When water is as thick as blood

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Ba Na people in Vietnam during a ritual

There are around 56,000 people belonging to the Ba Na ethnic group in Kon Tum Province.

This by itself makes for a very close-knit community, but the Ba Na take it much further. 

They have long-established rituals to make members of their own community or others become their brother or sister or father or mother with the same rights as blood relations.

Kon Jo Dri Village in Dak Ro Wa Commune was almost unoccupied on a recent Saturday afternoon.

A volunteer tour guide said only old people and little children were at home while their parents were in the fields.

A Munh, the village head who is 80 years old, said he did not remember when the unique bonding tradition began, but he's known of it for as long as he could remember and had observed many rituals himself.

"Ba Na people want their group to be more united and stronger.

"Each family will have more members to work, to protect their assets and their lives, against wild animals and natural disasters."

Two people who are not blood relations become family members usually because of admiration or gratitude from one side, or if they find out they have the same names, which is a thin odd as it is not a common practice among Ba Na people to have similar names.

A Munh said in any case, the younger of the two persons has to make the proposal through a third party and organize a ceremony if the other accepts to be a relative.

The ceremony needs a cooked chicken and a bottle of ruou can, a traditional wine made in the Central Highlands that does not go through any distillation and is shared by many people from one jar, using long bamboo straws. 

If the ceremony is held for someone to become brother or sister, each is given a necklace made with white thread after which they take one year to get to know each other, which is also the time other relatives can challenge the relationship before it gets finalized.

"They only need one person's objection and they cannot mention the relationship idea again," A Munh said.

He also said that the bond building period between two people must not last for more than one year, failing which it would not have support of the Gods.

If the proposal passes the probation period, a bigger ceremony will be held at the house of the person accepting the proposal with chicken, wine and sometimes a cow or buffalo if the family of the proposer can afford it. The person who conducts the ceremony is gifted a cooked chicken and some wine.

The village head will then pronounce the two persons as belonging to the same family, asking them to love each other and not to hurt each other. If they fail to do so, they will be punished by the village.

A Munh said that once two people become brothers or sisters, they have the same rights and interests in each other's families.

The community also allows for such relationships to be established with people from other villagers and even other ethnic groups including the majority Kinh community.

Kon Tum has the second largest population (24 percent) of Ba Na people, also known as Bahnar, in Vietnam; and more than 66 percent of others live in neighboring Gia Lai Province, who also have maintained this bonding tradition.

Similar steps are followed when someone becomes a father or mother, but an additional ritual emphasizes the blooded nature of the relationship.

The father will drop some blood from his finger tip into a glass of wine for the child, "so that his blood flows in his child's body," A Munh said.

For a mother, a breastfeeding ritual is held, irrespective of the age of the woman and the child.

"Children must carry their father's blood and be nurtured by their mother's breast milk," A Munh said.

For the breastfeeding ritual, the mother will stand topless and the person who conducts the ceremony pours a bowl of wine mixed with blood of animals used in the offerings down her shoulders, and her child will kneel down to receive the fluid from below the breast.

Prayers are said during the pouring and the ceremony ends when all the wine is poured out.

M'Lang, a 78-year-old resident of another village in the commune, said the breastfeeding tradition started long time ago when local parents wanted to counter another custom, which had breastfed children buried with their mother if she died.

He said that according to story narrated through generations, soon after a baby is born, its parents would make an agreement with another to receive the baby, in case anything happened to its mother. 

The baby would be breastfed by its "sworn" mother in a ceremony to inform village of their connection.

Though the custom of burying children with their dead mother has faded, the breastfeeding tradition remains.

Ba Na people said they value a "sworn" child much more than an adopted one, as the latter sometimes has to stay out of the family's affairs.

Y Mai, head of the commune women's association, said the tradition is an interesting practice of the Ba Na people to consolidate their community and make people share both joys and sorrows.

But she said the tradition has been distorted to an extent recent years, as there're some people who want to enter another family for the latter's assets.

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