The seventy-six-year-old Mr. Ya Saï Po arrived in French Guiana with the first Hmong refugees and is now the last skilled craftsmen to forge traditional Hmong knives.

We met him in his forge behind his family home in Cacao.

From Laos…

It was in the mountains to the north of Laos that Mr. Ya Saï Po learnt how to forge steel at a very early age so as to make farm implements. In farmers’ families this was a skill handed down from father to son.

In 1975 the communists came to power and Ya Saï Po fled Laos with his wife and fifteen children. After walking up the Mekong River for twenty-five days he reached the refugee camp on the Thai border where he stayed for nearly 2 years.

In 1977 he was taken in by France then sent to French Guiana. He slipped a few seeds into his luggage but above all took his bellows with him, the essential piece of equipment for smithying.

… to French Guiana

Mr. Ya Saï Po arrived in French Guiana at the age of forty-two with 500 other Hmong refugees. Their arrival caused some waves and the community was sent to live in virtual isolation in a steep forest zone cut off from the Island of Cayenne, in what is now the village of Cacao. The project to settle the Hmong in French Guiana was part of the Green Plan with the dual objective of helping the people of French Guiana and developing agriculture.

On arriving, these families immediately set about clearing the forest so as to build their village and set up plantations. They had to adapt rapidly to these unknown lands to grow rice and other subsistence crops.

For Ya Saï Po, the first job was to set up his forge, for how could he farm without the tools he needed to till the earth?

This forge enabled him to make forks, rakes, spades, hoes, saws, knives, and other tools essential for setting up agricultural production. These tools were used to clear the forest, to work the land, and for harvesting.

By dint of hard work the food supplies of the village of Cacao were secured by the early 1980s. Then, progressively, the excess was sent to the undersupplied markets of Cayenne to provide all the markets of French Guiana with fresh fruit and vegetables, from the 1990s up to the present-day.

Techniques without borders

The key point to emerge from this interview was that the forge, be it in Laos or French Guiana, is a link in the chain of agricultural development.

The bellows brought from Laos may still be found in the Mr. Ya Saï Po’s little forge. It is this which enables him to carry out the first stage in the manufacture of a knife – heating the steel on burning coals. Steel, which he recovers from the springs of lorries, cars, and chainsaws, is hammered whilst still hot to fashion the blade, which he then polishes. Once the blade is ready he makes a handle for the knife from snakewood. He then carefully makes a hole in the handle adjusted to the end of the blade. Then all he has to do is make a sheath wrapped in liana. Worn on the belt this sheath protects both the knife and its owner.

Each knife is unique but has numerous uses. When clearing forest they can be used to cut branches, liana, and foliage. They have very sharp blades meaning they can be used to cut up tough pieces of meat when cooking, although you do have to mind your fingers.

The future of his skill

One of Mr. Ya Saï Po’s grandsons was present during the interview, or at least during the beginning of it. His bike soon struck him as a lot more interesting than the forge. That was when Mr. Ya Saï Po told us that none of his children or grandchildren knew how to forge metals. He did not have any illusions about this. Now that the mountains of Laos had been left behind there was no need to go on making tools which were available from suppliers in French Guiana. It is a shame for this craft which not only still survives as something useful but is also a genuine art form.

Mr. Ya Saï Po is one of the people to have helped his country develop, for French Guiana is where he feels at home.

Thank you for all that you have done. Ua tsaug*! (*Thank You!)