In the high mountains of Northern Thailand lives an extraordinary tribe who have no written history and whose way of life is disappearing with the forests.
They knew only how to survive in the deep jungle, building homes from fresh banana leaves. They would sleep on the leaves and use them as a roof to protect from the rain and dew at night.
If they could not find food in the area nearby, they would move on deeper into the forest. They would wander in the forest, staying together in small groups. Education, a house, and clothing were of no value to them, as they had no use for these things living in the forest.
The isolated tribe was also afraid of strangers. If they met any outsiders, they moved away immediately, like spirits. They lived like this for centuries, the last nomadic tribe to survive in the northern forests of Thailand and Laos.
This hill tribe calls themselves the “Malabri,” which means aboriginal people. But they are known as the “spirits of the yellow leaves.” The city dwellers observed that this group only stayed in one place five to ten days, just long enough for the leaves the Malabri used for their temporary houses to turn yellow after they left.
Increasingly, the Malabri could not find food in the forests for their daily meals. The forests were, and still are, disappearing; approximately 80 percent of the forest has been destroyed by slash and burn farming. The life of hunting and gathering that the Malabri practiced for centuries can no longer keep them alive.
Today, the population of the Malabri is less than 250. The government has noticed their plight and established two places for the Malabri to live in small villages in the northern part of Thailand.
In 1997, the Malabri moved from a nomadic life in the jungle to life in the village. There are no Malabri left in the jungle.
Compassion has been working in this area with the Malabri children since July 2001, and there are 48 Malabri children registered with Compassion.
Traditionally the Malabri, who were afraid of strangers, did not trust anyone who came to their tribe. An isolated and shy tribe, the Malabri had no religion and had never heard the gospel.
A local church member, Mr. Sornkreree, befriended the tribe. He wanted to share the good news of Christ with them. About 15 years ago, he organized for his church’s Christmas party to be held in the deep jungle. So he talked to the Malabri’s leader to gather the people in one place for the party.
Every year after that, Mr. Sornkrerre held the Christmas party in the jungle. However, his mission was not very fruitful until Compassion gave him a helping hand.
Mr. Sornkreree is now the director of the Compassion child development center, and many members of the “yellow leaf” tribe have been blessed by the help of Compassion. A great example of this can be seen in the life of Wan.
After Wan’s father settled down in the village, he faced many new hardships. The members of the “yellow leaf” tribe have never lived outside the forest before.
Wan’s father could not speak the local language and did not have any knowledge about farming or agriculture. He did not own any farmland, so he had to work for other local people. He became the poorest of the poor in the area.
Initially, Wan came to the Compassion child development center just to get some food to fill her empty stomach. However, in time she received more than physical help.
“The student center taught me to bathe and have personal hygiene. My family did not know how to bathe. My parents said that when they lived in the jungle they did not bathe because they had to hunt, and if they took a bath they were afraid that the animals would recognize the difference and would run away.”
Poor hygiene is one of the threats to this people, leading to illness and poor health. Mr. Sornkrerre says,
“We mainly focus on personal hygiene. For the ‘yellow leaf spirit’ we invited a doctor to teach them, but it did not change their lifestyle. So every Saturday, the Compassion staff would bathe every ‘yellow leaf spirit’ child before the children attended their activities. We did this for almost 10 years until we began to see the changes.”
Bathing was not the only obvious change among the “yellow leaf” people. Changes were also made regarding their clothing and diet.
In an area where malnutrition is a serious issue, the Compassion child development center taught them how to cook nutritious food and the importance of a nutritious diet. According to Mr. Sornkreree,
“The ‘yellow leaf spirit’ people did not know how to wear clothes, so in the beginning when the development center gave them clothes, they hung them in trees or threw them away. Now the children and parents have adapted to wearing clothes to cover themselves to adapt to the new culture they are now a part of.”
The Malabri live in a village of just other Malabris, but the nearby tribes are Hmong. At first, the Hmong viewed the Malabri as lower than them, viewing them as workers. As a member of a small and seemingly strange minority group, people often would insult Wan. But Wan says she was never discouraged.
“There are some people who look down on me and say that I am lower than them because I am apart of a hill tribe and come from a poor family. I don’t take it seriously because in my perspective, everybody is the same,” Wan says with pride, which could be seen radiating from her entire face.
Living in a rural area, the children had less opportunity to develop in education. But the Compassion child development center provides various activities, tutoring classes such as English, math, Thai, typing, computer and music.
The center also gives advice and encourages children to continue studying further in secondary school.
In the past, it was normal for female members of the “yellow leaf spirit” tribe to marry when they turned 12. Wan says,
“When I saw my friends expecting their children, I felt sorry for them. I wanted them to study and attend the student center so they would realize that education is more important than marriage at this age.”
Wan has gone from being a poor “yellow leaf” girl to now having a big dream for her future — to be a teacher.
“I want to come back and teach children in my village to have knowledge. I have a dream to develop my hometown.”
Before the last decade, there were no or very few Christians among the Malabri. Mr. Sornkreree’s church, which started in 1995 by the Hmong tribe, now has 140 members, mainly from the Malabri tribe. The two people groups in the church now view each other as brothers and sisters.
Wan is now a Christian, too. She helps run Sunday services at her church. She decided to accept Jesus Christ when she was in second grade. She could not keep the good news to herself, so she shared the gospel with her family. God softened her parents’ hearts, and they came to their Heavenly Father.
Wan’s pastor, Pastor Saedum says,
“Wan is a strong Christian. She helps us teach Bible class for little children and lead worship at church. She is the first youth group member from the ‘yellow leaf spirit’ tribe and is willing to help every time I ask. She is faithful in her commitment and dedication to the church and its people and has never missed church. Wan has the potential to be a leader, and I believe that she will be a good teacher who can help her tribe in the future. I am very proud of her and impressed by her.”
Without Compassion, Wan’s life would have been radically different. She might have ended up just like her parents, with no opportunity for education and married at a young age. She would have had to work in a field all day, carrying the responsibilities of an adult at such a young age. Her dream to become a teacher might have been like a bubble flying in the air without direction.
Wan’s father says that the child development center is good for his daughter, giving her opportunities for education and development.
Thanks to Compassion, we can make an incredible difference in the life of a little “yellow leaf” girl. Wan is the hope and the beautiful seed for her tribe, the “yellow leaf spirits.”