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The Sakai — Soon to be Extinct?
Five-year-old Duangjan Inn-thongkaew stands out among her peers. Round dark eyes, thick tapered eyebrows, black curly hair, a prominent nose, slightly curved lips and a golden complexion; her exotic beauty is beyond compare. This slender girl is blessed with the right mix of the best traits of her parents. She is the first mixed heritage child in the Sakai ethnic minority of southern Thailand.
Her father is Thai and her mother is a Sakai, popularly known in Thai as the ngo paa, a nomadic hunter-gatherer minority on the of extinction.
While the marriage between Thai and Sakai was hailed as the beginning of the end of discrimination against the Sakai minority, there are fears that mixing with the "outside" will only speed up the extinction of the group already weakened by the rapid changes in their environment.
Currently there are only 10 Sakai left in Ban Sakai in Than To district, Yala province. The village was established by the provincial social welfare office in 1973.
"I fear that eventually the Sakai will only exist in name in Thailand. We can't maintain our tribe as it was, can we?" asked E-vian Srithanto, one of the 10 Sakai in the village.
The threat of extinction of the Sakai has been well reported in the past. Large scale deforestation has made their pre-historic lifestyle as hunters and gatherers impossible to pursue. The development of tourism is partly responsible for their forced settlement in one place accessible to visitors, often turning them into "curiosity items". A lack of education and professional skills make it difficult for them to make a living in a money economy (as hunters and gatherers, the Sakai did not use money) But what came as an added challenge to southern authorities was the systematic relocation of the Sakai to neighbouring Malaysia. Known in Malay as the olang asli, the Sakai are the original forest people of old Malaya. The Malaysian government seems to have a more determined plan than its Thai counterpart to preserve their heritage while at the same time providing them with the skills to enable them to survive in a modernising society, though this plan is not without its critics.
E-vian claimed that about 50 Sakai, both adults and children, from the village have moved to Malaysia over the past few years. They believe life is better there as the Malaysiansang" government provides them with a monthly salary equivalent to 6,000 baht.
Her own relatives moved there a decade ago. "They visit every year and each time they come, they try to persuade me to join them but I don't want to leave," she said. "I'm too attached to my native land," she added firmly.
E-vian, now 30, left the forests at the age of eight. "I may have left the old ways of life behind but I feel safe in my own homeland. I belong here, now and forever. Besides, if we all go to Malaysia, there won't be any more Sakai in Thailand and I don't want to see that happen."She recounted how her village was established in the early 1970s.
An old traditional healer looking for herbs in the then dense forests of Yala chanced upon a few Sakai families and reported their presence to the provincial social welfare office. Though it was well known that the Sakai were living in the forests of the South, there was little chance of meeting the secretive nomadic tribe. The traditional healer's "finding" was considered significant for the official registry kept of all those people born in Thailand.
Twenty one families, with a total of 52 members, who were scattered in the forests of Betong and Bannang Sata districts were gathered to form the new village of Ban Sakai.
"At that time, our leader thought it was best to resettle. He said life would be better and everyone had to follow him," said E-vian.
Some 300 rai were set aside to establish Ban Sakai. land was for both dwellings and a plantation of rubber trees intended to give the new settlers work and an income. The late Princess Mother bestowed a Thai family name on them-Srithanto-which all families share.
Adjustment was the key word for all Sakai at that time. E-vian and other Sakai children were sent to the local school with other southern Thai children as part of the official policy to integrate the minority group. "Everything was new to us, even the villagers. Some looked at me like I was a freak!" said E-vian recounting her first contact with the outside. "I felt so ashamed of my looks!"The local food was also strange to our palates," she added.
The Sakai, who do not till the land for food but instead take only what Mother Nature provides them, never ate rice before. "I couldn't eat much, I never had rice," she said. "But after several attempts, I found that the local food was good as well!"The provincial tourism authorities were quick to cash in on the new village and promoted it as a must-see destination. Tourists soon flocked the village only a few months after it was established. "At first I resented the way tourists stared at me but after a while I got used to it and now I'm glad they visit our village," E-vian said.
Her confidence is visible and so is her pride in being Sakai. She uses her education and her fluency in Thai to publicise her tribe and its lifestyle of a bygone time. She proudly told Outlook that though she speaks perfect Thai, she uses only Sakai with her father and her own children in order to preserve her native tongue. "I don't want to see Sakai become a dead language," she said.
The Sakai, according to E-vian, lived in groups of about 20 to 50 people. Their life revolved around hunting and gathering food in the wild with men and women sharing daily responsibilities according to their physical strength. "Stronger men were responsible for hunting animals while the women searched for carbohydrate-rich food," said Ar-bok, E-vian's neighbour.
The young would learn from the elderly mostly by watching, trying, and perfecting. The most important skill for the Sakai man was hunting as the best hunter would be nominated leader of the group. The Sakai would use poisoned darts kept in a container tied to the waist while walking the forests. Wooden spears were used to hunt bigger prey. The poison was made from the resin of the indigenous e-poh tree, explained Ar-bok. He added that the main staple was baked taro and yam, which they dug up in the forests. Bananas and wild fruits were also appreciated. The Sakai diet of carbohydrate and vitamins from the taro and yam and fruits, respectively, was supplemented with the proteins from the meats of different wild animals, like the gibbon, wild boar and squirrel.
"In those days we ate no rice but the food we found in the forests were good for our health," E-vian said.
The groups would relocate after food became more difficult to find, said Ar-bok. He added however, that there were other reasons as well for the Sakai's nomadic instincts. He cited the death of a Sakai also called for moving to a new settlement because the dead were traditionally buried near where they lived. "We're afraid of ghosts," said Ar-bok. "Also, our elders knew better to move because wild animals, such as tigers, would be attracted to the corpse, often digging it up and eating it. The presence of these fierce animals could endanger us."Also, a chance meeting with an outsider prompted relocation. "We were afraid of those villagers who came into the forests to find herbs and hunt animals because we were different from them. We thought they might hurt us. I remember that I would quickly hide, sometimes on a tree, when I spotted a stranger in the forest," said E-vian.
In addition to their pronounced physical traits, the Sakai men wore only a loincloth made from tree bark, while the women covered their bodies with different kinds of leaves. As if to contrast with their dark skin, men and women of all ages would wear a red flower behind their ear. One most intriguing aspect of Sakai life is the position in which they sleep in their simple and fragile shacks made from leaves. "Our bodies would be inside but we would leave our heads outside. This is because tigers often roamed our settlement at night and we wouldn't suffer if it bit us on the head as its powerful jaws would kill us instantly. But it would be torture if it bit us on the legs, because a cripple wouldn't be able to survive in the forests," explained E-vian.
Though life in the wilderness still invokes vivid memories, E-vian insisted that she is satisfied with her new life in her Thai-style wooden house and contemporary clothes.
"It was so tough in the wilderness, especially during the cold season. We had no clothes, no blankets. We lit bonfires around our settlement to keep us warm but they didn't help much at all. Many would die from pneumonia, especially infants," she said. Today what is left of the dense forests of the Sakai forefathers is seen as a "second home" which provides herbs believed to possess healing properties such as soothing animal bites and easing labour pains.
Many outsiders come to Ban Sakai to buy these herbs, generating a much welcomed income to the Sakai. Ar-bok explained that five small pieces of herbal wood fetch 20 baht and a small pack of herbal seedlings 10 baht. Those who wish to visit Ban Sakai will have to walk a few kilometres from the entrance but do not expect "primitive" Sakai living in the wilderness.
The village, located near the forests of the Sakai forefathers, is made up of wooden houses. The Sakai tongue, known as kun siew is still spoken but is clearly losing ground to Thai, both standard and the southern dialect, and Malay learned in school. Economic necessity also forces the adult Sakai to learn Thai to communicate with those buyers who come to the village for the herbs, said E-vian. But her personal efforts to keep kun siew alive is paying off. All her six children are fluent in the Sakai tongue. "I told them that the Sakai don't have a written language and the only way to save our language is to use it.
I told them that they can only address me in kun siew. They're rather obedient," she said proudly. E-vian admits that even with her confidence, fluency in Thai and education, she does not fit in totally. Her hectic life and the insincerity she detects in so-called modern society often rekindle her yearnings for the wilderness.
"Life in the forest was so peaceful. But to live there is an impossibility now. My forest has been severely destroyed. My father often tells me that now we're living in a concrete jungle, the new habit we have chosen for our children."Watching Duangjan play with her friends in Ban Sakai, one can't help but note her difference. The strong physical traits of the Sakai are so visible, but she stands apart.
"Yes, I am," Duangjan answered when asked if she thought she was beautiful. "My father often tells me that I'm half-Thai, half-Sakai, that's why." She was quick to add: "But I look different from other children who are either Thai or Sakai."
Reprinted from the Global African Presence