Akha Swing Festival, ethnic culture in the mountains
The Akha swing festival
Once a year, at the peak of the rainy season, the colourful Akha people celebrate a four day festival in their villages in the mountains of the North. During these days they ‘swing for freedom’, a reflection of their long and tragic history.
‘They eat the raw meat of dogs and wash themselves only once a year. In the hope that a woman will deliver a boy infant, they throw dung at her. If she delivers twins, they kill the infants. They are the most unhealthy and miserable of all mountain tribes. When visiting their villages, you should be prepared for fleas and lice, and the reek of opium.’
These are just a few of the many prejusticed cliches which have been traditionally spread about the Akha peoples. Little or nothing of it is true, however, and despite serious attempts by NGOs and government agencies to enhance the image of these mountain people by giving a more realistic picture of their culture, some of these slurs are still reproduced in guide books, or voiced by the Thais, as well as other minorities living in the mountains.
Hundreds of years ago the Akha had their own kingdom in China, but it was conquered by stronger tribes. Many Akha were made slaves, while others fled to remote mountain areas. Later, these refugees were chased away again, further to the south into Burma, where, so it turned out, peace was also difficult to find. About 1900, the first Akha crossed the border to settle in the mountainous north of Thailand. The kingdom was to become a relatively safe and peaceful haven for them. More than 40,000 Akha now live in Thailand spread among 200 villages, most of them in Chiang Rai province. But another 700,000 Akha still live in China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam.
‘For centuries they have fled suppression,’ explained the late Dr. Leo Alting von Geusau (1), a well-known Akha-expert who lived in Chiang Mai. ‘So, when missionaries and anthropologists described them as semi-nomadic, this was a rather slanted interpretation of the real situation. They are born losers who have internalized their fate. Mere survival has become the core of their culture. They regard the outside world with great suspicion, as being full of potential evil forces. Even now, visiting officials are regarded with distrust and spoken to with sweet words and offered glasses of rice liquor to appease them.’
But once a year the Akha throw off these feelings of constraint. Then, after the rice has been planted, they erect giant swings in their villages, ‘because when you don’t have your country any more,’ according to a Akha New Year song, ‘you still can feel free while swinging in the air.’
I visited an Akha village during the Swing Festival — also called the Akha New Year — a few years ago. By rented motorbike I crossed the mountains between Mae Suai and Wawi in Chiang Rai province near the Burmese border. Many mountain slopes were denuded and planted with rice, cabbages and tomatoes, others were still covered with lush forest. The mountain views were truly beautiful until, within a few minutes, the sky turned black and I got caught in torrential rains. My bike soon sank deep into the mud of the mountain road. Grumblingly I thought: ‘This is the fertile rainy season which anthropologists can praise so lyrically.’
Completely exhausted from man-handling my motorbike through huge muddy puddles and up slippery slopes, and coated from head to foot in reddish slush, I finally reached a Lisu village just before dark. I knew this hamlet well and my friend Aleppa, in characteristic sky-blue Lisu skirt-like trousers, who was sitting in front of his bamboo hut, cracking some forest nuts of the season with his teeth, offered me his usual hospitality.
The heavy rains had prevented me witnessing the ceremonies of the first day of the Swing Festival, mainly consisting of rites to invite the ancestors to participate. But the next morning, we ploughed our way through the mud to the Akha settlement Saen Charoen Kao, about eight kilometres from the Lisu hamlet. Just before the village, we left the muddy laterite road to descend along a jungle path to see the traditional village gate, a simple wooden construction flanked with intriguing wooden sculptures: swords and human-like figures with prominent sexual characteristics — the male guardians having enormous wooden penises, along with wicker baskets of woven bamboo for the testicles. Although these images have usually been interpreted as fertility symbols, Leo Alting von Geusau had explained to me that their actual function is to deter intruders (including malevolent spirits).
Arriving in the village, I noticed that the houses were built on stilts, but otherwise my impression was that there were few substantial differences from the Lisu village. However, my Lisu companion was eager to draw my attention to the pigs that were roaming free. ‘Everywhere the smell of their shit, even when you are eating,’ he remarked disapprovingly. A few moments later he told me that he felt pity for those poor Lisu men who marry an Akha girl because of their low bride price of only one pig. Clearly, Aleppa, along with many other Lisu neighbours, did not have a high regard for the Akha. (2)
As we walked through the village, I admired the beautiful traditional dress of some of the women, especially the cone-like head-dresses — extremely colourful works of art decorated with beads, silver coins and brightly dyed chicken feathers and tufts of monkey fur. Just then, some forty young men gathered at the entrance of the village, many of them wearing rubber boots and all sporting machetes in woven bamboo sheaths hanging from their waists. They were in a boisterous mood and soon set of in procession. We followed them into the forest where they split into four smaller groups. Soon each of these had located a tree considered suitable for a pole of the swing. They started to cut down the trees and lop off the branches.
The four poles were carried to the square in front of the village school, where the view over the surrounding mountains was fantastic. Four holes about 80 centimetre deep had already been dug in a quadrangular formation about four metres apart. Then a ceremony was held, during which the spirits that owned the soil were asked for permission to use it. Whisky, tea, fermented rice, and coins were offered, while heavy rains started to fall again. Actually, if it doesn’t rain during the festival, this is regarded as a bad sign. The wet weather did not deter the men from inserting each pole into one of the holes. Next, two men climbed to the top of them, which they firmly tied together with lianas and rope, thus creating what looked like the skeleton of a huge wigwam. Then a heavy wooden yoke was inserted in the top of this flexible construction, which was completed with a double chain of iron as the pendulum of the swing. Altogether its construction had taken about two hours.
Young men started testing it by swinging at least seven metres high. Then older men thoroughly inspected the swing for a last time. It shouldn’t be too near the ground, too high or too risky. It has happened a few times in Saen Charoen that the whole ceremony has been called off, but fortunately that year the swing met the safety standards. In the meantime the rain had stopped and many villagers had gathered and started to show off their abilities on the swing.
The next day I met Leo Alting von Geusau in the house of his father-in-law. The anthropologist had lived in Saen Charoen for many years and followed the many changes in the village with great concern. During those years, over half of the young men and women had left to find work in Chiang Mai and other towns in the lowlands. Many of the remaining young men became addicted to heroin. The village sank into poverty, while the Akha culture was in decline, a common trend also in many other hill tribe villages.
‘But now there is a ray of hope,’ explained the anthropologist. ‘Because of the situation in Burma, with Khun Sa living in Rangoon, there has been no heroin in the village for a long time, so all the addicts have had to kick their habits. And many of the girls who work in the city have returned to the village to celebrate the Akha New Year. They now wear modern western-style clothes instead of their traditional dress. Maybe that’s best, after all they don’t want to be regarded as second-rate citizens. Yet they are proud to keep their culture alive. They have been beating the drums the whole night!’
We strolled to a hut where a crowd of them were wearing T-shirts after the latest fashion, but some of the girls were dressed for the occasion in their splendid traditional costumes. When they started to sing an Akha song, the anthropologist proudly drew my attention to it. ‘But the traditional dances in a circle are a thing of the past; there is only one group of Akha who sometimes still perform them; but only when they get paid for it.’ (3)
Walking in the village I noticed that in many compounds miniature swings had been constructed for the children from bamboo. Around the Big Swing in front of the village school was a colourful crowd in a festive mood. A young Akha woman in complete traditional dress was just swinging through the air, cheered on by the enthusiastic villagers. With the green and blue mountains in the background it was an impressive sight, as if a giant bird of paradise was zigzagging through the air.
The rest of the day, and the one following, the people of Saen Charoen Kao would swing for freedom but, watching the unpredictable movements of the dark clouds, I thought it safer to descend to the valley before the rains made the dirt road to the village even more slippery.
©SJON HAUSER: TEXT & PICTURES
1, 3. For a biographical sketch of this dedicated researcher of the Akha culture see: Alting von Geusau en de Akha van Noord-Thailand (in Dutch).
2. More about the Lisu of northern Thailand in de articles: Lisu New Year, enacting ethnic culture in the mountains and Lisu Road, Lisu villages along Highway 1322 to Wiang Haeng .
The Akha Swing Festival is usually held in late August or early September. The exact date of the festival may differ. These dates are not fixed before early August. In some villages there may be no Swing Festival at all, or the swing may be declared unsafe for use. Many Akha settlements are almost inaccessible during the rainy season, but between Thaton and Mae Chan several Akha villages are located alongside a major road.