"...their kindness, generosity, and good nature was astounding and will stay with each of us for the rest of our lives...."
The importance of what is now being tipped to become ‘blue gold’ cannot be overstated. In the United Kingdom, it is taken for granted. However, through taking part in the water project, we realised just how important water is to the Karen people. This point was poignantly emphasised by the village head man who spoke powerfully of its deep connection to life, health and happiness on our last night in Ban Huay Keaw. As many villagers stated their dignified thanks in turn, we could only stand in front of them, moved. The project had been an incredible experience for the July Water Project Team also known as ‘Team Mamba’- and only at the village party when the project was completed did its true significance sink in.
The project had begun roughly 4 weeks earlier, when we arrived at the airport in Bangkok. After our acclimatisation to the food, time zone and heat in Bangkok we made our way to Khun Yuam which took roughly 4-5 hours in total. We were greeted warmly by Salahae and other members of the KHT and given our briefing, which was comprehensive and helpful. During a meal we were introduced to the water team who we would be working with and who would prove to be invaluable to us, Akha, Takoo, Vera and Boon. Salahae encouraged us to do our best and be as open minded as possible, however it became clear it was us who would be learning from the Karen.
After the long, bumpy Song-Thaew ride to the village we surveyed our home for the next few weeks. The open, wooden houses, muddy roads and slow-running river were all alien to us but the warmth of the quiet welcome was unmistakeably reassuring as we sat down around the fire that evening and tried to learn a little Karen, feeling our way into village life as we contemplated the gruelling work and early start in the morning. The boys and the girls were divided into two wooden huts. We were kindly given the upstairs of each of the huts. Our living quarters were surprisingly clean and comfortable considering we were sleeping on wooden boards. Luckily the team gelled well together and everyone was very open and considerate especially when someone was ill.
The next morning cockerels cried out and the village headman’s call to work over his speaker system woke us just before dawn. We organised meals in pairs, allocating people together according to cooking ability, thankfully Takoo or Akha was always on hand to help with the cooking or if there was any trouble lighting the fire - which often proved difficult. Unfortunately one of our team had fallen ill, Emily she had to be taken to hospital and our team leader Kate accompanied her. Already their absence was felt as they were both invaluable members of the team. Although they were gone, the team persevered on and we set off in the back of Akha’s pickup truck, gloved, booted and smothered with sun-cream and jungle spray. Keen to prove we could pull our weight we turned down the offer to carry only a section of piping each and instead offered to take a whole bundle (which caused the villagers to laugh at us due to the chicken excrement which covered the pipes that we had now smeared on our shoulders and necks). The group persevered, determined to work hard, walking to the source before shovelling and carrying grit from the stream bed to build up the dam at the water source. This was following our first of many days digging trenches and laying piping alongside the Karen villagers. By the end of the day we were tired and had been shown humbly the skill and strength of the villagers but, were nevertheless pleased with our whole hearted efforts. With Kate and Emily gone it was hard to know what had happened as in the village there was no phone reception. When Kate arrived with the news that Emily was unwell and would no longer be able to participate in the water project we were all devastated and our spirits were dampened by this awful news.
The next week followed with more digging through the dense humidity of the forest. We quickly tired with our comparatively work-weak western bodies. Sometimes we struggled with the high 30 degree Celsius temperature and water-saturated air, at times we would have to break when heavy fatigue set in or the steep hills were too sharp for us to dig but we never went home without the feeling that little by little, with our help, very good progress was being made. However, it was the skill, endurance and strength of the Karen that constantly kept us going, as although our work was miniscule by comparison they were always appreciative and awe-inspiring.
Outside of working hours, we began to become part of village life. Some of the women and children of the village would come to our kitchen/bathroom/dining hut and sit around the table with us as we sang them English songs and the boys joined in with a game of football down by the school. The girls played games with the children, and we drew pictures on some paper and pencils that we had brought which was gratefully appreciated. We formed friendships with our workmates that was above the language barrier that we inevitably faced and would sit with them on our breaks and share smiles and company (as well as Premiership football player’s names!).
The pipe laying continued as the rainy season began; the rain softened the earth to mud and made digging easier. There was a close encounter with what turned out to be a very poisonous green mamba snake which later inspired our team name. This experience added further to the fascinating insight we gained into the lives of the hill tribe people. This ranged from their behaviour to their food as we sampled the delicious iguana eggs and forest fruits taken directly from where we were working. We were pleased as the pipe-laying reached the top of the hill directly above the village and exchanged digging for concrete mixing and pouring for the three huge water tanks to be built for large-capacity storage of the clean water. The bamboo scaffolding was particularly impressive. The incredibly skilled water team of Akhaa, Boon and Vera built it by cutting down surrounding trees and fashioning together pieces of wood. Holding 6 people at a time it was extremely resilient and allowed the team to climb up and complete building on the tanks.
As before, our water project development continued in terms of our connection with the villagers as well as the physical work. We took turns to teach English in the village school. The children were extremely intelligent and very willing to learn, giving us flowers they had picked as a token of their gratitude. We sat and had tea with our workmates as we dug pipelines through the village with the project nearing completion. A few of us made it to a village church service - the village we were in was predominantly a Catholic village. The pastor made a special effort to say a loud hello before the service began, much to the rest of the congregation’s delight. It was beautiful to see the traditional Karen dress that the villagers wore for the formal occasion and to partake in something that is an integral part of many of the villager’s lives.
When the main piping all the way though the village was laid and only the building of a few more latrines were left to be done, preparations began in earnest for the final farewell party. A pig was slaughtered and expertly butchered by a team of helpers, fish was retrieved from the village fish pond and all manner of culinary activity took place, centred on the largest cooking pot we had ever seen that looked more like a cauldron. We feasted together on the huge varieties of sumptuous dishes laid out before us. We dined surrounded by most of the village in a bubbly, jovial atmosphere enjoying the wonderful food and celebration before the time for making speeches arrived.
A man who had been quietly working with us throughout the project stood up causing the crowd to simmer down to an attentive silence. The village headman spoke powerfully of water’s deep connection to life, health and happiness making us realise that we should never take clean water for granted. The villager’s appreciation was made even more evident as they gifted us specially made Karen bags, but it was us who had so much to be thankful for, because of the villagers.
On reflection, Salahae’s insistence that we would be the ones that had much to learn proved correct. The sense of community and working for the better was seen in a way that we may have forgotten in ‘developed’ places or to be more honest simply does not exist there anymore. Although the Karen people had many difficulties, they still appreciated that they had health and family even though relatives and friends would die from diseases contracted through unclean water. Many held pictures of children who had not made in to adulthood in the church service. In spite of these difficulties and the poverty these villagers faced, they were the ones who taught us, their kindness, generosity, and good nature was astounding and will stay with each of us for the rest of our lives.
Upon climbing back into the Song-Thaew, leaving via the winding roads back to Khun Yuam on which we had travelled to the village in the first place, the resounding thought in our minds was that which had been solemnly said by many villagers the night before: Never forget us, we will never forget you. It will be easy to fulfil that plea.
Special thanks and a mention must be given to the KHT team in Thailand for all that they did. The contribution to the Karen made by Salahae and Nootsabar, his assistant cannot be overstated along with the welcome and guidance that they gave us volunteers. As for Akha, Boon, and Vera their expertise, efficiency and competency was something to behold and the effort and care they put into the construction of the system was incredible. They became our friends who we cared for very much by the end along with the incomparable Takoo who was our translator and guide who we will never forget.
One of the last mentions must go to Emily, who was sorely missed and was a key member of our team.
The very last thanks must go to the KHT team in the England, and especially Penelope Worsley who got us motivated and excited about helping the Karen. It was a privilege to witness firsthand the incredible work she has inspired and funded through the Karen HillTribes Trust.
Written by James Foreman and Julie-Anne Hewitt in Ban Huay Keaw