- Rich Enuol lived in a remote tribe in the rainforests of Vietnam before moving to the US when he was a teenager.
- Enuol’s journey from Vietnam to the United States was difficult. His tribe was driven from the rainforests and evacuated to a Cambodian refugee camp, where he learned English and experienced life with electricity for the first time.
- He now lives in Massachusetts with his wife.
- Interest in isolated tribes has risen after the American missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese, a tribe living on a remote Indian island.
Until he was a teenager, Rich Enuol, 32, lived in an isolated tribe in the rainforests of Vietnam. He lived without electricity, slept under a thatched roof, and had never used a flush toilet.
Today, he’s in Massachusetts with his American wife, living an existence totally alien to the life he once had.
“Life was very different. There was no technology. I didn’t have cell phones. I didn’t have any of the skyscrapers, buildings. None of that,” he told INSIDER of his childhood. “[I was] just basically living in the forest.”
The rainforest was a ‘paradise’
Enuol is part of the Degar (sometimes called Montagnard) people, a collection of indigenous tribes that populate the Vietnamese Central Highlands. Once numbered in the millions, their population dwindled to the low hundreds of thousands after the Vietnam War.
Since then, the population of the Degar community has continued to decline. Climate change, deforestation, and government-sponsored persecution have all threatened the Degar way of life. Enuol’s own tribe – the Ede, or Rhade, people – and the language the group speaks, is nearly extinct.
Enuol’s mother died when he was young, and he and his siblings lived with his aunt and uncle in a remote village several days’ travel from other villages.
The tribe Enuol lived with while growing up was made of hunter-gatherers. Its people practiced small-scale horticulture and foraged the forest’s resources. Clothing was made from cotton harvested by the community.
“I remember the rainforest, being surrounded by wildlife. Monkeys, tigers, elephants, bears, snakes – you name it,” he said. “We only saw tribespeople. You’d have to walk days to actually see other people.”
“It’s just a paradise,” he said. “The rainforest was our refuge.”
A nearly extinct way of life
Tribes like Enuol’s have become a point of fascination in recent weeks after the death of American missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed by the remote Sentinelese tribe, whose people live on India’s North Sentinel Island and historically have not been open to outsiders. The incident sparked controversy over the ethics of contacting and proselytizing to remote indigenous communities.
Like the Sentinelese, the Degar people have come into contact with outsiders in several waves over the past few centuries, even though some tribes have a reputation of being isolated or uncontacted.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, European Catholic and American Protestant missionaries converted remote villages to Christianity. Those religious influences were reinforced during the French occupation of Vietnam and by the large American presence in the country during the Vietnam War. Enuol’s own family converted to Christianity from a native animist faith.
For most of his time in the jungle, Enuol said, he had mostly negative experiences with non-Degars. Sometimes outsiders would walk into his village and steal crops and supplies from his family.
“They came into our land and would steal our stuff,” he said. “There was nothing we could do about it.”
The Degar don’t consider themselves Vietnamese. They’re their own ethnic group, fighting for their own nation, and have often suffered from persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese.
“I started to see this oppression happen in my lifetime, during my childhood years,” Enuol said. “That land did not belong to them.”
“Modern” Vietnamese visitors burned down his village a number of times, he said – the community lived in tents and thatched-roof houses. Worn down from the experience, in 1995, Enuol’s family moved out of the jungle to a community near a Vietnamese military base.
While living near the base, Enuol learned to speak Vietnamese. Though the Ede people have their own language, the Vietnamese government, wary of the relative independence of the Degar people, organised schools to teach them the Vietnamese language and give them a basic Vietnamese education.
In 2001, when Enuol was 13 or 14 (he isn’t sure of his exact age), a United Nations mission moved his family to a refugee camp in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri Province.
‘It was like I was on a totally different planet’
It was at the Cambodian refugee camp where Enuol first learned how different life was outside the rainforest.
“It was like I was on a totally different planet. The people. The language,” he said. “I was in shock about everything. From the toilets to the escalators to the planes. It was so strange.”
An American working at the camp taught Enuol English. During that time, he also applied for political asylum in the US. He moved to Washington state in 2002, where he graduated from high school. He then attended Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
He now lives in Massachusetts, where he gained American citizenship in 2013, and is married and has a home with his wife, whom he met in 2016 through a mutual friend. He works as a brain-injury-services site manager and a medical interpreter for a local nonprofit organisation that helps people with developmental disabilities.
In 2015, thanks to a GoFundMe campaign, Enuol returned to the site where his village used to be and visited family still living there. He was shocked to find the area completely changed and much of the forest cleared.
“The forest where I grew up, and what I saw when I was growing up – it’s not there,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing to see something that was so real before, and then now – because of modernisation, globalization, climate change happening, assimilation – we lost it.”
‘Why isn’t my culture good enough?’
Enuol said that he understands that Chau and other missionaries are trying to spread the views they believe are correct, but that in doing so, they repress the views of indigenous communities.
“For indigenous people, [religious conversion] is another way to wash away our belief,” he said. “When someone gives up their original faith to believe in the new faith – [it] doesn’t jive well with me, because I feel like, ‘Why isn’t my culture good enough?'”
Chau and people like him, Enuol believes, are simply a small symptom of the larger lack of understanding of indigenous cultures.
“Indigenous people have always been in this position, where people are interested in finding the people who lived in the rainforest, the jungle,” he said. “I get that. But I don’t think it’s their right to come in and change someone’s way of life. I didn’t want to be found. If they wanted to be found, they would have been found.”
This article has been updated.