Ro Ngao girls search further for engagement wood

Vietnam Heritage, November-December 2011 -- In order to marry a satisfactory husband, a Rơ Ngao girl in Tu Peng Village, Pô Cô Commune, Đắk Tô District, Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands, has to go deep into the forest to find firewood as an offering to her prospective husband’s  parents.
Firewood for cooking is one of the most necessary things to any Rơ Ngao family.
Village patriarch A Hanh said firewood symbolised the love of the girl for the boy. By looking at the collected wood, villagers could judge whether she would become a good wife or not.
If the wood was plentiful, beautiful and even, it would prove that she was handy, god-fearing and careful. Tu Peng villagers took pride in the arrangement of the wood in front of their houses.
The ‘engagement wood’ had to be from strong chestnut trees. If any girl took the wood from a tree that did not have a good crown it would be a bad sign.
Each piece had to be about 80 centimetres long, straight and solid, with all the bark taken off, and all the pieces had to be cut the same way, at an angle or straight across.
In the days when the trees were plentiful, every girl had to go in alone and a boy who helped would be punished. Nowadays, A Hanh said,  the forests were depleted and the girl had to go in a long way, which was very dangerous and time-consuming, so the village had allowed a girl to ‘borrow’ anybody in the village to search with her.
Two people searching non-stop 20 to 30 days could find enough – at least 100 fagots. The girl would take it all to the boy’s house, arrange it well and wait for the wedding.
Elder Y Háp, 70, said, ‘If the girl is clumsy and finds unsatisfactory wood . . . it will be returned and there will be no wedding at all.’
Elder A Hanh led me to his storehouse, which had wood his daughter-in-law, Y Na, had found. He said proudly: ‘We’ve been using this wood to cook for five years but it still hasn’t been used up. She is very handy. We love her a lot.’
Y Na said that finding the wood for her husband’s parents had taken four years. Every day, she had climbed hills and swum streams to reach a place where beautiful chestnuts were, to cut and bring back the ‘engagement wood’. She believed her performance was necessary to provoke the love of her husband’s parents and bring her a happy marriage and happiness ever after.

Text and pictures by Thien Thu
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