There was an old man in our village by the name of Lapum Naw Htang, a refugee from the Burmese-Kachin conflict of earlier years. He told us that he had learned to read and write at a Shan monastery school. So I asked him what the written word looks like. He said he was first taught “ka-hka-ga” (the first 3 letters of the Burmese alphabet, or literally in Kachin, “the language of the crows”). He told me that the letters were all rounded, like circles. Ever since, the desire to become literate, to be able to read and write, burned within me.
My third great grandfather Jaufa Khun spent many years as a monk at a Shan monastery, reputedly becoming quite learned, especially in astrology. In later years, he was persuaded to leave monkhood to lead his people in the fight against the Burmese governor at Bhamo. The Burmese troops suffered heavy losses from the unconventional guerrilla tactics Jaufa Khun and his men employed. This led a strong Burmese force to come up to the hills and torch Kachin villages in revenge. Jaufa Khun lost his life from the burns he received while trying to retrieve sacred texts from his burning house.
My ancestor was learned to be sure, but he did not earn my admiration, as he did nothing to share his knowledge with his people.
It was in 1891 or 1892, that American Baptist missionaries, the Reverends Roberts and Hanson, came up to the Sinlum Hills from Bhamo, asking my father Zau Li and my uncles Zau Tang and Gauri Nawng (co-chieftains of the Gauri Lahpai clan), for a piece of land on which to build a house for Rev. Hanson[i], who needed to escape from Bhamo’s scorching heat in the summer to continue with his translation work.
My father and uncles granted the missionaries a sizeable plot, also helping them build a bamboo, thatched house. Every summer, they would go down to the Bhamo plains to fetch the Hansons, and escort them back on their return.
After Rev. Hanson and his family were more or less settled in their little house, Mama[ii] Hanson embarked on efforts to educate us children. We children were: I – Zau Tu, my cousin Seng Li, Malang Gumbau, Hpa Grawng, Ndup Nawng, and a few girls. Mama enticed us by handing out sugar candy one day, small coins the next, and pictures and molasses candy on other days. Then she taught us a song, and afterward said, “Tomorrow, I’m going to teach you to read and write”.
I was at the Hanson house earlier than usual the next morning. I had been so overcome with excitement I had hardly slept that night. After singing the song “When Jesus Our Lord Was Here”, Mama began writing the letters on a board and showed them to us.
From then on, I went everyday to learn from Mama. My friends could not be there every day. I went and stayed with the Hanson children for one whole week, and by the end of my stay, I had learned to write all the letters. Then my uncle came to the house and said I needed to come home with him, as my father was not well.
When I got home, I found that my father was not sick at all. He was in fact very well. He told me the missionaries, after teaching us the letters, would transport our spirits, so that they could take us to the low lands and devour us. “So, don’t go anymore” he said. I retorted, “If they’re going to spirit away the other children, let them spirit me away also!” My father then continued to frighten me by telling me that Sragyi[iii] had been seen stretched out on his porch, sated after eating a dog from the village. He had carried away the dog after shapeshifting into a tiger. Unfazed, I again said, “If he’s going to eat other people’s children, let him eat me also!” But soon the rains began to fall and it became cooler, and the Hansons went back to Bhamo.
Not long after, my uncle Zau Tang told me that he planned to take his son Seng Li and our friend Malang Gumbau to the Bhamo mission school after he had finished planting the paddy fields. I was to keep this a secret from my father if I wanted to come along. I was so overjoyed that the mere thought of going to school caused me to choke on my food while eating, break into an excited run when walking, or wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep again.
When the time came, I put the 2 blankets I had squirreled away in a bag, and left for Bhamo without telling my father and mother. So the five of us – my uncle Zau Tang and aunt Htu Ting, my cousin Seng Li, Malang Gumbau and myself – started on our journey to Bhamo.
(The young Zau Tu spent his school days at the Bhamo mission school working as a stable boy for the Roberts, to earn his upkeep. He met his future wife Nangzing Hka Jan at the school, and they both went on to establish the first self-supporting Kachin primary school at Pangmu, Sinlum. His children became the first Kachins to receive university education.)
[i] Dr. Ola Hanson; Litt.D., M.R.A.S., a much beloved missionary, spent 28 years among the Kachins. He formulated an orthography for the Kachin language using the Roman alphabet, translated the Bible into Kachin, completed a Kachin grammar and a Kachin-English dictionary, while also publishing a number of Kachin-related writings.
[ii] “Mama”, meaning ‘elder sister’ in Burmese, was a term of respect commonly used in addressing missionary women.
[iii] “Sragyi”, or “great teacher”, a term used to refer to male missionaries.