The Yellow leaf tribe situated in the North of Thailand consists of Mlabri people, which means “people of the forest.” Stephanie Balloo interviews American missionary Gene Long about living amongst the Yellow Leaf Tribe for the past 30 years.
Gene and his wife Mary originally came to Thailand from America in their twenties as Christian missionaries, sharing the word of God to Thais and northern Thais in Bangkok. The couple first became interested in the Yellow Leaf tribe when reading an article in the Journal of the Siam Society. They finally met the Mlabri people in 1980 in the hills of Nan and Phrae, Chiang Mai.
“It was clear they needed help on many fronts and our hearts were heavy as we saw their plight,” he says. The 130 people of the tribe had no settled home, lived in the rice and corn fields of their employers, had no citizenship and had never seen a school.
“They were paid dismally low wages and half of the population had malaria.” Diseases caused by poor hygiene were rampant, a quarter of children died in infancy and life expectancy was between 38-40 years. Their only possessions were those they could carry on their backs.
The Mlabri people mostly wore second hand clothing and the children were often naked. They would excrete in the jungle, wherever they wanted – “the dogs took care of most of the solid matter, if you get the idea,” Gene tells me.
Their diet consisted of jungle roots, sometimes rice from their employers and “almost any animal they could capture or kill. They did not eat the dogs, however.” Their shelters were made of banana leaves which, when they turned yellow, meant it was time for the tribe to move on, hence the name Yellow Leaf.
There was no one to help them, until Gene and Mary decided to put their all into changing their lives for the better. “We were determined to do what we could on every level – spiritually, physically, educationally and politically. It’s been a wild ride!”
The tribe now have Thai citizenship, the children go to a government school, their total numbers have increased to 400 and infant mortality was zero in 2013. “They plant their own rice on land we have obtained for them and are able to earn more than the Bangkok minimum wage right here at home, making hammocks.”
Over 20 years later, a very special girl was born into the tribe. Yindee, who now lives at Hope Home, was born with severe cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Despite the common Buddhist belief that disabled children are a ‘bad omen’ to the family, Yindee was loved by the Yellow Leaf tribe.
“Her mother and grandmother carried her around all the time and did their best to care for her. We did what we could, but we didn’t understand what Yindee’s problems were either.”
The hospital in Phrae showed the couple how to exercise her, move her limbs and clear her airways – “but we didn’t have the time to give her the close care she needed.” It was around that time that Mary and Gene heard about Hope Home and contacted founder Judy Cook.
They really wanted Yindee to live at Hope Home, but they didn’t want to pressure her mother into giving her daughter away. They told her it was up to her to make the choice. “It took Yindee’s mother several days to decide, but she finally said, ‘I want my girl to have a chance’.” Yindee moved in with Judy in 2010. Gene explains how difficult it was for them all to leave her in Chiang Mai, even though they knew she would be better off there. “She has been loved and cared for by Judy and the wonderful folks at Hope Home ever since.”
During their first visit to Chiang Mai a few months later, Gene remembers Yindee screaming at him. “She used to laugh and giggle at me. I was devastated, of course, but glad to see that Yindee now loved Judy.” Over time, Judy became a second mother to Yindee, providing her with the medical treatment, care and attention she needed.
Judy and Gene organise for Yindee and her family to be reunited twice a year. Once when the around 30 members of the tribe visit Hope Home in April and another when Hope Home travel up to the village in January.
“Now, after all this time, she will smile at me and giggle like before – and it always brings tears of joy to my eyes.” Gene and Mary hope that when they pass away, the Yellow Leaf people will be able to maintain the quality of life that they have created and sustained for them.