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Dancing with The Spirit Master

A Lisu Hilltribe Spiritual Leader

There is a village of 600 hill tribe people in the foothills of the Himalayas in the far north of Thailand. Despite the proximity of the big, modern city of Chiangmai just 30 miles away, the people of the village retain their traditional customs, beliefs and brightly coloured costumes. It is a peaceful and happy village. The repository of this culture - the Lisu culture - is the witch doctor. Within his mind is the history of the village and his culture. He has great power and charisma. Only he can assuage the spirit world, cure disease, drive out bad luck, decide who marries whom, bless planting and harvesting, make sacrifices. His name is Mau-mer. In his 60s, he has a beautiful, noble and sensitive face. His eyes seem to see through to the heart -- as indeed they do.

It is just after dawn. We are in the hills, looking down on the village. Multilayered mist and clouds are being burnt off by the tropical sun. The scenery resembles a Chinese water colour painting. In the bamboo, wood and thatched Lisu houses, smoke from the wood burning cooking stoves spirals lazily into the sky. Coming towards us along a jungle path is Mau-Mer, the witch doctor, in his baggy bright blue trousers, leggings and traditional wrap around black shirt. He is collecting roots, tree bark and fungi for todays curing.

Mua-Mer is 65 years old, but has the physical strength of a man half his age. He is married with 5 children. He was 'called' to be a witch doctor roughly at puberty -- there are various signs that a man (or woman) will be a suitable. He was born in Burma and migrated with his people into Thailand 35 years ago. The Lisu are believed to have originated in eastern Tibet, around the headwaters of the Salween river. They believe that they have been migrating from this source for over 2000 years, so the recent migration into Thailand which began about 80 years ago is a 'natural' progression, speeded up by the terrible treatment they received at the hands of the Burmese government and army since 1949. No Lisu that I have met would want to return to Burma. The population of Lisu in South East Asia is estimated at less than 1 million, with the majority in Yunnan state in China. Thailand has only about 30,000 Lisu, mainly close to the Burmese border.

We ask Mau-Mer the functions of the plants he has collected. He tells us, speaking the unique language of the Lisu. Our guide interprets. He invites us to visit his hut, to watch the preparation of his medicine. Although medicinal herbs are important, Mau-mer's most significant ability is communicating with the spirit world, since the invasion of the body by evil spirits is a common cause of illness. To physically remove disease causing illness the afflicted part of the body is pinched -- very hard, until red weal's are made on the skin. This is believed to reduce fever, but is painful. Blowing on the skin speeds up healing. There are a battery of treatments available to a skilled healer.

Mau-Mer is now ready for today's ceremony. A child has dreamed for several nights that evil spirits are about to destroy the family, so Mau-Mer is called in. He chants to the spirits, falls into a deep trance, flicks holy water around the hut, and starts a fire using special wood as fuel. When the fire is burning at its hottest, he takes a large chunk of brightly blazing wood in his hand, grasping the red hot live ember, and slowly drops it into a silver cup of holy water. The water hisses and splutters, but Mau-Mer shows no sign of pain from the burning wood. Later he walks slowly through the fire. It seems miraculous. Mau-Mer is also a skilled musician, playing his pan-pipes and Lisu banjo at marriages, deaths and the Lisu New Year Festival. Later, In Mau-mer's hut we spend time with his family, including his very beautiful wife and daughter. With the help of translators we discuss with Mau-Mer his healing abilities, then the hopes, dreams, beliefs of the Lisu people, and how they see their futures. We see that despite the huge cultural gulf between us and the Lisu, at heart we are all brothers and sisters with the similar aspirations

Hilltribe cultures are facing great stresses -- possibly more insidious than they have ever faced before. Their children are required to be educated together with Thai children -- we visit the local school (4 kms away in a Thai village). Inevitably the values of the dominant culture will be absorbed into hilltribe cultures, perhaps subverting hilltribe religion and customs. New roads are continuously extending into the hills, so contact between hilltribe villages and Thais are inevitably on the increase. There is a new road currently being surfaced that leads to the Lisu village. The traditional hilltribe farming techniques are no longer tenable, due to lack of available land, deforestation see through to the heart -- as indeed they do.

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