The Karen Hilltribes Trust is a small York-based charity working tirelessly to help a remote Thai hill tribe improve their lives while protecting their unique culture.
The Karen are a small and relatively unknown hill tribe who live mostly on the northern border between Thailand and Myanmar. Recent research by the United Nations suggests that 64% of the Karen live in poverty, meaning many families of up to ten people are living on the equivalent of £1 per day while 30% of the Karen do not have access to clean drinking water. Outraged by these stats? I was, and yet the majority of people have never even heard of the Karen.
The tribe have a rich and varied history, subsistence rice farmers who weave beautiful cloth and make exquisite silver jewellery. They are perhaps most well known as the ‘long neck’ women who wear many gold rings around their necks and who tourists flock to gawk at, unaware of the variety of social problems they are perpetuating with this trade. Hidden away in the hills of northern Thailand their culture is caring and communal, living with extended family groups in close knit villages, eking out a living mostly from their paddy fields while coping with increasing challenges as the modern world encroaches on their peaceful lives.
The Karen Hilltribes Trust was founded in 1999 by the formidable Penelope Worsley after the sad death of her son Richard in 1996 who had spent 6 months living and working with the Karen. Penelope was so moved by the Karen’s response to her son’s death that she made a trip to see the work he had done for herself, fascinated by their way of life and concerned by the increasing threat to their livelihood, Penelope started the trust three years later. The charity has a strong ethos of promoting self-help and sustainability while preserving the Karen’s unique culture, they work in over 400 villages to provide clean water, English teachers, school buses, scholarships, irrigation systems and school dormitories for children who live in the most remote villages. The charity is unique in its strong local focus, helping people to help themselves. The ever cheerful and resourceful Salahae heads up the team in Thailand, assisted by Nootsabar, a real KHT success story- her degree in Business Management was sponsored by the trust. She now does a great job handling the endless complications of Thai bureaucracy and helping volunteers adjust to life in the villages.
I spent three months living with the Karen in the summer of 2012 working as an assistant English teacher in the local secondary school. Total immersion in such a different culture was an incredible experience and, without sounding like someone who has been on a “gap yah” and singlehandedly saved the world, they were among the best months of my life. We got back as much as we gave, we were constantly in demand to go shrimp fishing, rescue kittens, heal people’s chickens and play a huge variety of games (which I’m not sure we ever really understood). We even got taken on a trek, donning our wellies and walking for 5 hours in serious humidity to spend an interesting week drinking locally brewed (and lethal) rice whiskey, being consistently amazed at how many uses bamboo has and attempting to ‘help out’ by cooking proper English chips, in a wok, over a camp fire, in the jungle… yeah, you can imagine how that went.
Getting an inside view of the Thai school system was eye opening. In the remote schools, the teachers try their hardest, but when the power cuts out every time it rains (we were there in monsoon season) and most of the English books available seem to be themed around Princess Diana, there is a limited amount they can do. As volunteers we tried to bring something of the English school system with us; dancing, singing, drawing and games seemed to bring the children out of their shells, get them trying hard and actually speaking English for the first time! Naturally they loved that we looked like total fools in the process.
The trust is constantly working to meet the evolving needs of local people; with the help of a York based travel company they have built a new dormitory at Serree Wittaya school. These dormitories along with school buses and school dinners enable children who live in the many very isolated villages to attend school regularly. In an increasingly developed and globalising country Karen children who are already bilingual desperately need help to be able to keep up in education, especially English, in order to improve their future. KHT is trying to reach all of the Karen with their programmes, venturing ever closer to the border with Myanmar to make contact and install water systems. This summer they have 19 volunteers from English universities going out to Thailand to install two much needed water systems that will provide 300 people with year round access to clean water.
Salahae once told us, after several rice whiskies, that his dream was to expand the charity’s work to Myanmar and eventually reach all of the Karen, lifting his people out of poverty and giving them a real social standing in the world. With the improving political situation in Myanmar it seems his dream might not actually be too far fetched. Regardless, KHT will not give up in their fight to lift these people out of poverty.
If you want to find out more about KHT and the Karen check out their website.