Rose Angkhei's interview of Jean-Dominique Lajoux

   Rose Angkhei is a young Bahnar woman from the Kontum Province currently staying in France. She visited Jean-Dominique Lajoux at his Paris home at the end of June 2012. Having viewed an important part of his photographic work about the Uplands populations, she wanted to ask him questions about some of the photos.

Jean-Dominique Lajoux
Jean-Dominique Lajoux - Paris 2012

Rose: I was attracted by your photos of the buffalo sacrifice in the Sedang village of Kon Ngo. In my village, we have not seen a buffalo sacrifice for many years, actually since my youth years. I think the last time I remember a proper event organized by ourselves was around 1996. There was another one at a later date but it was setup by the government and the people of my village did not think it as a proper one. What is unusual to me in your photos is to see other animals sacrificed together with buffaloes. Can you explain this to me?

Jean-Dominique Lajoux: The buffalo sacrifice in the Sedang village of Kon Ngo took place at the end of my stay in Vietnam, for two days, around the 7th of April, 1956. I had previously been in this village in 1955 with Frantz Laforest to film and photograph the pottery making which was this village speciality. In 1956, I got news that a large sacrifice was going to take place there, probably through a Sedang contact who had been the cook of a French Army officer. So, I went to Kon Ngo to discover that a massive event was being prepared: 8 water buffaloes were to be sacrificed at the same time by the 13 owning families to get a good harvest. And not only the buffaloes were to be sacrificed, but the same number of pigs and goats. Each family was to kill a buffalo, a pig and a goat in an elaborate ritual supervised by the thu lang, the village chied and master of ceremony. I have described this complex sacrifice including up to 75 different rituals in my book (page 103 with three photos on the following page).

What was also impressive is the fact that, unlike other groups, the Kon Ngo Sedang were not cutting the hocks of the buffalo before giving it the final blow. They first knocked down the buffalo to the ground by pulling ropes tied to its legs and then quickly stabbed it to death with their spears as you can see in this photograph. Of course, pigs and goats were dispatched in a more easy way by slicing their throats.

One final funny note came from my local contact, the thu lang's brother and former French Army cook. He made a point to cook a good steak with French fries for me and was so disappointed that he could not get any potato for the fries, but that was 1956, so close to the Indochina War.

Rose: One more question about this village. I never heard of Sedang people making pottery. In fact, my father told me that Sedang people would go to Kontum to buy the pots they needed. I see your photos where they carry the large pots they have made to sell them. Do you know where they were selling these?

Jean-Dominique: No, I don't. I did not follow them very far on the trail and they did not tell me, as far as I remember now, nearly sixty years after. What I do know is that they were selling or exchanging them for cloth and salt.

Rose: Now, I would like you to explain to me this moveable roof of the houses in the Jeh village of Peng Sial Peng or Peng Klang. I must say I have never been in a Jeh village and I have never seen something like that.

Jean-Dominique: Well, this was in fact a very neat feature of this very poor and remote - at the time - Jeh village of Peng Sial Peng. In order to get rid of the smoke inside the house they were lifting part of the roof according to where the wind was blowing from. If the wind was blowing from one direction, they would open the side opposite to the wind so it carried the smoke away. Should the wind blow from the opposite direction, they would lift the other side. Clever! And it showed the strength of these light yet solid houses.

Rose: How interesting! Can we now talk about the sculptures on the platform of this Hödrung house of Pley It (Pley Hitte according to your spelling) ? Jean-Pierre (Chazal – webmaster of the site) understood that they were unauspicious, being a forbidden representation of living human beings in a "house of the living" and that the villagers asked the owner of the house to organize an expiatory sacrifice. Can you confirm and did the owner had to remove them after the sacrifice?

Jean-Dominique: Now, I cannot remember anything of the kind. I think it was just an auspicious sacrifice for the new house by this rather rich man, uncle of my Plei Hytte host who was actually living in the nearby village of Plei Grun. And I certainly don't think there was any kind of interdict linked to human figure outside of burial ground. Jean-Pierre, where did you get that from?

Jean-Pierre Chazal: Well! I may have made it up but I tend to remember one of our early exchanges where you told me that you said to Jacques Dournes that you took photographs showing human sculptures in a village house. Jacques Dournes strongly opposed that. There is a testimony of his thinking in his Akhan : contes oraux de la forêt indochinoise (Payot, Paris, 1977). On page 27, in the staged dialogue introducing the Jarai tales that make the bulk of the book, Dournes says (my translation): "It is also a unique opportunity to represent the human figure plastically. I was referring specifically to funeral figures, notably the carved wooden poles raised at the four corners of the tomb, representing personages meant to accompany the deceased. The practice occurs in graveyards only. A few carved pieces are however noticeable in the household itself, and first of all the solid wood notched trunk leading up to housefloor level. Among the traditional patterns are those inspired by plants (squash flower), animals (tortoise), and (the most common occurrence) pairs of female human breasts." But, of course, this could be more the case around Cheo Reo, where he was living. And the Jarai (Hödrung in this case) are like all human beings, they also like to make exceptions and sometimes go against the rules: who knows the inner thinking of Nih, uncle of Dja, when he had these sculptures carved on the platform of his house.

Rose: Anyway, Jean-Dominique, I am so happy to have been able to meet and talk with you. I could not think before I would meet the man who made the book with so many great photos that I have had in my home for a few years now. Thank you for welcoming us in your home and I hope to see you in Kontum in a near future!

Jean-Dominique: I look forward to this. Thank you!