was there they made her a house mother. The year she was there they had only one house and she was the assistant house mother, 9 Lahu girls and 9 Akha girls. 2nd year you had, what, 50 girls? (A). Something like that? So, they had two houses and she became the house mother of the 2nd house. (A).
Every night I kept studying. (A). Every night I kept studying near the adult school. (A). during that time many of the girls who came to the New Life Centre had a lot of problems and I would have to help them with their problems. (A).
Then after she'd been there for 5 years she went with a group of the girls, young women, to America and she was there for 6 months studying English, and she had wonderful teachers. What were their names again? Paul and Elaine Lewis? (both laugh) They danced, they did a lot of wonderful things, they were all over the country. (A). When she came back then, she was made the social worker for New Life Centre and what did you do as a social worker? (A).
It's a kind of go-between between the young people and their parents. Sometimes their parents say: łOh, if our child goes, we want to have enough opium to smoke˛ or some kind of a problem like that so she'll go to them: łOh look you can detoxify, you don't have to smoke opium˛, and she'll-Š but there are some days where she may help them into a different setting altogether depending on the need. (A).
And then they have time when the school is closed so she will take a group- how many in a group? How many girls? (A). Fifteen of them and they'll go round different Akha villages and they kind of have a play they give that has to do with Aids if someone in the village has Aids what to do to help. (A).
Tell us a little more about what it is you do as a social worker in Chiang Mai. (A).
Well, I take teams of 15 girls up to various villages and we put together on plays and we sing and try and tell them what Aids is like, how to prevent getting Aids. I've been to places, too, where the mother and father were opium addicts so they sell their daughter. (A). In many cases the people make wonderful promises: Oh, your daughters gonna get a good salary, we'll send money back to you every month, but, the minute they get the girl away they sell her into a brothel. But what do you do about that if they sell their daughter? What can you do as a social worker? If we have a picture and know approximately where she is, well, take that picture and go to the police and say the girl has been sold into a brothel, we want her back.
Do you go to the brothel then? (A). I've gone many times to the brothel.
And who else helps to get the young girls out?
There's a young man named ---Yake--- he's not here at the conference. He's helped about 100 girls move out of the brothel. (A). We tried to explain in various ways, through singing, through dancing, whatever it is to say: Now look if you're going to sell your daughter. If they don't have an education have them come down to the New Life Centre.
But you can't accept everybody is that right? Now what to do then? Suppose the girl- (A) the last time we could accept 20 new people. We had over a hundred girls coming trying to get in. So, we just cried. (A) But we say: try coming back again at a new term. Some people have been there 2 times, 3 times, 4 times and finally they've been accepted.
Q: Do you think that in Thailand the situation is worse than in the other countries?
There are around 400 tribal groups within Akha from X-banna to [Š] area. I've taken many of these girls back up to the border in Mae Suai, a girl from Burma, girls from Lahu. Thailand is the heart of it, that's the capital- sex capital - of the world (A)
I don't know what the situation is right now. (A). The Thai situation is terrible, worse than any other mentioned (A). And the Akha girls are the ones that have been forced or tricked into it for the most part.