In tribal villages, you don’t barge in and demand permission to install an outhouse, or provide an education to the children who cannot read. After exploring World Concern’s humanitarian projects in six countries in Southeast Asia, I see that if you want something done in a tribal village, you must first talk with the chief.
I used to think of a chief as a wise old Native American man with a feather headdress, looking off into the distance as he calmly plots the tribe’s next move. Instead, in these SE Asian tribal cultures, the chief might be in his mid-30s or 40s, and wear a polo shirt and Adidas track pants.
First, let me tell you about a chief I met in a village in Laos. World Concern provides humanitarian aid in some remote places, and this is sure one of them. No running water. No power. To get there, we drove for seven hours on dirt roads, crossing two rivers. We found ourselves in a region still pockmarked by craters, from bombs dropped on Vietnamese convoys as they traveled through the jungle during the war.
Rickety wooden fences surround the village, to hold in the livestock, and to keep out whatever creatures may lurk in the jungle. We drove in and everybody stopped to look at the vehicle, a novelty in an area where people measure distances in hours or days to walk.
We found the chief at one of the larger homes built on stilts. Dressed casual, but very business-like. No surprise, though, because working in his village has been a team effort. Since we began our humanitarian aid here five years ago, he’s come to see what we’re all about, and wants more and more aid for his village.
Although he has a very limited education, he sees the hope that education brings, whether it is to improve personal hygiene or to provide schooling for the children. He held a couple of meetings while we were there, and in the end, after seeing how our projects work, he was stumping for further humanitarian aid.
Another chief I met was a man somewhere close to 50 years old, the leader of a village in the Myanmar delta. On the day I visited, he was preparing to marry off his daughter. In his home, bright streamers stretched across the room. On the wall hung a photo of his wife and young son, both killed during the cyclone last year. He was pleased to see us, and invited us to take photos of his village. Without permission, though, the rest of the villagers would not be comfortable with us wandering around with cameras.
It’s just how it is. The chief is respected and considered the village visionary and protector, and he carries a lot of influence. And we listen, not only because it’s polite, but also because listening usually makes the project better.