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218th Meeting – Tuesday, January 29th 2002

"From finding a treasure in a poor village to the setting up of an Akha Educational System"

A talk by Leo A. von Geusau

A summary of Leo’s talk

I came to Thailand in 1977 to conduct fieldwork studies on Akha language and culture. Two obstacles that I initially encountered were that I was discouraged by the Thai authorities who, for whatever reasons, did not want me to pursue these studies, and the Akha taboo against allowing their teachers - phima - to share their memorized texts with outsiders. This taboo made it very difficult for me to find a village that would allow me to stay and talk with their teacher. To overcome this obstacle, I made a bike tour through 10 villages until I at last came to Ban Ayo Mai, a small, very poor village, where the village leader, Pacelo, was willing to break the taboo and teach me Akha language and culture. In the two years that I spent studying with Pacelo, I discovered that despite the obvious problems associated with poverty and malnutrition in the village, the Akha people maintained an intricate system of rules and regulations that controlled social order and a wealth of traditional ecological, agricultural, moral and accurate historical knowledge. The name given to this complex corpus of culture is  'zang', to be translated as 'Customary Law'. Zang is orally transferred in lengthy texts from one generation to the next by 'cultural specialists'. The most important of these specialists is the phima or reciter, who has to study for 10-15 years with a master phima in order memorize the lengthy texts; which must be memorized literally in order to prevent cosmic irregularities. The texts are extremely poetic and descriptive and often use the Taoist type of oppositions.

The reason that Abaw Pacelo had decided to break the taboo and pass these texts on to an outsider was that he foresaw a time, in the not too distant future, when the younger generation would go to school and learn from books. If the traditional Akha educational texts were to continue to be passed on to future generations then the system of oral transfer had to be converted into a written system and stored as 'hard-copy' in books and other forms of modern communication media, rather than in the memory banks of the phima. It had to be accepted that an inevitable cultural casualty of this transfer process would be the loss of the almost computer-like exactness of the zang teaching master's memory. Following the first breaking of the taboo a movement soon developed to 'save what can be saved' before the older generation dies and takes their libraries of text memories to the grave with them. Several phimas offered to have their texts taped and ceremonies photographed, which has resulted in the establishment of an Akha archive of around 800 audiotapes, several hundred videos and thousands of still photos. These texts and images of ceremonies were not given to us anthropologists and linguists to be used only in our individual academic pursuits; perhaps never again to see the light of day, but in order that we should write them down in a form that could be used to produce educational material for future generations of Akha. Although our organisations, related to MPCDE/SEAMP (South-East Asian Mountain Peoples' Culture and Development  Educational  Foundation) started to write down some of the texts, it was not until 1966 that we from MPCDE/SEAMP-HRI, Chiang Mai had a chance to start to systematically copy texts from tapes. We have now produced 10 manuscripts in 'Archaic Akha Texts' on various subjects of 'traditional knowledge'. The Chinese government, using language exercise books written in an adapted form of an internationally recognizable script, is now developing an Akha educational system. An "Archaic Akha Text Manual" about the "Life-cycle of people, animals and plants." is almost ready for printing. In the mean time   Akha language and culture teachers are being trained. In the villages and amongst Akha students there is great interest in this modernized Akha Educational System. It's taken nearly three decades but now the dreams of my first teachers are beginning to become reality.