From Water Springs Life: A conversation with the Karen hill tribes
At the start of the year, I travelled deep into the north of Thailand where I volunteered with an organisation called the Karen Hilltribes Trust (KHT). I lived with, worked alongside and taught members of the indigenous hill tribes in a small town encompassed by undeveloped villages.
The KHT is a small yet mighty organisation who work with members of the Karen tribes to improve access to water, irrigation technology and education in community-led efforts all over the Mae Hong Son province of Thailand. The charity has done exceptional work to improve thousands upon thousands of lives, including Nootsabar - the charity’s Project Manager, its heart and soul.
Here, she speaks about the challenges of living in extreme poverty, and how the Karen Hilltribes Trust have worked relentlessly to solve them.
How did you discover the KHT?
“I learned about the KHT when they came to my home village, Huai Koo Pa, to install a clean water system. My brother asked Penelope and Salahae if KHT could support my education because my parents were too poor to afford university fees. So, I became one of the first students to receive a KHT scholarship. After I graduated, I had qualifications so was then able to work for the KHT.”
What does the KHT’s work mean to you?
“I’ve worked with the KHT for 13 years. For me, if there was no KHT, I could not have gone to university. I don’t know what job I would have. If there was no KHT, there would be no today – they have opened so many opportunities.
“Huai Koo Pa was the first village in which KHT’s clean water system was installed. Without KHT, life would have been a lot harder for me and the other people in my village. In the rainy season the water would be so dirty it looked like Milo [a hot chocolate drink]; it was very dangerous to shower in because the rivers flooded and ran very quickly.
“Before KHT installed the water system, I had to collect water from the well when I was just a young girl - my parents and my brother were always working in the rice fields so there was no other choice. It was very hard. In the hot season it was difficult to carry the buckets of water on our shoulders, and sometimes we turned up to no water because there wasn’t enough to share between all the villagers, or it would dry up. In the rainy season the water in the well was contaminated.
“In the past there were lots of problems; lots of people I knew got diseases like malaria and typhoid. Often, I used to get bad eye infections and diarrhoea. We didn’t know what bacteria was, what it looked like.
“After the water system was installed, life changed in Huay Koo Pa. The villagers don’t have to fight with time now that they don’t have to collect water from the well anymore. It’s a different life - people are much healthier and happier. Every aspect of Karen life improved so much because of the KHT and I will always be grateful for it.”
Clean water is a universal human right. The KHT have been building and maintaining clean water filtration technology for over two decades, preserving the health of thousands of lives in rural Thailand.
Why did you choose to work with the KHT?
“When I go to church, the priest tells me “because you do good things, God blesses you”. Our religion teaches us to be good people in every aspect of our lives: work, family. This gives us God’s blessing. When I’m working, I feel God watching over me, so I do my best for the KHT – I try to do good for the Karen people. Even though this is my job and I get paid, I just want to support the people.”
From the Karen Hilltribes Trust’s very first step into Nootsabar’s life, they transformed it for the better. She was able to live healthily with the clean water supplied by the charity. She was able to invest more time into her education instead of collecting water each day.
Eventually she was able to go to university thanks to a scholarship from the KHT - something extraordinary since many Karen children don’t even go onto finishing secondary school. She is now employed by the KHT and is living a beautifully fruitful life, thanks to their support.
There are thousands of individuals like Nootsabar whose lives are being changed by the KHT’s support: I’m fortunate to have been able to meet some of these people and to see the KHT’s vital projects with my very own eyes.
The Karen Hilltribes Trust offer a number of volunteering opportunities, disparate to the raucous world of aesthetic voluntourism. Contribute to their efforts of improving water sanitation by working beside members of the tribes, building clean water systems over the course of your summer holidays. Or, spend a few months teaching English as I did, living with a family of the tribe and seeing a side of the planet untethered from the touristic eye.
In short, doing good feels good. Any kind of volunteering is a priceless investment into your own personal development and gains permanent acknowledgement from the lives that you touch.