It has been a busy two months for Tatupa and Tatumo. Rice planting season is always a time for both community and cooperation. Villagers who don’t have the money to hire other villagers to help prepare the fields, exchange labor. That exchange could take form in a variety of forms. For example, a villager is in debt to another village, they can work off their debt in their loaners field. Some villagers may come help in another villagers field and in exchange that recipient will then go and help in the other villagers field at a later date. Tatupa and Tatumo have therefore had the opportunity to go and help many villagers in exchange for their help. This is a form of the local “exchange” economy that still thrives in low income communities. This year has been wetter than most so we have worried that the rice fields will flood. The Life Center is semi- surrounded by a small river flowing down from Mae Hong Son to Mae Chaem, we have seen the water levels rise and fall, but recently the waters have almost flooded the Center property.
Tatumo has spent the month weaving her beautiful handicrafts to make some extra income. I cannot imagine the hard work and dedication it must take to put together one bag. Tatumo can weave one entire bag in two days time. Karen women will sit on the ground and brace their backs against a long piece of dried leather. The leather is attached to a wood frame at the weavers feet by ropes. The lack support for the weavers back, the attention to detail and designs, required to produce these handicrafts makes them well worth their value. Teamekerlah village currently has a women’s weaving cooperative that sells their handicrafts both in country and even abroad to Japan.
As Tatupa begins to pray for his incoming students, we are reminded of how important prayer and preparation is after our last years group. The 2013-2014 group was a rough bunch of guys, we even had a few of them walk out of the program. One of the guys came from a very rough family, both his father and his uncle had been convicted of murder on two separate occasions in two of the surrounding villages. Tatupa will begin to go visit villages and pass out application and information packets at the end of this month. Usually the people the apply don’t show up and the ones who didn’t apply come through, so we are excited to find out who will be in our 2014-2015 group.
Because of generous donations we have been able to invest in the infrastructure of The Life Center. We at Project:Restore seek to partner by making strategic investments to allow projects to have a degree of independence and self sustainability. Recently we invested in a water system including a pump and piping to bring water freely into the center. We have began to plant a variety of fruits and vegetables including Pineapples, Patatoes, Cabbage, Corn, and Mangoes. We also have built fenced in an area to raise goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits.We hope that these investments will help cut down on food costs.
It has been exciting to watch the community come beside Tatupa and Tatumo by co-investing in the centers development. Recently villagers and a few past students raised $650 to renovate a women’s hostel. Stay tuned as we wait for the end of the rainy season and prepare for the coming harvest season! We ask that you continue to pray for us as we continue to make strategic investments, and prepare for the next group of students.
A 7th grade class in northern Thailand is asked about their future goals. Doctors, teachers, police officers, politicians and business people; not surprisingly, every student’s future self is a picture of success. “What about you, Bao, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Witoon’s nephew pauses briefly to respond. “I want to be a farmer.”
Everyone laughs. His teacher chuckles and furthers the interrogation. “Well, then why are you here? You should be out in the fields!”
Here in the mountains, very few, if any, want to be farmers. Agriculture is what the highland people turn to when life offers no other choices. Today, it is all too often a life stigmatized and plagued by debt, as families struggle to produce enough corn to buy their rice and keep their children in school. Simply put, you farm so your children don’t have to. On top of this, minority highland people face considerable ethnic discrimination in mainstream Thai society, leading many to abandon their identity as Lahu or Akha.
Like Bao and his classmates, most of Witoon’s neighbors and relatives have labeled him a “crazy” man. No one understands how, after achieving such academic success, Witoon could return to his village and a life of “poverty”. Recently, however, we have had the opportunity of meeting some other “crazy” people serving here in northern Thailand. We traveled to Mae Ai to visit two similar projects: UHDP (Uplands Holistic and Development Project) and the ECHO Seed Bank. Ajaan Tui, director of the UHDP Resource Center, gave us a tour of their demonstration farm and Ajaan Wah, of ECHO’s seed bank, introduced us to new crops and some of her useful seed storage techniques. While we witnessed many wonderful things during our short visit, the most inspiring was the look on Witoon’s face as he conversed with these like-minded, farm-crazy local leaders!
At the heart of Witoon’s work, be it planting coffee, growing rice, raising goats, or selling bananas, is a desire to remind his people of their inherent value. Above all else, he wants his neighbors to find meaning and purpose in being Lahu, respecting local wisdom, and serving as caretakers of Creation. His nephew, Bao, offers us a glimmer of hope for the future of this community, as do our new friends at UHDP and ECHO. We are so grateful for the privilege to partner with Witoon in this dream, throwing off the burden of shame, and finding mutual purpose working alongside Lahu and Akha farmers. We look forward to the day when choosing a life in agriculture is not a laughing matter, but one of respect.