A Sunday Service Among the Akha

By Claire vd Heever May 14, 2012

A mostly Akha congregation sing a hymn at Mae Salong's Methodist church

The church was almost full. From my pew near the back, between two bulky headdresses, I could see a young Chinese woman with a pudding basin haircut and an open hymn book, standing on the stage. Beneath their various ornaments, the headdresses were simple cloth caps dyed blue-black with indigo, but fully embellished they must have weighed a couple of kilograms. Hemispheres of beaten silver, called chukhaw, were sewn onto the front and sides. Silver-plated trapezoids the size of cigar boxes had been attached to the backs, with lengths of coloured beads, dyed horse hair and feathered tassels hanging from them, amongst coins. Sitting behind the ladies wearing the headdresses, I could read King Edward Emperor, still visible on the silver. The monarch’s face was worn down and the coins were thin and dainty: rupees spent in Burma or India during the British Raj.

The woman at the front of the church greeted us in Chinese, “Dàjiā hǎo!” and I wondered whether the ladies in headdresses understood this phrase by now. They were Akha, one of the ethnic minorities that Thailand calls “hill tribes”, as was three quarters of the congregation. The other quarter was Chinese – except for two curiosities: Iain and I, trying hopelessly to blend in.

Pudding Basin was joined on the stage by five other teens with identical haircuts. Together, they led the first hymn. It had a simple chorus, which they sang in Chinese, Thai and – today, at least – English.

Gǎnxiè gǎnxiè Yēsū, gǎnxiè gǎnxiè Yēsū!
Khawp khun khawp khun Yesu, khawp khun khawp khun Yesu!
Thank you thank you Jesus in my heart!

Iain and I had been invited to attend the Sunday service by the minister’s wife, who ran Mae Salong’s donut shop. The town is in Thailand, close to the Burmese border, but the majority of its residents are Chinese veterans of the Kuomintang’s 93rd division or their descendants. After 33 years in exile, abandoned by Taiwan and largely unwelcome in Burma, they fought a guerrilla war against communist rebels on Thailand’s border. In return, the Forgotten Army was awarded Thai citizenship and the right to settle in Mae Salong.

We stood for two hymns and watched the Akha shift their weight from foot to foot, staring ahead patiently. The tempo quickened and Pudding Basin urged the congregation to join in, but only a handful of people knew the Chinese words. “Let’s dance!” she said to the other girls on stage. Praying they didn’t feel as awkward as they looked, I watched them tapping their feet to the side, spinning around and adding actions to the song’s words. “Jesus loves you!” went the chorus; “love” was hands clasped over a beating heart and “you” was, predictably, a finger pointed at the congregation. They worked their way through the verses, looking gradually less sheepish. The guitarist played a joyful tune and a few people began clapping their hands in time.

The latecomers had arrived and the church was now snugly full. Most of the Akha women had covered their heads, some with wool scarves of red or bright pink tartan, others with traditional headdresses. A few were adorned from head to toe in Akha dress: headgear, jackets of bright appliqué, silver halter tops and embroidered shin covers, like legwarmers, for protection in the field. Their skirts were blue-black with a belt of jangling coins and cowries and beaded skirt guards – jejaws – to hold them in place.

The flamboyant clothing, like all Akha material culture, is a product of their close bond with the land. Their garments begin with the harvesting of cotton, which is hand-woven into cloth on bamboo looms and dyed with cultivated indigo. They decorate garments with red feather tassels  plucked from their own chickens, as well as  fur trim from the hide of gibbons killed in the jungle, pearly white seeds called Job’s tears and the shimmering green wings of beetles.

Iain was scanning the full church, his eyes darting across the rows of pews. Suddenly realising that he was surrounded by women, he turned to me with a look of horror. On the far right of the church the pews were filled with men. On the left, where we were sitting, were only women – and him. He stood up and hurried to the men’s side, hoping he hadn’t offended anyone, and that gender separation wasn’t taken as seriously in this church as it is in mosques. He squeezed into a row of men in pressed shirts and sat completely still, his cheeks pink. A small boy behind him wore one of the silver-studded caps; he’d abandon it as he grew older, when girls began to add heavier decoration.

The children at the service attended a school run by the minister and his wife, where Chinese volunteers taught them to read and do arithmetic. Making sense of Chinese characters isn’t easy, but I wondered how it would help these Akha children while they remained in Thailand.  The minister’s wife said there weren’t many alternatives. A large percentage of Akha people are effectively stateless, without access to education, and many parents had started coming to the Sunday services to express gratitude, not faith. I wondered what those without ID cards thought about the Chinese in Mae Salong with Thai citizenship.

Originally from Mongolia, civil unrest is thought to have forced the Akha southwest through Tibet into China’s Yunnan Province. The majority of Akha people still live in China today, but many have moved further south to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. They are animists in the broad sense, believing that spirits dwell in rivers, forests and homes, but have their own religion too – the Akha Way – and venerate their ancestors in the hope that they bestow blessings on the living.

A cross over the hills of Mae Salong

The minister approached the pulpit after a dreary hymn. My mind was drifting: hearing – but not listening to – the sing-song Chinese and I missed what must have been a question directed at the congregation. A woman tapped me on the shoulder, motioning for me to stand up. The last thing I wanted to be was farang entertainment for a captive audience, but another lady with an enormous grin nodded in encouragement, then another, until all around me, people seemed to be volunteering me for something. Not wanting to draw any more attention to myself, I tried to decline politely, wishing I could blend in.

A man in a pew on the right rose to his feet, answered the minister’s questions through an interpreter, and sat down again. Newcomers had been asked to introduce themselves I realised, feeling foolish. I watched two other people – one Chinese and one Akha – stand, state their hometown, and receive the minister’s welcome. I wanted to slide off the pew and onto the floor. The men on Iain’s side were pointing at him, trying to catch the minister’s eye. Reluctantly, he stood up, stooping slightly, and the hush of seeing a man over two metres tall came over the congregation.

Beaming, the minister asked Iain which country he came from. His reply, “Nán Fēi”, was met with familiar hesitation. “How long have you been in Thailand?” the minister went on, speaking quickly, as if Iain’s Chinese – in a Thai town, among an Akha congregation – was the most ordinary thing in the world. Iain answered several questions with only a pause or two and everyone clapped, welcoming him into the congregation. I sat in my pew – fearing, idiotically, that we’d somehow be exposed as curious tourists instead of fellow Christians – and waited my turn.
“Nà, nín shì nǎ yìgé guǒjiāde?” asked the minister, turning to me.
“Our situations are the same,” I said, suddenly hoarse; “We came together…” and let my knees give in as the church started clapping.

The sermon began. It was infused with the repetition and rhetorical questions of all Chinese speeches and I followed it easily. The topic was tóngxīn: cooperation, sticking together. “We need to stick together,” said the minister, “especially in this church, where we have a hundred or so people today. In good times and in bad times, we all speak the same language.” It was an interesting choice of metaphor: Pudding Basin had come forward to translate the sermon into Akha. “The family can succeed in anything if they stick together,” the priest continued, and waited for the translation: Chinese to Akha, Chinese to Akha; it was a slow process. “God says we must persevere!”

“If God comes down and sees we are too concerned with our differences, we will not have succeeded. We all have different languages, different accents, different ethnicities…” The minister’s emphasis on a spirit of cooperation and unity led suddenly to Jews leaving Israel for Syria and the strong spirit of tóngxīn there used to be in churches, with the translator stumbling  along after him. “Even though the Christians have left Israel, they are together in spirit – being separated doesn’t matter. They travelled to Asia, to Europe, to Africa… Every city has Christians and the Bible is the world’s supreme book.”

Perhaps he sensed that he was losing his Akha listeners, who probably knew nothing about Christian history, or Syria, or Israel. He was losing me too; the service had gone on for two hours already. He changed course. “When I went to Africa,” he said, grinning directly at Iain, “I saw lots of bison.” He must have meant wildebeest; there aren’t any bison in Africa. “Lions are kings of the jungle,” he continued, but the translator didn’t know the Akha word for lion – perhaps there wasn’t one. “When bison stick together and cooperate, they can’t be eaten by lions.” Who were the lions in this metaphor?

The reason many “foreign” countries are successful, the minister continued, is because their people cooperate and work together. “But Mao Zedong is a big problem,” he said unexpectedly. “Why did we come here? Because we didn’t want to cooperate with Mao.” I was eager to hear more about the Great Helmsman, but he came back to Iain and me. “If the South African gentleman and the South African lady didn’t stick together, they wouldn’t have arrived at this faraway place.” Slowing his pace, he summarised: “What is tóngxīn? It means not doing what you want all the time, but working together.” It was over. Across the room, I saw Iain sigh with relief.

The guitarist struck a chord, the singers converged and a Chinese Amazing Grace filled the church. The minister sang in baritone from the pulpit, the song ended and people lined up to take communion: women with babies tied onto their backs, men shouldering embroidered bags and children in grubby tracksuits. “Come forward to receive a tasty drink,” the minister encouraged. They ate the crackers and drank the red juice and there was a final hymn signalling the end of a marathon three hour service. People filed out.

Mae Salong’s main road formed a series of bends around the mountain and I watched a group of Akha women walking home towards their village beyond the town. Their indigo and red legwarmers swung back and forth, back and forth and, armed with babies on their backs and crowned with silver headdresses, they went home: home to a village on the border of the town, and several other borders too.

Much of what is written about the Akha and the social problems they face is heavily biased, often towards or against missionary intervention. For both sides of the story, read The Akha & Modernisation: A Quasi Legal Perspective, which highlights key issues that the Akha face, including prostitution, poverty and Christian proselytising. For a missionary’s perspective, read History of the Akha Church. Aljazeera’s Caught without a country reports on Akha statelessness in Thailand, with an accompanying video.

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5 Responses to “A Sunday Service Among the Akha”

  1. Juliet Emery says:

    Funny and embarassing but interesting to be there despite the long service – good story Claire

  2. Oscar v.d.B. says:

    Nice to read your story. I was also surprised to read of the criticisms openly expressed during a service.

    I've been in Mae Solong and have also been in Akha villages in Yunnan China (i.e. Mengsong). I remember one occasion in Mengsong, where Akha people from Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand came together and spoke about how they shared the same great-great-great-great …. father and how since that time they moved from settlement to settlement. I also vaguely remember a lot of ricewine…

  3. Jesse says:

    It's one of the things that really inspires most of the devotees knowing how many people are like them who praise and shows strong faith to their God and beliefs.

  4. DEK says:

    What a nice story. You seem to travel as it should be done, but so few do nowadays.

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