ELL: The Old Woman's Blessing Feb 24, 2000
akha at LOXINFO.CO.TH
Thu Feb 24 11:27:39 UTC 2000
The Old Womans Blessing
The old hut, large and all alive with its overhanging roof of dusty gray
and blackened grass thatch hiding the shadows of the porch, took up a
noticeable place on the edge of the ridge where the village penetrated
from the roots of the jungle. I stooped to go inside, and as every Akha
hut, it was full of the men, the women, the children, that kept the hut
alive, kept it from dying, because, in itself the hut was an
individual. Not the making of one hand, but the making of all hands,
all hands in the village, the jungle, the eyes that the swallows flew
through laced about with amber browns from the escaping fire smoke at
the ends of the long hut, the crossed peaks of the roof locking the huts
place in time it would seem.
Before every hut I wanted to pause, like I was looking someone in the
face, a special kind of face, like that of an old barn in other
countries, eyes, a smile, a tired smile. Huts always gave the sense
that they were trying to be solid, like a hen for its chicks, thatch
thrown here and there, porches, braces, posts, and steps, pigs,
chickens, horses, cattle and dogs, each gathered in its place below and
always the big bunker of rice near by. A carefully calibrated assembly
A fire was going, the men on this side, the women on that, some of the
men smoking, others reclining, all talking, passing words to each other
like unfinished thoughts and lines that were only ones to take and pass
along to the next man where he might finish it or here the cue words
from the woman at the fire as to what was missing next before he passed
it on. The Akha had a collective consciousness, a collective mind and a
collective thought. To say you knew something meant that the village
knew it and it was always there when you needed it. The men didnt know
it, the women didnt know it, they ALL knew it. This was always true
except in villages where the missionaries had performed a cultural
lobotomy and the mind no longer worked due to their sinister needs. But
there were no missionaries in this village. I had seen to that. I was
the mercenary, the holder of the pike, that bought them another day.
For there were missions to every side of the village, all waiting for
the day when they could end this collective talk and thought. I dont
know who had the last part of the line or who passed it to whom, but the
old man sat on his bed, giving hand to his tobacco pipe and gazing at
me, some change coming about in this all, I, a white man by best
account, making some odd entrance into his life that he was not yet sure
of but was not so surely opposed to.
For he was the Boeuh Maw and it was to him that I had come for a name.
For sons must have names, daughters must have names, and for the Akha
this meant that I must tell them where it was that I had joined to the
tree, where I had been grafted in of consent of the Akha, and this
village. Nothing was said of it for the moment beyond that, thoughts
also collective in days, not supposing to end on this day or that,
hanging there in the air till you came back and took it, turned so many
times by so many others as part of the village. Transparency was an
understatement. I would buy him a pig and a gift and we would have a
ceremony for his favor to me.
And then from behind the wall in realms of power unknown the tiniest
wift of the most gentle old woman came out with hands and air moving in
circles, leaning her head to the side, catching a vibration of who was
in her hut like some great web, some great sensitivity to kindness, and
she began to speak. I dont know what she said, someone added that at
their deaths I buy a water buffalo but she immediately refuted that and
waving about her hands in some slow dance told me what a gladness that
it was for her to add me to her house like a son and my wife and child.
Her head dress was battered and the silver hung all about, worn down to
smooth bead like pieces from all the shifting from all the years that
she had worn it, no less than fifty now, through how many wars and
village moves and fifty years of stooping to hoe the earth and plant the
rice in a dance of seeds and jousting sticks which tossed the soil in
the blowing and raining chill of the pre-monsoon spring air on the
ridges, from the Chinese border high mountains, across Burma to now some
kilometer inside Thailand. She held no hold on life, nor the history
the fools would write after her as so many gathered to cut her village
in pieces, but that caused her not to shrivel back in the generosity to
I could not describe her voice except that I would never forget it.
All that day the village gathered and on the lip of the ridge of the
village, one moment down the steep face, gathered to build me and my
wife a hut of our own. The elder came with the dawn and got me from my
bed where I nursed a headache from something I had eaten the night
before, and taking me surely down the cliff with each step of his, just
below the other hut, he handed me a long skinny stick with a rice
planting spade. "Drive it into the hole one time" he said. I did, and
then pulled it out and he dug the last of the loose dirt from the hole.
His face turned to the side and pressed tight against he earth in exact
depth as he reached his hand below. Then he called for the post, the
center post of the hut on the downhill side wall. Motioning, the post
was lowered at an angle to the edge of the hole but not down. There it
was held. Three stems of grass were tied to the post and the heads
entered into a hole in the side of the bamboo. He handed me a glass of
rice whiskey, used in all Akha ceremonies to bind the occasion, and
together we poured it over the base of the post three times. Then in
the other hand he produced a small bowl with rice and one egg. I took a
pinch of dry rice, touched it to the egg that sat in it, and dropped it
on the foot of the post. I did this three times. Then standing up, I
caught the post as though to set it firmly in the earth and slammed it
down into the hole as hard as I could calling out each time in unison
with all the workers, "Shurh, Shurh, Shurh!". This done, the house was
built over the passage of the day.
That night the dear Akha woman who was now my Akha mother, from whom my
children got their clan name, came to the ground above the hut, her tiny
frame swaying timelessly, and climbed down the steps to my new hut.
Going inside, I followed her. She had again an egg. She took a
ceremonial rice paddle and cracked the egg. She placed a piece in my
cupped hands to eat, blessing the house and our children all along.
Then she called in a small line of waiting village children and gave
them pieces of the egg as witnesses in this life. Them the Lords of the
Jury after all. Then kneeling first beside the fire on my wifes side
and then on my side of the hut she carefully rubbed egg on each inward
pointing tine of the fire rings.
I could not remember all that she said, except to be mesmerized by the
voice of this old woman who I dont think I had seen more than two times
to that point in the village.
Then the man came in and brought with him meat and food, cutting it
carefully and showing me what parts to eat and how. He took the three
heads of a plant with flat leaves and placed it in the bamboo tube along
with a bamboo thatch ring and other things and then place the cloth plug
in it with his hands together with mine showing how the regular
ceremonies to the continuity of life now and before us were kept to
insure it into the future. This, was the orthodox environmental law of
harmony of the Akhas. The Akha Way. Some two thousand years now, and I
had been made a part of it, as surely as were my children.
The wedding ceremony took off in the morning, many details, many private
to the Akha, that I put not down on paper, they were sacred in a day of
ridicule and foolish minds. The entire village turned out for three
When I left for town next the old woman told me that she would come each
day and bury the coals of the fire in the ashes as to keep them hot for
me, caring for the fire till I got back, the hut never left unattended.
She tilted down the road of the center of the village, her hands still
doing a dance in the air, the silver coins swinging to left and right,
the silver rings on the ends, tiny little legs that had carried her so
far and carried her now back from one more blessing. And all I could
remember was the great care and concern and very happiness that she had
taken in it all. The sunlight glimmered on the end of her hut as the
swallows floated in and out of the tiny holes in the thatch and she
ducked up into the porch as though cloaked and out of view her headdress
canted to one side.
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