Rich past, uncertain futures: Khmu community’s memories of living with the Ou River

Memories of the Ou River

The late afternoon sun streamed through the woven slats of Grandma Boon’s bamboo home. Steam from a basket of sticky rice and smoke from the kitchen fire mingled in the sunlight. A mother cat and her tiny newborn kitten lay sleeping on a sack of freshly harvested rice.

Grandma Boon was telling us about her lost husband. One day, he had set off on a fishing trip. As the sun grew lower in the sky, Grandma sat on the shore of the Ou River anxiously awaiting his return, growing more and more fretful. In the last of the sunlight, she spotted his shirt floating by on the current. Her neighbors rushed to help, but the night-long search by torchlight was fruitless. Sometime before dawn, the search party grew hungry. When they saw two snakes intertwined along the riverbank, they killed them with slingshots, built a fire, and grilled them on the shore.

Grandma Boon recalls memories of her life along the Ou River. (Photo by Sabrina Gyorvary.)

At sunrise, the villagers gathered at their leader’s home. Desperate, they decided to send for a shaman who resided deep in the mountains and was revered for his power to negotiate with the forces of nature. The shaman called upon the guardian spirits of the land to shed light on the fate of the lost fisherman. Over and over he called, offering sacrifices appropriate to the requirements of each spirit, but again and again his calls fell on deaf ears. Then the shaman caught word of the two snakes that had been consumed by the search party the night before. “Fools!” he cried. “Those were the messengers sent by the guardian spirits. The man you seek is long gone.” Disgusted, he returned to his mountain hermitage.

“I always wonder what would have happened had those snakes not been harmed. Would my beloved husband still be beside me here today?” Grandma Boon asked, wiping her eyes.

“There seems to be less of everything these days,” Grandma Boon lamented. “Fewer fish, frogs, and river snails, fewer cormorants, kingfishers and terns nesting on the river’s islets, and less river weed to collect in the dry season.” She wiped her watery eyes over and over with an old towel. Grandma Boon had lost her eyesight, and now waited at home for her children to bring back food they foraged from the Ou River and its surrounding forests each day.

Along the Ou River

The Ou River, the longest tributary of the Mekong in the Lao PDR, passes through stunning karst mountains and deep forests inhabited by the Khmu indigenous people, who have long farmed the steep mountainsides.

The once-sleepy Ou River has drawn the attention of hydropower developers: at least 7 dams are being planned for various sections of the river. (Photo by Sabrina Gyorvary.)

Auntie Kham led us up to her family farm, stopping to collect wild ferns, young rattan shoots, and ginger blossoms along the highland streams. The Ou River glistened in the sunlight far below. The rainfall had been good this year and the rice stalks bowed heavy with grain for harvest. The village stood silent in the searing midday sun; everyone was up in the mountains, working in lines, chatting and singing as they cut the golden rice stalks with handmade sickles.

The surrounding forest areas provide a rich bounty of food for the local communities. (Photo by Sabrina Gyorvary.)

The villagers beat the harvested stalks with sticks to remove the chaff, then packed it into forty kilo sacks. Kneeling down before a heavy sack, we watched as Auntie Kham adjusted a woven headband around the sack, then with the help of her three daughters, hoisted herself up with the sack on her back, held in place by the strap on her forehead. Barely forty kilos herself, we wondered how she could walk the two kilometers back home with the sack on her back. The villagers laughed as I tried lifting one myself; it wouldn’t budge. One by one, the women hauled the sacks back to their homes. Arriving back in her hut, Auntie Kham collapsed, the sack of rice raising a cloud of dust as it thudded heavily on the dirt floor. She wiped the sweat from her brow with a shaky hand, and after resting a few moments, headed back out into the hot sunlight for the next haul.

Many of the women hauling rice sacks were pregnant. Doesn’t this lead to miscarriages? “Yes,” our host Donkeo told us. “But why not use a wheel barrow? Wouldn’t it be easier and safer?” we asked. “It’s not our way,” Donkeo explained. “You have to be very careful when promoting new ways. People have a lot of pride.” In some of the more remote communities, villagers even lacked sickles, she said, and pulled the ripe rice from the stems until their hands bled.

Everybody both young and old help together during the Khmu harvest season. (Photo by Sabrina Gyorvary.)

Charting the changing face of the Ou

Strolling down the single path in the evening, cool air rose from the Ou River. We stopped to watch another grandma make a sack from discarded plastic. She carefully folded the pieces of plastic together to form a seam, then held the seams over a kerosene flame to weld them together. A trail of acrid smoke rose from her yard.

Each of the community’s woven bamboo homes featured a bright orange satellite dish. “A Chinese company brought them here last year and installed them for free. No-one uses them though, as there’s no money for electricity.” It was true: although bamboo poles held up power lines along the main path, there was not a single TV or light to be seen. “How could the company just install them for free?” we asked. “The first installation fee isn’t due until a year later,” Donkeo said. “They’ll be coming back to collect any day now.”

But how can the villagers pay up? This was a subsistence community, with few sources of income. The rice being harvested now was only enough for seven or eight months. After that, the villagers would forage in the jungle for edible roots. “No idea,” Donkeo said, “we’ll see what happens when the company comes back to collect.”

From war to dams

The next day, we hired a motor boat and invited Auntie Kham, Uncle Vanh, and some of the village youth on a trip up the Ou River. Uncle Vanh stared deep into the current, recalling his days as a soldier with the Lao Peoples Armed Forces. With three Pathet Lao bases nearby, the village and surrounding mountainsides were subject to daily US bombing raids. Uncle Vanh’s job was to dive down into the Ou armed with a snorkeling mask and a long metal pole to remove unexploded ordinance (UXOs) from the riverbed. The bombs required a certain number of rotations before releasing their lethal loads. Often, they landed deep in the river, one gentle nudge away from exploding. Uncle Vanh worked under intense pressure to clear the riverbed each day in time for the Pathet Lao patrol boats to pass, as they churned up enough water to set off the bombs. He spent the entire first hour of our trip recalling memories of the war, his expression grim.

Soon, we entered the first of several Chinese construction sites. The jungle on both sides of the river had been clear cut, and the riverbanks cemented over in preparation for a series of seven dams that would block the Ou River to produce electricity. Along with the heavy machinery and power generators came mining operations. Every few moments, a blast of dynamite triggered a landslide, as the karst mountainside tumbled down into the Ou River. “What kind of houses are those?” we asked our boat driver. The long, warehouse-like bamboo huts differed from both the local villagers’ homes and the Chinese construction workers’ barracks. “R and R,” he replied. “Oh! Are the women working there from nearby Khmu villages?” “Some, but most are from further away, so they will not be recognized. Some of the girls are from Vietnam.” Our travel companion Saly, a Khmu nurse from Xieng Khuang province, expressed concern for the complete lack of reproductive health services, and the impacts this was certain to have on surrounding communities.

The Nam Ou 2 Dam is now complete, and nearby communities have been relocated. Construction further upstream is on-going. (Photo by Sabrina Gyorvary.)

Tracing their history

Upon returning to the village, we gathered in Auntie Kham’s hut, and Donkeo spread sheets of paper and crayons on the ground. Old and young people alike crowded around, and the windows filled with curious faces. Donkeo drew an outline of the Ou River, and invited everyone to contribute to the picture, coloring in their favorite places for fishing and collecting edible river weeds, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, wild ferns, and medicinal herbs.

The grandmothers in particular appeared delighted with the opportunity to express themselves on paper. At first, they held the crayons tentatively, never having learned to write. They smiled as they filled in the blues of their river and the greens of their forests and gardens. The villagers included their sacred sites and burial grounds, swidden farms, and hunting grounds. Debate ensued at to where the riverbanks now lie in relation to the village; each month, as construction of the dams progressed and more of the mountainsides were blasted away, the Ou River’s flow fluctuated erratically, causing massive erosion of the community’s riverbank gardens. As the only area with year-round irrigation water, the loss of these gardens has led to a decline in food, worsening hunger and malnutrition. To make matters worse, the cloudy water blocks the sunlight necessary for the growth of edible river weed, and fish and bird habitats are steadily disappearing.

Two of the Ou River dams are now completed, with five more under construction. What will happen to this community once their river is blocked? Uncle Vanh had risked his life to clear the river of UXOs. Would the Ou River continue to sustain his children and grandchildren?

On our final day in the village, Donkeo brought some eye medicine by boat from the nearest town for Grandma Boon. She showed her how to use the eye drops, and Grandma Boon blinked with relief. We asked her: “Could you share with us one of the best memories from your life?”

Grandma Boon smiled warmly. “I remember one day when I was first married. My husband and I were clearing land for our mountain farm. I was carrying my newborn baby on my back. It was hard work, but we were so happy together. We had everything we needed.”

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