An Interview with Akha Leaders

The following interview was conducted on 9 October 2020 in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Neel Roberts asked questions in Thai and, in some cases, used English to express some questions more clearly. Asholi Akamu and Kitsada Chahae translated into Akha. The three senior evangelists, men who have shared the gospel with their fellow Akha for decades—Sl. Jati Chahae, Sl. Ahchong Chermer, and Sl. Somsit Mayoe—answered sometimes in Thai and sometimes in Akha.

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 47, 37


When the Akha first heard about the Good News, what was the first thought for the villagers and village leaders?

When the first missionaries came, they came as individuals and that is why they had trouble.

In Burma, when missionaries first came to the villages, the villagers thought the missionaries were giants (ยักษ์) and parents were afraid. They did not want their children to go to hostels [for education] and get fed [fattened]. At that time, priests and headmen opposed believing in Christ out of fear of losing the old ways. They did not want to venture into a new religion. Village headmen and priests thought that people would stop making sacrifices and stop honoring their parents and ancestors. Priests would no longer have an income.

How did village leaders influence the spread of the gospel?

Village headmen and spirit priests had a role in hindering the gospel. They feared the spirits would hurt them if they changed religion. The spirits would not just hurt the convert, but the village; not just an individual or family, but the whole village.

The dzoema has more power than the spirit priest. He gives laws. The spirit priest simply performs rituals and serves as a medium. You cannot have a village without a dzoema. You must have a dzoema to have a village, so he oversees not just religious activities but also holds political power. You cannot chase bad people away from the village without him. The headman just looked after the welfare of the villagers and connects with other people to maintain social welfare. The dzoema’s son would become a dzoema.

Did any village allow Christians to stay in their villages?

In the beginning, all had to leave if they did not follow the Akha Way. They had to live outside the village gate, though they could live close to the village. However, they were told that if any misfortune occurred in the village, the Christians would be blamed. So, generally, they would move far away. In some countries (like Burma and Thailand), there may be laws above the village laws that would be in effect. In Laos, at the present time, it is the village that decides whether someone can stay or not.

Did villagers from one village ever consult with other villages about responding to the Gospel?

Yes. In some cases, they saw that those who received Christianity gained benefits, such as hostels and education for their children.

So why did some Akha eventually want to become Christians when they knew they must leave the village?

They learned that even if they did not make sacrifices, the spirits would not harm them. They would not lose any animals for sacrifices. They would have the right to own their animals. In later years, when those (who were considering becoming Christians) saw that Christians lived a good life with no harm from the spirits, they understood that they could do so too.

From leftft: Sl. Jatiti Chahae, Sl. Ahchong Chermer, and Sl. Somsit Mayoe

[At this point, Kitsada asked a question:] I did not hear anyone say, “I came out from ‘the Akha Way’ because I believe in Jesus.” Is that the case?

Then one of the evangelists instantly responded, “Yes, that is why we have a problem. Now, in the third generation, they want to become Christians without believing in Christ.” [This is one of the great revelations of the whole interview. And it is very much tied to the following statement.] The norm was to become a Christian first and then believe afterwards.

Christians see twins as a double blessing. Some couples can’t be sure they will not have twins, so they may think to themselves that if they decide to become Christians, they won’t have to suffer the penalties of having twins.[1]

In summary, the first generation of Christian believers were generally tired of being harmed by the spirits or tired of making sacrifices.

How do you decide when someone is ready to be baptized?

Many people do not understand what it means to be a Christian. Even local pastors sometimes believe that if someone is not baptized, their name is not written in the book of heaven. So, people are threatened that they must be baptized in order to get their names written in heaven. Some will say, “I am still young. Not ready. Still want to do my own things. I must stop doing bad things after I get baptized.” Some think that baptism can wash away sickness. It is well known that one’s baptismal card gets one a discount at the Christian hospital.

Of course, there are those who understand and sincerely believe.

It is the responsibility of the local Christian leader to ask a person, “Do you believe in Jesus?” If they say that they do, then the local leader will tell the ordained pastor to come and perform the baptismal ceremony.


[1] This remark led to a long discussion about Akha customs relating to putting twins to death, only a few notes of which are recorded here. Traditionally, if a couple gave birth to twins, they would have to leave their village and go down and live near the river where people never go and sacrifice twelve pigs and many chickens and a dog and a goat. The goat would remove unclean things. They must wear clothes made from leaves. The dzoema would decide what sacrifice they must make and what day they must make it. The babies must be suffocated with ashes in order to keep them from crying. A trap device made from a banana trunk would need to be created with a trip lock that the dzoema would release to kill the babies. The parents would then have to put the corpses in the river and cover them with stones to make sure they were dead. They would then say that a banana trunk fell on the children and stones rolled over them.

The family line of a couple who gave birth to twins would be considered spoiled, so no one would want to marry into it. They would be called a “spoiled family”. Even Christians would consider those family lines to be “spoiled”.

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