The First Rice

Patrick Kelly, for the Pulitzer Center

Mr. Nomin clears his throat to translate. "He says it is a biblical concept that the first crop must be given in this way. In Kachin culture we also have a traditional Thanksgiving." The pastor smiles politely, hands folded behind his back. "All year we plant everything we need so we bring our crops to church and praise God. Here we bring together our strength and what we have as a people. Traditionally in Kachin, we call it Nlung Nnan Sha Poi - the first rice festival."

A line of smiling Kachin musicians greet the congregation at the gates of the Mai Ja Yang Baptist Church. Bamboo flutes, an iron bell and marching drums set the festive tone.

Children run about the courtyard shooting marbles past the polished Sunday shoes and flip-flops. The courtyard is abuzz with laughter and colorful dresses as the Kachin shuffle to the immaculate church house. Everyone stops at one of the wooden alms boxes to leave Chinese Yuan before crossing under the flowered archway, entering the hall beyond.

Nearly eight-hundred smiles look toward a high stage adorned with bouquets. At the foot of the stage is a cornucopia spilling rice on the stalk, tamarind, sugar cane, squash, orchids, roses and eggs, ginger, cherry tomatoes, mandarins, marigolds, pomegranates, dragon fruit, corn, a carved melon candle holder - and a bible.

Beside this, striped spires nearly four feet tall bookend the spread of a garden's bounty. The purple depth of a grape against a striking red chili pepper, a stark clove of garlic beside the soft glow of Kumquats; all is beautifully arranged by loving hands. Popping with delicious color, the arrangements of food are gift offerings to ornament the church and feed the community.

"We can eat this entire stage!" laughed one Kachin woman looking over the display.

In Burma's Kachin State the average income is under a dollar a day, but as ethnic minorities, rural Kachin villagers are marginalized to the lowest forms of poverty. Living on the border of China's Yunnan Provence, most Kachin in Mai Ja Yang depend on two things: selling sugar cane and the scant civil services of a revolutionary political group.

Fifteen years ago nothing was developing in Burma. After forty-six years of civil wars with the ethnic groups the world had changed while Burma's dictatorship remained gripped by internal strife. Eager to bolster the military and a cosmetic image of peace and happiness to the world, the regime proposed a ceasefire.

In the name of stability and development, the Kachin Independence Organization established an autonomous swath of hills the size of Gaza Strip and started re-building hospitals, teacher training colleges, churches - and their rebellion.

Burma's military government, The State Peace and Development Council, began selling off the remainder of Kachin State to foreign investors with bids to mine, log and erect hydro-power dams. Chinese laborers took the work, the SPDC took the wealth and the Kachin got leftovers.

When Burma gets press, the Kachin villagers are lumped into the "armed ethnic groups" category mentioned after political prisoners and the Pro-Democracy movement. There are few opportunities for Kachin, especially those living behind rebel lines. Pair this with a history of wicked oppression, and with the exception of covert aid from NGOs outside Burma, no contact with the outside world - then one can begin to understand the Kachin today.

As one young Kachin put it, "We are forgotten people, but we know who we are."

The students of Mai Ja Yang's Intensive English Program have prepared their offering all week. In a drafty cement hall by the fickle light of a Chinese power company, the fifty-six students have tuned their choir to sing Praise Ye Jehovah. By Sunday morning the halls of IEP are echoing with the lilting hymn as students sing through their chores.

But these students bring more than a simple hymn of praise. The students of IEP themselves are an offering to the community. To these Kachin, English is a step toward skilled careers and healthier communities.

"I want to be a teacher so I can help my community develop," explained one student. "There are many poorly educated people in Kachin. I want them to develop their lives. If my goal is to be true, I must serve in my country as well I can."

To open the day's festivity, the IEP students form a procession carrying handwoven baskets lined with flowers and grain and brimming with fruit and vegetables. The male students carry the baskets over their backs by a chest strap; the women wear the strap atop their head.

"Every family has brought a basket for the church," explained Mr. Nomin. "Every family has a garden, so they bring a lot of things. These baskets are offerings to the pastors and the deacon, and their families. It will also go back to the people."

Following the musicians around the church and down the aisle, the students lay their communities' offerings at the foot of the stage. The floor swells with baskets spilling the natural wealth of a farming community.

Children from the primary school take to the stage, each holding one of the village's plants. One by one the students announce their praise to the land and its uses before lining the stage with pots and baskets of still more flowers and food.

Beneath the words "The Lord loves those who give with a cheerful heart," the pastor reads from The Book of Psalms. Drawing from Psalm 105 he speaks of the qualities of thankfulness. He encourages his congregation to give, not out of duty or to be seen as someone of status for giving a pig or cow, but through sacrifice and happiness.

As the sermon concludes the congregation rises and files toward an alms box set amid the cornucopia. Hands reach from every direction to drop envelopes of yet more money. It is an offering some families have saved all year to give. Later, nearly a dozen people count out and re-count the inflated Burmese Kyat and more valuable Chinese Yuan.

"The people do not need to give anything, but everyone wants to give what they can," said Mr. Nomin.

Across the courtyard, the offerings continue. In years past, feast food was assigned, but this year the congregation was invited to give freely. A cow, five pigs and over one hundred-fifty chickens were just the beginning.

The kitchen is teeming with helping hands. One crowd to mince pork, one to peel the Krum le sin and another to mind the steaming cauldrons of chicken bits, beef and string bean pumpkin soup. Cracking wood fires, the thunderous roll of cleavers and bouncing rhythms of the Jingpaw language blend into the traditional sounds of a Kachin holiday kitchen.

Before feasting, the Kachin dance a Htawng ka. The circular dance of "small celebrations" rotates in a simple stride-step pattern to the bell and drums. Villagers take turns adding their variations to the dance.

When the feast arrives it is delivered from overhead. Two servers carry a steel tray loaded with bowls high above their heads to reach every table. A young woman follows to serve each dish. At the table everyone reaches to serve one another.

In Kachin tradition, giving and receiving are made like a handshake. One hand extends as the other supports the forearm. This custom stems from when most everyone wore a two foot blade for farming or fighting. In those days if you were greeted with one hand, the other may be reaching for a sword. The gesture of mutual trust lives on in generosity and formality.

One Kachin man turns to the other and with a laugh says, "How can we ever be poor with so much?"