Donors must keep ethnic customs in mind
by Le Ha
When I travelled through Bac Ha District in the mountainous northern province of Lao Cai, a large district bordering China, I saw how ethnic people really live.
Poor Mong families live in low-roofed houses perched on the sides of hills and mountains, which look like they are about to be blown away at any second by the wind. Children run up and down the hills, playing: some girls wearing only ragged skirts, some boys completely naked.
Although "each day brings its own bread", I still felt sorry for them. I gave a 30-year-old woman with six children some money to buy clothes and food. Next time, I will collect some items to bring to them. I left for Bac Ha market; however, my thoughts remained halfway up the mountain, under the shadow of the low-roofed houses.
Bac Ha market is very colourful, with an array of items handmade by ethnic people. However, many Mong people wear modern clothes made in China or Kinh clothes.
A tourguide from Vido Tour Company said that this is because volunteers bring them to the people.
He said that before departing on a volunteer trip, one should study the local customs carefully. Clothes should be delivered to poor people who really need them, rather than to those whose heritage is closely linked to the clothes they wear.
According to him, ethnic people in mountain areas make their cotton or linen clothes, which they decorate with a diverse array of patterns. These designs depict various natural phenomena and reflect ancient views about space and time. Women of each ethnic group are differentiated by their skirts and the colours they use in their clothing. What do you think when you see the Mong in Chinese clothing or other ethnic people in torn jeans?
In fact, sometimes volunteers bring up old clothes from the plains to deliver in the mountain areas.
Mai Thuong, an official of District Youth Union, said that Xin Man is a mountain district which attracts many tourists, both Vietnamese and foreigners.
"We welcome voluntary activities in the district, but delivering clothes to the locals should be carefully planned to avoid waste and preserve ethnic dress," Thuong said.
Visitors to the mountain areas once saw young and old wearing traditional outfits with unique features, but nowadays, ethnic people wearing traditional clothes are getting fewer, and some have even changed the material of their clothes. The traditional cultural identity of ethnic groups is increasingly fading away, including the ethnic costumes, which are now made from cloth donated by volunteers or supplanted by foreign clothes.
Now in mountain areas such as Lao Cai and Ha Giang, home to the Mong, Dao and Nung, tourists rarely see the Mong girls on the road with raw flax threads in hands, or the girls sitting at looms weaving, drying yarn, and embroidering in front of their houses.
Tran Linh, a volunteer who often visits the mountainous provinces, thinks that giving presents like pens and textbooks does not affect ethnic people's customs much. "When the society has developed, narrowing the gap among peoples, ethnic clothes might be worn only during festivals or market-days (like what is happening in Western countries)," he says.
What is more important is keeping a sincere and friendly attitude when communicating with ethnic people so that they don't feel awkward. Despite their poverty, they still have high self-esteem.
We know that ethnic people lack many things. However, in order to help them meaningfully and effectively, we must first identify their real needs so that we can offer practical help. There are many ethnic peoples with many different customs, so learning about the people we are going to help is important. There is a saying, "Give a person a cow instead of a quintal of sausages." In other words, it is better to help them escape poverty and have a better life rather than simply to feed them.
For example, instead of buying meat and vegetables for mountain children, a benefactor can send them chickens, breeding piglets, and seeds so that they can produce their own food. Alternatively, volunteers can teach them traditional trades so these children can live independently instead of depending on others. — VNS