The face tattooed women, a slowly dying tradition

Lin Shwe Htang, from the Mun tribe is at her home with some of her grandsons. It’s their day off school, so they all hang together while their parents are working in the fields. When heavy rains starts to pour, everyone goes inside. As her grandchildren sit down around her, Lin Shwe lights an old pipe with locally grown tobacco and starts smoking, slowly. She’s been a smoker for a very long time. Lin doesn’t know her actual age, but explains that she started smoking as a child, to scare mosquitoes away and to warm up in winter.

Lin Shwe Htang smoking a pipe at her home.

When Lin Shwe was around 14, she got her face tattooed with natural ink made with a mix of black charcoal and green tomato leaves, a very old tradition in her area. The process was so painful that other women had to held her down while the tattoo artist was carefully marking her face. The eyelid area was particularly hurtful, she recalls. However, she went through it twice more, to get the tattoo stronger and make it last longer, because the ink wasn’t good enough. 

 The outside of Lin Shwe Htang’s home, a small one-room dark bamboo hut, is full of animal skulls. She shows us some bows and arrows her family uses for hunting. Sometimes they perform animal sacrifices, like other Animist villagers. 

Animal skulls outside Lin Shwe Htang’s home.

 In Chin State, located in Western Myanmar, bordering India and Bangladesh, people were originally Animists, believing that all animate and inanimate things possess a spirit or an essence. But after the British colonisation in 1886 and the arrival of Christian evangelists, a vast majority  of people in Chin State converted. Nowadays, 90% of the population is Christian, with the Chin State being the only part of the country were there are more churches than pagodas. That is something rare in a country predominantly Buddhist. Still, there are other villagers holding Animist beliefs. In a home near Lin Shwe’s, there’s a long wooden post with an egg placed on top of it. We’re told it’s because a member of the family is sick, and they believe the egg has healing properties.

Like with the Animist religion, female face tattoos has been a tradition for a long time in the Chin state, but it is not clear how and when it originated. A widely believed story tells that, at the time when Myanmar had Kings, they used to travel around the country to look for wives-to-be. They would choose the most beautiful girls and take them to his personal ‘harem’, far away from their home and families. Since Chin women were renowned for their beauty and their families didn’t want to see them taken away, they came up with a solution: tattooing the girls’ faces, so the King wouldn’t find them beautiful any more. 

However, as the tradition persisted and became the norm, face tattoos made the women feel beautiful and proud, becoming pretty much necessary to find a husband. And today, the pride of having face tattoos can still be seen in the elder generations of Chin women.

 Every Chin tribe has a different tattoo pattern. This is why 67 year old Ning Shen shares Lin Shwe’s tattoo. However, the marks on her face are surprisingly clear: it’s because she got the tattoo done when she was 35. Her parents didn’t want her to get tattooed, so she waited until both of them had passed away. All her female friends and villagers had face tattoos, and she wanted them too. She didn’t want to be different, she wanted to be beautiful like the rest.

Ningh Shen posing outside her home.

 In a region of farmers with low income, the tattoist was usually paid with animals because the families had no money. In fact, according to the 2017 Poverty Report produced by Central Statistical Organization with support from the World Bank and UNDP, Chin state is the poorest of Myanmar’s states and regions, with almost six out of ten people living in poverty. 

To get her tattoo, Ning Shen had to give away two chickens and two blankets. After getting it, her face was swollen for a week, and she didn’t let anyone outside her family see her. Five years after that, she got married. Now she has 9 children and several grandchildren, and continues to work as a farmer.

Views of the Chin State.

The tradition of faces tattoos has been banned for some time. In 1960, in an attempt to “modernise” the country, the government declared this practice illegal. However, it hasn’t been until recently that it has become less and less common, with most young people not carrying on the tradition, but not because of the law but because of a change in the mentality. The youngest tattooed woman of the Mun tribe is 27 years old. She hasn’t tattooed her daughters and says she won’t do it. Parents don’t want their daughters to go through the painful process, and girls, having received an education and having been in contact with the outside world -especially thanks to phone reception-, don’t find face tattoos appealing anymore. What inside their villages was once the norm, is now slowly disappearing. Some elders are worried about this tradition dying with them, and complain that now they cannot differentiate the Burmese from the Chin villagers.

 One of the oldest woman with face tatooes is 92 years old Yun Eian, from the Magan tribe. She has almost become a celebrity by playing the flute with her nose, something her mum taught her many years ago. Nowadays Yun occasionally plays the flute for tourists in exchange of some money, which helps the economy of her family. 

After playing a song for us, she complains: at her age, she cannot blow the flute like before. We’re also in the school where her daughter works, so there’s a lot of students’ background noise, and the melody is soft. We don’t care. It’s like with her face tattoos: the ink faded over the years, but she is still beautiful.

Yun Eian playing the flute.
Articles, Culture

A selection of articles

Articles

Here is a selection of my articles, of diverse topics. Some were written as assignments during my time at university, others were published on blogs or websites.

Most of them are in English, but there are are links to reports, interviews and short pieces published online in both Catalan and Spanish media.

Scroll down to start reading my work.

An explosion of colours

Articles, Human Rights, Street children

Visiting the market in Parwanipur is amazing, every single time. In Nepali they call it “bazar”, and it’s a chaotic mix of people, smells and food items. I particulary enjoy watching the saris that woman wear, which create an explosion of colours.

Portrait at the market.

Getting there takes about 20 minutes walking from the childrens’ home. It’s the fifth time I’ve come to the house but I’m still as mesmerized by the town and its people as when I first arrived. I enjoy the peacefulness of walking through the path in between the fields, with no more company than the birds singing, the blowing of the wind, the people working the land and occasionally a bicycle or motorbike.

The people from the town are now used to seeing me, so besides “Namaste” and smiles, the kids also have the courage to come next to me and shake my hand with amusement. As I walk by, I hear a symphony of bye-byes that always makes me smile

Children of the village.

When I arrive to the market and I take my camera, what happens is kind of magical. People stare at me with curiosity and when I ask someone for permission to photograph them, they always say yes with a warm smile. Once I’ve shot the first picture, more and more people come asking me to photograph them as well, and then their families or friends. I love it. Visiting the market is truly a unique experience. 

Celebrating Dashain at the childrens’ home

Articles, Human Rights, Street children

I was very excited on my second visit to the childrens’ home. Not only because I was thrilled about seeing the boys again, but also because we were going to celebrate Dashain, the biggest Hindu festival of the year, in which all Nepalis, regardless of their cast, worship the goddess Durga with ceremonies, rituals and animal sacrifices.

Dashain celebration at a temple in Parwanipur.

It was very interesting. I gladly didn’t see the animal sacrifice part of the festival, and just experienced the “happy” celebration. The boys got new clothes: a pair of jeans and a shirt, and they wore them happily when we went to the fair (or ‘mela’, in Nepali). There, we ate some snacks and sweets and the boys bought little toys or a traditional necklace with a golden coin with a Hindu god such as Shiva or Hanuman (‘the monkey God’, one of the boys told me), with a bit of pocket-money they had.

During Dashain, it is very common to fly kites, particularly in the rooftops of Kathmandu. According to the tradition, flying kites is a way to send a message to Indra, the God of rain, telling him that there is no need for more rain, since the festival is celebrated after the monsoon season. 

In Birgunj, the boys also took their kites and spend a whole afternoon running around with them in the garden, laughing. Some of the boys were really good and managed to make the kite fly up in the sky, while other kites were barely flying at all. But all the boys had a good time, and seeing them I had as much fun as them.

Before that, the kids were still going to school but getting ready for holidays. On the last day of classes, the school organised a special programme with speeches and performances. Samrat and Rohit danced a song that they had been practising a lot at home, and Ramesh sang a song. I was watching everything with amusement, trying to go as unnoticed as possible. But then I got put in the spotlight when one of the teachers asked me to give a speech. Even though I’m not really a fan of speaking in public, (especially when I have nothing prepared) I accepted and found myself explaining where I come from, what I do and why I came here. I received an ovation from my audience when I said in Nepali: “malai Nepal man parcha”, which means ‘I like Nepal’. And then this phrase became a joke that the boys kept repeating to me the following days.   

One of the boys singing a popular Hindi song.

*Article published on the website of Our Sansar, a british NGO helping street children in Nepal.

Time goes by at a different speed

Articles, Human Rights, Street children
I’ve noticed that time goes by at a different speed in the children’s home. 

The day starts early and goes on relaxed. While the boys are at the school, there’s literally not much to do. I eat some fruits, read a book, write, try to learn some Nepali with the help of Sushma… Sometimes I go back to sleep for a short nap, as my body is still not used to the heat and I feel tired quite often. 

Morning views.
When the boys come back, it’s a totally different thing. 

Of course, I can still have some time for myself and just stay in my room (chilling under the fan, when I can’t stand the heat any more), but once I leave my room, there’s always something for me to do, watch or photograph. “You play marble game?” is one of the recurrent questions I get. Other times it’s cricket, hide and seek or flying a kite. Some boys are really creative and enjoy showing me the things they have built with some cardboard and glue. I’m amazed, every single time. 

A funny time is when, twice a day, the boys do their homework, and Sushma and I help them.

They enjoy reading out loud their exercises and showing me their good marks. Sometimes they ask me to read them a story of one of the books that are in the shelf, or they grab a photograph book and play to imagine that they live in the places shown in the pictures. “This is my house”, says Ramesh pointing at some San Francisco buildings. 

Occassionally the boys watch TV or a film. I can’t tell what’s more entertaining for me: their concentrated faces or the Nepali movies or music clips, wich I don’t understand but make the boys laugh. 

Around 8pm we usually have dinner: dal bhat, a plate of rice with a lentils soup and some vegetables and pickles on the side.

After that, we usually play some Nepali music and the boys dance. They are so good! By now, I have gotten used to this kind of music, so I try to copy some dance moves without making a fool of myself. And I have the best time. If this is what routine looks like, I’m not complaining!

Sarita, the cook, serving dal bhat.

*Article published on the website of Our Sansar, a british NGO helping street children in Nepal.

The journey to school

Articles, Human Rights, Street children
Final touches before going to school.
At the children’s home the day begins really early.

At around half past 5 the boys start to wake up and get ready to go to school. They freshen up, put on their school uniforms, eat breakfast and brush their hair in front of the mirror, the one and only mirror, behind the entrace.

At 6am, it’s time to line up and when everyone is ready, Sujman takes the boys to school. At first, I thought that I would find it hard to wake up so early, but after I went with the boys and their “didi” to school, I loved it so much that I kept going every day. 

The journey to school takes a 20 minutes on foot each way, and it’s beautiful.

The sun rises in the sky while we walk in a tight path between rice fields. On the way we meet country men and woman wearing traditional clothes  (I love saris so much!) and working the land. 

The walk to school.

Then we arrive to a small town, where I see the Nepali countryside life for the first time. Mud houses and people wearing no shoes, basically doing everything in the open-air: washing clothes, cleaning their body or teeth, napping… There’s also horses, cows, buffaloes, ducks and goats everywhere. It’s funny because everybody seems surprise to see me, so I get a lot of looks. Sometimes they stare at me, surprised, others smile, say ‘namaste’ or even a few words in English.

As we get closer and closer to the school, more boys and girls with the same uniform join us and we all arrive to the Modern English School.
Students taking part in the “welcome assembly”.

There, every day starts with the same routine, the “welcome assembly”. They line up, listen to some speeches by teacher and other students, do some exercises and sing the national anthem. I try to go unnoticed while I observe this, but clearly I fail in my attempt. My presence is a distraction. However, the curious and friendly looks I receive from the kids are very funny.

Overall, it’s a very beautiful experience and the reason why, while being there, I keep waking up at 5:30, day after day. 

A villager on the way to the fields in a foggy morning.
Familiar scene seen on the way to the village.
Huts outside Parwanipur.

*Article published on the website of Our Sansar, a british NGO helping street children in Nepal.

GOOD PICTURES TELL STORIES

Articles, Human Rights, Refugees

We are too used to seeing tragedies on the news; so used to it that it doesn’t disturbs our peaceful sleep and we are even able to eat dinner while seeing that, again, some refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In this context of dehumanization of migrants who we wrongly perceive are nothing at all like us, the work of photographers such as the Catalan Sergi Cámara, who is committed to denouncing social injustice, particularly towards immigrants, is essential.

Photography by Sergi Cámara.

At the moment, Cámara is working on a project he has called Refugees Not Welcome in order to show the cruel treatment they meet once in Europe. Some of the pictures are displayed in the gardens of the Palau Robert in Barcelona until the 31st of March, in a travelling exhibition that will move around Catalonia. Its name is “Refugees: Odyssey to Europe” and it has been organised by the Working Committee for Refugees, an organisation created last year by the Catalan Government to facilitate the refugees’ reception. This photo exhibition aims to raise public awareness of the refugees’ issue, now that a group of them is arriving in Catalonia.

This is not the first time Sergi Cámara has photographed immigrants: since 2004 he’s been taking pictures of human rights violations at Melilla’s border fence, an uncomfortable job which got him and a colleague fined. Yet, it didn’t deter him from his mission. To do so, he works as a freelancer, but also occasionally for organisations and institutions. Having the independence of a freelancer is essential, as he believes that to do good documentary work you have to be independent and unpressured. He isn’t interested in quick projects: he digs deeply into the subject, without rush, dedicating the necessary time to achieve a global and complete vision.

It’s important to highlight that he doesn’t consider himself an artist but a documentary photographer, meaning that instead of focusing on the aesthetic of his pictures, he focuses on their stories. I would say that most of the pictures of the exhibit are not beautiful, but that doesn’t undermine them: their importance goes beyond beauty, and there are some powerful images and metaphors as well. Like a picture of some refugees making their way to a reception centre walking on a road whose end is impossible to see, which made me think about the uncertainty of the refugees’ future.

A good picture has to tell a story”, says Cámara, and his photographs surely do. Not only do we see people immortalized in a photo, but we also learn about their dreams and fears. We meet people from different countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iran, that wish to reach Switzerland, Germany or Finland, among others. The story of a fifteen year old Afghanis who is travelling by himself and who wants to go to Austria to study is especially disturbing.

There are some sentimental pictures, such as tender familiar scenes – a father wrapping his children up warm, a mother kissing her daughter and a father helping his child out of the boat –, but only few tears. The main reason is that Sergi Cámara wanted to differ from the other photographers: he tried to find something new, not what most of his fellows sought, as he “didn’t want to go there to do what others were doing”, he “wanted to show the problem without resorting to sensationalism”.

Nevertheless, the exhibit is like a punch in the stomach: very painful. We are aware of what is happening with the refugee crisis, but it is easier to live peacefully with ourselves pretending not to know the tragedies that other people have to suffer. Cámara’s pictures are able to take us out of our comfort zone and make us acknowledge the affliction of people like us; we sympathise with them and they are no longer just ‘refugees’or a statistic, but they become human beings with a face and a particular story. They are not dehumanized anymore and when we read that “We could all be refugees someday”, we realise how true this affirmation is.

However, the impact and strength of the exhibition is not only the real heart-breaking stories that accompany the realistic pictures; it is also a matter of the contrast between colours. The whiteness of the light colours of the sky and sea provoke a feeling of calmness and quietness that is altered with the orange lifejackets and the warmth of people’s faces and kids’ clothes. Nonetheless, the location of the display – a peaceful garden full of trees and with some birds singing- also contrasts with its difficult and serious topic.

Still, these pictures cannot change you if you don’t pay attention to them. In a cruel parallelism with what happens in European politics, people walk through the palace’s gardens with indifference, without bothering to spend a few minutes looking at the pictures.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses has to face many trials on his attempt to return Ithaca, his home. He has to beat a one-eyed giant, the magician Circe, and he even has to enter the realm of the dead. In spite of all these difficulties, he manages to reach home, where his faithful wife is still waiting for her loved one.

Sadly, there is not always a happy ending for the refugees who live their own Odyssey to escape the misery of war and trying to reach a brighter future: in 2015 more than 3000 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, and 30% of them were children. And those who reach the coast safe and sound don’t find a welcoming Penelope, but a Europe who systematically closes her doors. Turkey built a wall to seal its border with Syria, and Austria announced that it will reintroduce controls on its southern border. But for Sergi Cámera, the obligation to help the refugees is very simple: “If we don’t do it, we die as a society and as people”.


*Article published in the website of Solomon, a Greek- based nonprofit organisation that “uses media for social inclusion“.