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Home » ICFJ Reporting Fellowship

Death in the hills

28 April 2011 No Comment

The clouds hung low, mist sweeping into the trees. A light drizzle fell, turning the soil crimson. For one family in the Hmong village of Chom Chieng, the day couldn’t be any more somber.

A queej, a bamboo wind instrument used by the Hmong tribespeople to channel the spirits, enveloped the hills with its melancholy sound.  A drum banged. [Watch video.]

SistersThe girl was dressed splendidly, in traditional Hmong garb, her body at rest atop an altar above the bare earthen floor of her family’s hut.

The girl was still alive the last time I was in Chom Chieng. When I returned to the village two days later, she was dead. She was just 14.

The shaman had tried to summon the spirits that could save her while trying to vanquish those that sought to take her from the realm of the living. In the end, the shaman could not heal her.

Perhaps a doctor could have saved the girl from what ailed her, whatever it was. Yellow fever. Malaria. No one could be sure what illness had possessed her.

Her body burned with fever, her family said. Her limbs swelled. She was too weak to stand. Soon, she was dead. It all happened so quickly, villagers said.

Despite a health clinic just a few hundred meters from the girl’s home, her family never took her to see a nurse. Even if they did, would there have been anyone there with the expertise to diagnose the ailing girl?

Without the means to get medical attention, the girl’s family awaited her fate.

And so it came.

Three years ago, the Red Cross set up the clinic in Chom Chieng. Such clinics have popped up across the rural reaches of Laos as part of an international effort to modernize medicine in Laos, which has one of the least developed health care systems in Southeast Asia.

When it comes to health care, Laos is caught in a firmament between the old and new, between the traditional healing practices that conjure spirits and the new world approach of hospitals, drugs and science.

Doctors rarely visit Chom Chieng. It had been months since a doctor’s last visit. The village is about 30 kilometers from the nearest hospital, located in the Ponsai District.

The doctor in Ponsai is Hmong, and he understands the plight of the many tribes scattered in faraway places. He can’t always devote the time it takes to reach villages like Chom Chieng.

Nurses, midwives or clinic managers with little medical training administer most of care. But even with a doctor, there is little that can be done about the most common affliction in most Hmong villages: poverty.


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