At upwards of US$500, the cost of slaughtering a buffalo to revive a relative condemned to ill-health by the spirits has pushed the Jarai indigenous minority residents of Somkul village in Ratanakkiri to a more affordable religious option: Christianity.
In the village in O’Yadav district’s Som Thom commune, about 80 per cent of the community have given up on spirits and ghosts in favour of Sunday sermons and modern medicine.
Sev Chel, 38, said she made the switch because when she used to get sick, it could cost her hundreds of dollars to appease the gods with a sacrificial package that might include a cow or buffalo, a chicken, bananas, incense and rice wine.
“So if I sold that buffalo and took the money to pay for medicine, it is about 30,000 riel to 40,000 riel [for them to] get better, so we are strong believers in Jesus,” she said. “If I did not believe in Jesus, maybe at this time I would still be poor and not know anything besides my community.”
A small wooden church has emerged in Somkul commune where the word of Jesus Christ, or “Yesu Yang” to the Jarai, is preached instead of the mixture of animism and Theravada Buddhism they have traditionally followed.
Kralan Don, 60, said he and the four other members of his family began attending the church about five years ago because of their poor standard of living.
“We believe in Christianity because we are poor; we don’t have money to buy buffaloes, chickens and pigs to pray for the spirits of the god of land or the god of water when those gods make us get sick,” he said.
Klan Ly, 56, said she had completely abandoned her fears of black magic after making the conversion.
“When my family believed in Christianity, my old Buddha could not use the black magic on us anymore, because Jesus protected us,” she said.
With the money she has saved using Western medicine instead of performing sacrifices, Klan Ly said she had been able to construct a house.
Christianity is not the only external religion that has proselytised in Somkul village.
Walking distance from the church stands a testament to an earlier failed attempt to win the Jarai’s faith – a mosque that villagers said no one attends anymore.
The erection of the mosque and the church coincide with the rapid and large scale logging of much of Ratanakkiri’s forest, where the dangerous and wild spirits feared by the Jarai were believed to reside.
As Ratanakkiri opens up through the repaved National Road 78, improved telecommunications and the growing influx of lowland non-indigenous Cambodians to the province, groups such as the Jarai are willing to consider different spiritual ways to understand the changes.
In a 2009 paper, Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that one reason Ratanakkiri’s indigenous Prao minority had been more receptive to Catholic proselytising than the type of evangelical protestant Christianity adopted by the Jarai was because of its lax attitude to drinking and smoking.
Where as evangelical protestant Christian missionaries are relatively new to Cambodia’s northeast, establishing themselves in the 1990s, they have had a presence amongst the Jarai in Vietnam since the 1970s.
“Jarai are converting much more rapidly than other groups. This is largely because most of the Jarai in Vietnam have turned to Christianity, and so relatives have been converting other Jarai in Cambodia from across the border, when they visit relatives, etc,” Ian Baird said by email.
In Somkul village, converts said they were happy that strict Protestant rules had stopped their children from drinking and smoking in favour of going to school, where they were learning Khmer and English.
Chil Braing, 55, cannot remember how many litres of rice wine she used to knock back each day, but is certain of one thing, she has not touched a drop since she converted.
“Now my health is better then before because I do not get drunk early in the morning as I did before,” she said.
Pen Bunna, provincial coordinator of the rights group Adhoc and an expert in the culture of Ratanakkiri’s indigenous minorities, said the village began abandoning their traditional beliefs sometime between 1996 and 1997 after an American missionary arrived in Somkul village.
“Christianity makes them clever and also stops them having a problem with each other,” he said.
Traditionally, the Jarai have hybridised animistic beliefs with aspects of Theravada Buddhism, but their new-found religion is strictly monotheistic, allowing no space for competing notions of god and spirituality.
David Manfred, Cambodia field director of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, said, however, that evangelical Christians were concerned with maintaining useful aspects of Jarai culture such as the language and music, while encouraging them to abandon others.
“Whether we talk about new roads, or phones, or schools, there are pressures on the culture already to change in different ways,” he said.
The traditional Jarai fear of evil spirits was costly and unhelpful he said, adding that villagers in Somkul had acknowledged Jesus Christ was more powerful.
But not everyone in Somkul has accepted that assertion yet and Chhil Dan, 33, said right now she had given up on all religion, did not care about the loss of Jarai beliefs and was happy just to feel free.
“Recently I don’t believe any religion. I’m just waiting to get old, but some of my relatives already believe in the church. It’s only me that does not go to the church,” she said. “All religions are good.”