Cottondyeing in an Akha village
Akha people living in the mountain villages in Luang Namtha province grow their own cotton. They spin it by hand spindles, weave it into big sheets and then, once a year they dye it black.
I was visiting Ban Namat Mai in 2003 just when they prepared for the dyeing.
A Master Dyer from Muang Singh had arrived, walking for a day or more over the hills to reach the village, carrying his dye materials.
Near the little stream that serves the village as bathroom, water supply and laundry place, a fire was built, and half a 44 gallon drum set onto the fire and filled with water. The dyer mixed his ingredients in a plastic bucket, and added them to the water. When it boiled, the villagers carried their stacks of white material down to the river in bamboo baskets, and one by one they were dipped into the boiling vat. After a few minutes, they were fished out and allowed to dry.
Ban Namat Mai had been on this spot in the forest for about 30 years. They arrived there because there original village had become too big, so the elders had decided in the early seventies that half the population of Ban Namat Gao, the original village six hours walking away, would come here and start a new village.
Since the dyeing was a once a year event, their relatives from Ban Namat Gao came to the party, carrying their own cotton to be dyed as well. Each family had their cotton weighed, and paid a certain amount per kilo to the dyer for the process.
Ther was a kind of festive atmosphere. The two villages are closely entertwined in terms of family bonds, and it was an occasion of much talk, food, joking and telling of stories. Some brought their work along, so while waiting they could continue to spin, crochet, or built little rattan stools, which could later be sold on the market in town.
Unfortunately these villages don’t exist anymore in that location.
Ban Namat Gao relocated out of the protected area to a piece of land in the valley. They reluctantly did so in early 2004. Ban Namat Mai decided voluntarily to move closer to town in 2005. The move closer to town, to roads, electricity and television will no doubt have some impact on how there lifestyle develops.
I am pleased to have had an opportunity to visit them in their old location, and to record this process.
Technical note for photographers:
In 2002/2003, I used Sony Cybershot 717, later 828. Some of the colour isn't as refined as my later portfolios shot on Canon 20 and 5D. Those shots in the Akha village portfolio that do not have exif data were shot on 35 mm Contax rangefinder, and scanned.
© Kees Sprengers - Ethnic Diversity in Luang Namtha - Laos