Teresa Ka Riep fears the centuries-old cultural heritage of the Chau Ma ethnic group in Vietnam’s Central Highlands is fast disappearing. Many ethnic villagers are building their houses with a combination of wood, concrete or brick instead of their traditional reed houses perched on stilts. Gongs, their traditional musical instrument, are gradually vanishing or becoming less valued. In many families, children are traditionally given gong sets after their parents die. Now they sell them off piece by piece to buy a water buffalo or on other means to support their families. A typical gong set includes six pieces that is designed to create a system of tones peculiar to itself. Once a piece is sold that unique sound is lost, Riep says. “Those who know how to play them cannot afford to replace these gong sets so have to borrow them from other people or parishes,” Riep, 30, said, adding that younger people are no longer interested in traditional music or instruments as they are attracted to the modern music they hear while working in towns and cities away from their home villages.
She says performing ethnic gong music and dances in modern houses fail to express the warm, lively, religious and holy atmosphere and spirit of festivals and ceremonies that were experienced in traditional stilt houses. Last year, Riep, who works for Caritas in Da Lat Diocese, began a project to try and restore ethnic cultural traditions in Tong Klong Dowang, a village in B’Sumrac Parish, in Lam Dong Province. Supported by Caritas, it included building a community house and purchasing a special gong set. The Chau Ma woman says it took villagers a month to collect reed leaves and wood from forests and build the traditional stilt house -- 10 meters long and four meters wide -- on a plot of land donated by villager, Joseph Ka Dim. The gong set cost 27 million dong (US$1,165). The stilt house with an altar inside was inaugurated in October last year. “We are very proud of this place where we hold community activities and can revive our traditions,” Joseph K’Brong, a lay leader, says. Locals gather at the community house in the evening of every other Sunday, wearing traditional clothes, playing gongs, dancing, singing folk songs around campfires and enjoying friendly chats. Cultural festivals like Christmas and the Lunar New Year also take place at the house, according to the 54-year-old father of four. A group has been formed to play gongs and perform traditional dances when visitors are welcomed at the house. Dominic K’Ve, a gong player, says he has begun teaching younger people how to play the specially purchased gongs and perform traditional music to try and ensure the art is not lost. He had no gongs to play or teach his children how to play before that. “Stilt houses and gongs are our heritage that we must protect and maintain,” says K’Dim, 34, another villager. “This stilt house will help us teach our children how to love and respect our ancestral traditions.” He hopes his four children, aged from 22 months to 12 years old, will be inspired to preserve ethnic traditions when they take part in cultural activities at the community house. Ethnic Chau Ma youths grow coffee and tea to boost family incomes in Lam Dong Province. (Photo: UCA News)
Riep from Caritas says local people also need to be given opportunities to improve their living standards so they can better afford to maintain their traditions. She has also launched a livelihood project in the hamlet. Six local households are taught how to raise and use perionyx excavatus
, a commercially produced earthworm to produce environmentally friendly fertilizer for crops and to feed chickens that they rear and sell adding US$130 to their normal income. “The project also educates us in how to protect the environment and produce clean and healthy produce,” K’Brong says. People used to give poultry expensive feed produced in factories which made them sick easily, which meant their meat was not good. Caritas is also providing materials and teaching locals in Tong Jrang Jreng, another Chau Ma village how to grow fruit trees, vegetables and tea on what were previously only coffee farms to support their families, according to Maria Ka Huyen, another Caritas worker. Before they only grew coffee so often lacked food. Now that have crops to sustain them all year round. Village head, Joseph K’Wam, says Caritas has helped transform local people’s livelihoods and spiritual life. Local authorities also plan to build community stilt houses in other villages to maintain ethnic traditions. “They are inspired by the Caritas projects and see the value in maintaining tradition,” he says. Maria Goretti Dinh Thi Hong Phuc, deputy director of Caritas in Da Lat, says the small projects in the villages are part of the Catholic Church social arm’s People-Led Development program which centers on inspiring people to make change. Caritas launched the program in 2016. Phuc says Caritas along with various other ethnic groups including the Kinh majority and Chau Ma, Cil, K’Ho, Mo Nong and Chu Ru minorities are conducting development projects in 18 villages in Lam Dong Province. Those participating in the agricultural projects are selling what they grow and raise directly to consumers. “As a result, people have improved their incomes in an environmentally friendly way making it easier for them to keep their traditions alive,” she says.
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