The Moken People’s island off the coast of southern Thailand has been desecrated with glass and trash. But that is not the seafaring society’s only threat.
Every day is a constant struggle to live. Or is it? With the Sea Gypsies you never know. Sure, they lack even the most basic of necessities, have neither enough water or food to feed their children, and nobody can deny their lives hang by but a thread. But take a walk down the broken-glass-and-bottle-strewn beach with the Mokens, as they are known in Thailand, and you’ll realize they are full of hope, full of life and truly unbreakable.
Exposed to these seafarers, you can’t help but sympathize with their plight. But one smile from Sewai, a two year old boy, or the sound of laughter from Bi, a three- year-old girl, is enough to make you forget their troubles and empathize with the simplicity of their existence. The simplicity is so affecting. I began to think it was the Moken’s who should feel sympathy for me, with my complex lifestyle—smartphones, Internet, money and beauty products.
The Moken have no need for such superficial objects; they are too busy trying to survive while having fun and living within their boundaries. The Moken don’t have a word for ‘want’, and thus material possessions are secondary to them. Even dining tables are nonexistent in Moken society; they prefer to eat on the floor, gathered in a circle. In fact, the only thing they cherish is their life and culture—which is what makes these natives of the sea so fascinating. And yet, they are threatened.
I was based in Ranong, a large Thai fishing port close to Lao Island where a Moken community lives. My mission over five months was to figure out how the Moken could secure an education while preserving their culture. Their lives as well as their culture are at risk of extinction. The biggest reason is their status under the law. They simply do not exist as either Thai or Myanmar citizens. They are gypsies of the sea and their lack of papers deprives them of rights and services we take for granted. When they need medical care, for example, Thai doctors from the mainland refuse to treat them.
Many things could be done to help save the Mokens and their culture. The approach I took was to document their language in a way that could be used as a basic educational aid in a system that doesn’t recognize their unique identity. Young children facing a stark choice surrounded me: abandon your language and enter the Thai education system, or remain illiterate. So I thought: what if at an early stage in their education, the Moken could use a learning tool that allowed them to compare words in their own language with words in Thai and English?
I lived with Moken children based in a mainland hostel run by the Human Development Foundation. Each day I visited a school run for the very youngest children on Lao. The island is tiny, sparsely forested and surrounded by a grubby strip of muddy shore littered with washed-up waste. This was no tropical island paradise. Each morning, when weather permitted, I would join teachers in a rented motorboat for the 20 minute journey from Ranong.
My task was to create a simple dictionary that would provide the Mokens with a basic Moken-Thai-English vocabulary. This proved a great challenge, not just because of my inexperience in compiling a dictionary but also because of the peculiarity of dealing with a language with no real written script.
Moken vocabulary is not as extensive as English. Take how it deals with colour. Unlike English, Moken does not have a different word for each color. Instead it combines words to express the color combination it produces. For example, the word for ‘black’ is ketam, and the word for ‘white’ is potek. ‘Grey’ is ketam-potek.
The Mokens compensate with their abundance of words for distinct types of animals living in different habitats. For example, they have three different words for ‘worm’; a worm that eats plankton is a dati-gamap, a white worm dati-potek and a black worm dati-ketam. They also have three different words for turtles: koyak is a normal turtle, pa-nouille a sea turtle and laton a turtle with a big head. This was a refreshing step away from the myriad words we use to describe things like computers and toilet.
Children are at the heart of the Human Development Foundation’s work with the Moken. There are the kids living with the staff in Ranong that go to school on the mainland, and there are the kids living on Lao island who either are too young to attend school or simply choose not to study. Education is very much encouraged, yet sometimes parents believe staying on the island and learning hereditary fishing skills will provide the kid as well as the family a better chance for a prosperous future. But this is not often the case.
Indeed, fishing the Moken way is a dangerous business that involves diving to deep depths and explosives. The Moken have resorted to this type of fishing because they cannot keep up with new technologies the mainland fishermen use, even though it is illegal.
Each morning in Ranong, I would help prepare the short boat trip to Lao island. We’d load up the truck, then set off for the port to catch our boat. But not before stopping for the morning’s most essential necessity: iced cappuccinos.
I was always struck by the atmosphere at the fishing port. It looks like something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean film. The stench of drying fish fills your nostrils and jolts you awake. The fishing boats hauled up for repair or cleaning on land loom like monstrous wrecks held upright with logs and age-old mechanisms that seem unbreakable despite the damage from time and seawater.
The boat trip would take about 20 minutes, depending on ocean conditions. Upon reaching the island, Mé Lia and other Moken women would greet us and help bring the supplies to the school. The first thing you notice about these women is their strength. Since all the young fathers and men are gone most days fishing, it’s the women who are left on the island to make sure life goes on. The men can be gone for as long as five months, and many of the children, especially the boys, want to go with them. But most are made to stay behind with their mothers.
The women would carry the heavy supplies on their heads without flinching, all the while walking barefoot on the razor sharp rocky beaches. The beach has caused many injuries and it’s only when you step foot on it that you realize why: thousands of broken shards of glass lie scattered on its sands, from empty bottles accumulated by the tide and other careless littering in the sea. It’s a horrible truth to witness such a hazard on a beach where the Moken live, but the kids who come to play around the boat make you feel at ease when you see them running around the beach without shoes dodging the glass like little acrobats.
But the shards of glass on the beach are nothing compared to the amount of trash swept up on the island’s beaches. Since the island is situated in a sheltered tidal bay, everything thrown into the sea comes up with the tide and covers the beach with a thick crust of garbage. The fishermen from the mainland have no respect for the environment; they throw everything into the sea, from dirty rags to empty tin boxes. As a result, the seawater in this area is practically toxic, and the low tide exposes the sludge on the bottom.
When we’d reach the school at around 9 am, the kids would already be there, along with two local teachers who would help them prepare for the day. Lunchtime for the kids would start at around noon, right after songs and prayers to thank those responsible for the food. When the kids finally finished their food they knew what procedure to follow: put the bowl in the tub, clean your hands and put powder on your face before getting a pillow. The staff would put them to sleep on the floor by sitting next to them and tapping their legs until they fell asleep—something I never understood but did not think to question since it always did the trick.
After a while on the island, my role as a dictionary author and photographer evolved into the role of assistant English teacher. I would teach them to say ‘thank you’ each time I gave them a snack. Many kids had difficulty pronouncing the words, but we were just happy that we got them thinking about it at such an early age.
But despite the initiatives and the gradual improvement to the lives of the Moken, there is a darker side to their story.
The Moken children are necessarily the most valuable aspect of the project, since they are the ones who will build the community’s capacity to survive. But they are also the ones most at risk; infant mortality is so high that babies, rather disturbingly, are usually not named for the first few months of their existence. Alcoholism is rife within the community, especially amongst men. The entire economy of the island is controlled by a single ethnic Thai individual who owns the only shop – controlling the supply of necessities such as food and fuel, and vices like cigarettes and alcohol.
Teaching the Moken kids to count and speak up for themselves is perhaps the only way out of this situation. For the Moken are truly remarkable people worth saving. No matter what life throws at them—sickness, malnutrition, hunger—they persevere; they still manage to put on a smile and beat the odds. It makes you wonder, if our roles were reversed, how would we survive without our mobile phones and iPads? Looking at the way the Moken Sea Gypsies live their lives brings one back to earth, back to the true reality, away from needless toys that distract us far too much from who we really are and what we are capable of.
Touched by the plight of the Moken people? Get to know them (especially Sewai) better at Stefan’s blog : A Moken Experience