Akha (CHINA, LAOS, VIETNAM, THAILAND, BURMA)

Photo: Akha woman in northern Laos © Fabio Lamanna | shutterstock.com

Photo: Akha woman in northern Laos © Fabio Lamanna | shutterstock.com

Introduction

The Akha are a hill tribe nestled in the mountainous region of east Burma, north Thailand, north Laos, north Vietnam, and southwest China.  They are one of the six tribes recognized by the Thai government as a hill tribe or mountain people group[1]. Originating from Southwest China in Yunnan province several centuries ago, the Akha migrated into eastern Burma, northern Laos, and northern Vietnam in the mid-19th century and into northwestern Thailand from Burma in the early twentieth century[2]. Like many hill tribes, the Akha traditionally practice a farming technique referred to as swidden, or slash-and-burn, where swaths of virgin forest are cleared, burned, then farmed for several years until the land will no longer support crops. Once that happens, the whole village picks up, moves to a new location and begins the process all over again. In more recent years, untouched land has become scarce and national governments have forbidden slash-and-burn techniques so the Akha have turned to more sustainable farming or the creation of cash crops to earn cash to buy food.  One of the most lucrative (and dangerous) cash crops is Poppy cultivation for the harvesting of opium, which has led to high incidence of opium addiction in Akha families.[3]

Where the Akha live in southeast Asia

Where the Akha live in southeast Asia

The ‘Akha Way’

The Akha practice what is considered to be the most rigorous and difficult to follow belief system of all the hill tribes. According to Akha oral tradition, long ago, many people – Chinese, Thai, Lahu, Lisu, Akha - went to the creator god to receive their religious belief system – called Za’n[4] in Akha.  Each people group took with them baskets to carry their Za’n back home.  The other people groups had loosely woven baskets and their Za’n slipped through the cracks rendering their Za’n less numerous. But the Akha had tightly woven baskets and were able to carry all their Za’n back with them.  This is why the Akha say their belief system is so vast and demanding. The Akha themselves say, “Akha Za’n is numerous”, “Akha Za’n is difficult”[5], and it is “a heavy burden [given] by their ancestors.”[6]

This ‘Akha way’ or ‘carrying the Akha way’ is all encompassing and prescribes how the Akha should relate to each other, cultivate crops, hunt, marry, birth, and die.[7] If an Akha stops carrying this ‘Akha way’, for any reason, they must leave the village immediately. This elaborate religious/belief system is a burden that has been passed along to each Akha by their ancestors, thus each Akha is expected to uphold this great chain of Akha tradition at all costs.[8] This burden means that their ancestor’s spirits must be taken care of through the cultivation of an ancestor shrine that travels with each family as the home is moved.  To stop carrying the Akha way means the potential of greatly angering the ancestor spirits and causing much calamity for the village and individual family.[9]    

Photo: Akha Woman cooking near Chiang Rai, Thailand © Yuttana Joe | shutterstock.com

Photo: Akha Woman cooking near Chiang Rai, Thailand © Yuttana Joe | shutterstock.com

The Akha Encounter the Jesus Way

It is critical to understand what carrying the Akha way means to understand why the Akha took so long to turn to Jesus. But it is also critical to understand why the Akha then started coming to follow after Jesus in large numbers. For many Akha, following the Akha way is extremely burdensome, difficult to follow, and expensive.  Like Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress, carrying the Akha way is like carrying a heavy burden on ones back: it can never be satisfied and keeps getting heavier and heavier until it threatens to crush the load bearer. And so it is with any of man’s attempts to approach God by human effort or the Akha’s attempt to satisfy the ‘spirits’[10]. None of us, the Akha included, can come up with a system to become right with the creator of the universe.  Paul said of those who attempt to keep the whole law under their own efforts, “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” [11]

The Akha way can never be satisfied. For the Akha to keep the Akha way, many animal and grain sacrifices are required to satisfy the different spirits and ancestors; it becomes a heavy financial burden for an already poor people.[12] This heaviness and difficulty of following the Akha way is a great contrast of what Jesus offers and what was attractive to the first Akha followers of Jesus.  Jesus said:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
— Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
Two Akha Christians receive their first Bibles

Two Akha Christians receive their first Bibles

Jesus offers a light yoke and rest for the weary Akha, strapped with their heavy yoke of rituals in every aspect of life to placate the spirits and ancestors. Jesus offered the ultimate sacrifice in his death and resurrection, allowing those who choose to follow Him to have a restored relationship with The Creator God.

The Gospel was first introduced to the Akha in Burma in 1869 through American Baptist missionaries and the first Akha turned to Christ there in 1909 [13].  The Akha initially were an oral culture, meaning they had no written language and passed along information from generation to generation through stories. An American Baptist missionary couple in Burma name Paul and Elaine Lewis worked to create a written language for the Akha and translated the New Testament in the 1950’s and 1960’s [14] for these believers [15].

One of the Lewis’ Burmese Akha Christian coworkers named Ya Ju traveled to Thailand and began working with an Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) missionary couple names Peter and Jean Nightingale in 1955 [16] to bring the Gospel to the Akha in Thailand.  After 7 years of investing in the Akha in Thailand, two Akha men, A Tsa and A Shah and their wives, made the decision to follow the Jesus way and the Thai Akha church was born![17] Part of the Akha way of keeping bad spirits out of the village is to have village gates at the entrances to demarcate the realm of humans and the spirits; the spirits live on the outside of the gate in the forest, the humans live inside the gates[18]. To keep the spirits happy and bad things from happening to the village occupants, only Akha who are totally following in the Akha way of Za’n are allowed to live in a traditional Akha village. Once these first two families decided to follow the Jesus Way, they had to immediately leave their native village and form their own ‘Jesus village’.[19]

The Akha Church Today

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Following these two couples, many more Akha came to follow the Jesus Way in subsequent years, including many family members of the original four. It is estimated today that 13.8% of the 674,000 Akha in the five golden triangle countries are Christian – making approximately 93,000+ Akha Christians.[20] The percentage of Akha Christian in each country range from over 90% in Thailand to .35% Christian in China.[21]    

111 years after the first Burmese Akha chose to lay their heavy Akha way burden at the feet of Jesus and follow the Jesus way, and 57 years after the first Thai Akha chose to follow the Jesus way, Biblia Global is honored to be a part in providing Akha believers and their church leaders with their first copy of God’s Word.  The New Testament has been available, though inaccessible to the majority of Akha Christians the last few decades. It is only recently that the entire Bible with the Old Testament in the old Akha writing dialect that Paul Lewis pioneered has been made available. 2019 marks the first time the Old Testament and New Testament together have been printed for Akha believers in this old dialect that the majority of poor Akha can understand. Below are pictures and testimonies of these believers receiving their first Bibles in 2019. Your support of Biblia Global makes getting God’s Word to believers like the Akha possible.


Pictures and testimonies from the 2019 Akha Bible delivery

Biblia Global donors funded 1,200 Bibles for the Akha which were delivered in the fall of 2019 (see below).  Thank you to all who give to our Bibles for Asia project who made this possible!


Reverend Joseph, Burma/Myanmar

My name is Reverend Joseph and I am 46 years old. I am the pastor of Grace Church and I am also an evangelist. I started serving the Lord full time when I was 25 years old. I enjoy sharing the gospel with the animist and Buddhist Akha people in Eastern Burma. But I face a lot of persecution because of the gospel. Seven times I was beaten by the order of the village leader. Four times I was stoned. Once a group of 12 young people beat my whole body. Once I was put in a room for three days without food. But all these difficulties molded me and caused me to mature in Christ and I saw how great God is in my life. The obstacles to the gospel among the Akha are varied. Sometimes the Buddhist monks forbid the people from hearing the gospel. Most Akha people are not educated and cannot reason well. Many follow only money. And when someone does convert, the villagers will beat him and kick him out of the village. The open doors to our Akha people are that most of them are always searching for the truth about life and God. But they are also very obedient to their leaders. So if a village leader becomes a Christian, then the entire village will come to Christ. I am so thankful for your donation of free Akha Bibles with hymnals. You have given living water to those who are thirsty.

My favorite scriptures are Psalm 119:105; Ephesian 2:8-9; and Philippians 4:13.


Mrs. Muilen, Burma/Myanmar

I am Mrs. Muilen and I am 58 years old. I was raised in a Christian family, but my faith was not serious. I married when I was 17 years old, but then came to Christ when I was 21 years old (in 1982). Once I came to Christ I had much more happiness than before. I always shared Christ with my children, and after 7 years they are all believers. But my husband was a drunk who also smoked and used drugs. Finally in 2017 my husband also came to Christ and was delivered of all his addictions. Praise the Lord. By God’s grace I have a very sweet family. For years the children and I prayed together and sang songs to God, but we didn’t have a Bible to read from. Thank you for freely giving us a full Akha Bible.

My favorite Scriptures are Psalms 1:1-3 and Joshua 1:8.


Reverend Moses, Burma/Myanmar

My name is Reverend Moses. I am 45 years old and I pastor an Akha Assembly of God church. I was raised in a Buddhist family. My father was the chairman of the Buddhist monastery. I watched him offer up many sacrifices to the Buddha in hopes that our family would prosper. But we never did prosper, and in fact we became poorer and poorer. So I did not believe Buddha was a real god, and I started searching for the true and living God. When I was 18 years old I heard the gospel preached and I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. My heart was changed and I was so happy that I had to tell others about Jesus. I went house to house through many villages sharing the gospel. I shared with Akha and Lahu people and other tribes as well. I have faced many difficulties for sharing the gospel. Once I shared in an army camp, but the commanding officer had me arrested and put in jail. I had only one meal and one liter of water each day. But I shared the gospel while I was in jail and seven people accepted Christ. Today, five of them are missionaries to remote areas of Eastern Myanmar, and two are faithful deacons in their churches. After two months I was released from jail, and I could not stop sharing the gospel. In 2001 I was sharing in a village near the China border. The police took and burned my Akha New Testament Bible. From that time I never had a Bible. But I had memorized many full Bible verses, so it was good for evangelism. But today, by the grace of God, I received a full Akha Bible plus hymnal. This is unbelievable and beyond our prayers. When I received the Bible I cried to the Lord and I am praising God without ceasing. But we still need more copies to get one copy into each home.

My favorite scriptures are John 3:16; Psalms 121; and Philippians 4:13.


Mrs. Abuna, Burma/Myanmar

My name is Mrs. Abuna. I am 35 years old and I am a Sunday school teacher. I teach 35 children, but our class has only 5 Akha New Testaments. Our old, spiritual, leaders all died without having their own Bibles. So we Akha were very poor in knowledge, and because of this other tribes looked down on us. When I was very young my parents were found dead in the forest. The villagers found their bodies and brought them back to the village. They told me that my parents died from poisonous snake bites. I was lost and broken. But the village headman adopted me and he always told me about Jesus. In 2003 I accepted Christ as my personal savior and Lord, and from that time I have great happiness and I never get discouraged. I am serving the children and I am so happy and satisfied in life. We Akha people need many more Bibles. Please remain concerned for our need for Bibles.


Pastor Joel, Burma/Myanmar

My name is Pastor Joel. I am the happiest and most joyous man, because of this give away of full Akha Bibles with hymnals. This is the greatest day God has made in my life. We have never had full Bibles before. There have been some New Testaments, but they were printed years ago and many are damaged now. Most Akha leaders have been praying for this day since about 1990 (29 years). When I think about this blessing from God I cry and I pray to God. I never dreamed that this free distribution was even possible. That is my human thinking. But our God is the God of the impossible.


Mr. Silah, Burma/Myanmar

I am Mr. Silah and I am 58 years old. I was raised in a Christian family, but I never when to church until I was 18 years old. My village was in the civil war, and all our houses were burned up and there was no place to stay. I was so discouraged that I tried to kill myself 6 times. When I was 21 years old I met an Akha evangelist on the bus and he shared Jesus with me for two hours. Then I felt something in my heart, so I accept Christ that day. The evangelist suggested that I serve the Lord, but as my parents were poor. I could not serve the Lord, because I had to work for my family. When I went home I loved my parents even more than before. They were old and so I worked even harder so I could take care of them. But in my free time I started sharing the gospel, and then I became the leader of the young people at our church. But we didn’t have any scriptures in our church. I have been praying for a Bible since 2001. And after 18 long years God has given me a full Akha Bible with hymnal. My favorite Bible verse is Jeremiah 33:3, because as God promised, I called on him and he answered my prayer. Praise the Lord.


Mr. Lasila, Burma/Myanmar

My name is Mr. Lasila, I am 41 years old and I am from MP, Eastern Myanmar. I was raised by Christian parents, but I never attended church. I drank alcohol, smoked, used drugs, and more. I did all the wicked things in my life and my parents were always upset with me. In 2010 my parents put me in a drug treatment home led by Christian Evangelical Fellowship. They didn’t allow us to go outside and every day they taught us the word of God. On the last night before I was to leave, I committed my life to the Lord and God took away all my desires for all the wicked things in my life. PRAISE THE LORD. After I accepted Christ all my thinking, life style, and habits were changed. I eagerly wanted to go to church. I enjoyed singing gospel songs and I longed to read the Bible. Nothing could stop me from living for God. Now my parents, relatives, friends, and church members love me more. I prayed to God to open the door for me to attend Bible school and in 2016 God opened the door for me to study in a Bible college in Yangon. I am so thankful to God for His full grace to me always. When I accepted Christ I was given a Bible in the Burmese language, but I don’t understand everything. It is very difficult to own a Bible in our country, and especially our Akha Bible. There are many reasons for this. Three reasons are poverty, poor transport, and the Bibles are controlled by the Bible Society. So from that day in 2010 I have prayed for a Bible in my own Akha language. Now, in October 2019, God has answered that prayer through all of you and I have been given a free, full Akha Bible with hymnal. This is the first Akha Bible I have owned in my life. I have never seen a free Bible giveaway before. Though God has answered many of my prayers, this is the greatest answer to my prayers that I have seen God accomplish. It is AMAZING for me to receive our Akha Bible FREELY. Thank you so much for your greatest and precious gift for our Akha people.


Mrs. Nalar, Burma/Myanmar

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My name is Mrs. Nalar and I am 49 years old. I accepted Christ when I was 19 years old. When I accepted Christ I was longing to read the word of God, but I could not find even one copy to buy. But there were some New Testaments. We Akha Christians have been praying for the full Bible since 1995. After 24 years of praying God has answered our prayers through all of you. Some years ago I was sharing the gospel to Akha people near the border with China who were animists. But the local priests and villagers arrested me. They wanted me to promise I would never share the gospel again, but I would not make that promise. They held me captive for five days and they were preparing to kill me. But then one night a man came and secretly released me, saving my life. God is so good. My favorite Bible verse is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Because when I was arrested and they tried to get me to deny Christ and my calling in Christ, God kept me strong and I did not deny Him. You are always in our prayers.


Reverend Maduk, Burma/Myanmar

I am Reverend Maduk. I am 51 years old and I am a pastor. I was born into an animist family. My father always pushed us to worship the demons. My mother and my two brothers and two sisters obeyed him. But I disobeyed. Secretly I went to church and prayed to God. In 1985 I was 17 years old and I went to a Christian camp in Yangon. I accepted Christ at that time. When I went back to my village I boldly shared the gospel. My parents would not listen and they kicked me out of the house and out of the family. But God is so good and He prepared a place for me to stay. I prayed to God for my family members and now they have all accepted Christ as there personal savior and Lord. The local authorities do not allow us to build a church, but we still worship God faithfully. But the government requires that they approve my sermons before I give them. I am a pastor, but I have never had a full Bible. Never in my life have I ever seen a full Akha Bible with hymnal before. Thank you for giving these to us freely. They are unspeakably precious to us.

My favorite Bible verses are John 3:16 and Deuteronomy chapter 28.


Pastor Ajay, Burma/Myanmar

My name is Pastor Ajay of MA Baptist Church. I was raised in a Christian family, but I never went to church until I was 21 years old. From the age of 10 I smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, used drugs, and did every bad thing. In 1984 my parents sent me to attend Bible college, and afterwards I was a full time minister in the Akha Baptist Association. But I was not born again and I continued all my bad ways and substance abuse. In 2007 I attended a pastors’ conference, and that’s where I accepted Christ as my savior and Lord. John 3:16 opened my heart to God. Then I easily stopped smoking, drinking, drugs, and all my bad ways. I was full of joy and I was very hungry to read the Bible. I was much more faithful in God’s service. I had been a pastor for more than 20 years without even accepting Christ or being born again. In the past 12 years I have never had a Bible, not even a New Testament, even though I searched all over for a Bible to buy. The Bible and hymnal you gave me today is beyond my prayers and thinking. Thank you so much for sending Spiritual light to our Akha people. Now the light will start shining to our Akha people and we will clearly see the ways of God.


Mr. Jawla, Burma/Myanmar

I am Mr. Jawla. I was raised in a village in the war zone. Before I could even remember my parents they were killed in the war. So I was a lonely boy. During the war, all the houses in my village were burned down four times. We lost all our animals, houses, clothes, rice, everything. But God loved this lonely boy very much. I heard the gospel when I was 12 and I accepted Christ. Then I listened to Bible teaching on the radio, and it was amazing to me and others. I was so happy and excited for my future, because I believed God was the greatest and that He would lead me. God opened the way for me to go to school and later Bible school. I am now a deacon in my church. There has never been a Bible in our village until today, when you gave us Bibles with hymnals for free. God has answered our prayers and our pastor brought a Bible for each family. Amazing. Nothing is impossible with God.

My beloved scriptures are 1 Corinthians 15:58 and Philippians 4:13


NOTES

[1] Lewis, Paul and Elaine. Peoples of the Golden Triangle (London: Thames and Hudson LTD, 1998), 7.

[2] Ibid, 9, 204

Tooker, Deborah. "Identity Systems of Highland Burma: 'Belief', Akha Zan, and a Critique of Interiorized Notions of Ethno-Religious Identity", Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 27, No. 4, Dec. 1992, 801.

[3] “The Akha People,” Peoples of the World Foundation, peoplesoftheworld.org [home page on-line]; available from http://www.peoplesoftheworld.org/text?people=Akha; accessed May 7, 2020.

[4] Tooker, 800, 803-805

[5] Kammerer, Cornilia Ann. “Customs and Christian Conversion among Akha Highlanders of Burma and Thailand”, American Ethnologist. May 1990, 280.

Tooker, 804

[6] Tooker, 804.

[7] Lewis, 222.

Kammerer, Customs, 279-280.

[8] Lewis, 222.

   Kammerer, Customs, Ibid.

[9] Tooker, 803-804.

[10] Lewis, 224.

[11] Galatians 3:10, cf. Deuteronomy 27:14-26

[12] Kammerer, Customs, 283-284

[13] Ibid, 278.

[14] Kammerer, Cornilia Ann. “Discarding the Basket: The Reinterpretation of Tradition by Akha Christians of Northern Thailand”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol. 27, No.2, Sept. 1996, 322.

Kammerer, Customs, 323.

[15] Incidentally, the Lewis’ were the last American Baptist missionaries to the Akha before the Burmese government kicked out foreign missionaries in the mid 1960’s (Kammerer, Customs, 278).

[16] Kammerer, Discarding, 278.

Nightingale, Peter. “The Akha Work”, in Ascent to the Tribes: Pioneering in Northern Thailand, Appendix I, by Isobel Kuhn (Singapore: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1984), 145.

[17] The story of the birth of the Thai Akha church is told in Jean Nightingale’s book, “Without a Gate” (Republic of Singapore: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1990), and Peter Nightingale’s appendix, “The Akha Work” (In “Ascent to the Tribes: Pioneering in Northern Thailand”, Appendix I, by Isobel Kuhn, Singapore: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1984). In an interesting side note, the Nightingales, along with many other OMF missionaries in Northern Thailand in the early 1950’s were originally serving in China when the new Communist regime kicked all foreign missionaries out. Because of this turn of events, God opened the door for many other unreached people to receive the Gospel as OMF pivoted from China to these unreached tribes.

[18] Lewis, 224.

[19] J. Nightingale, Without a Gate, 147.

    P. Nightingale, The Akha Work, 147.

[20] “Akha”, Joshua Project, joshuaproject.net [home page on-line]; available from https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/10223; accessed May 9, 2020.

[21] Ibid.