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A Tienda Grows in Chichica

October 22, 2010

Where to begin. Where to begin. I’m not even sure how to broach the subject of my site visit. To summarize: I loved it! It is the jungle mountain community of my dreams. It is a conundrum of a Comarca town that challenges my initial impressions and has layers of unique cultural attributes for me to analyze. For those who know me best, you will agree that I’m not satisfied until I analyze something (a situation, a cultural perspective, a problem or a narrative) to death. And, especially in the case of Chichica, it is simply not that simple. Ok, I’ll start at the beginning.

We arrived at our Community Entrance Conference on Wednesday to meet with a community member from each of our sites to guide us home for our first visit (because sites are often difficult to find or there are many transit changes involved). I anticipated a traditional Ngobe (pronounced No-Bey) woman, wearing traditional dress, more comfortable speaking the Ngobere (No-bear-ay) language. What I found was a sassy, fast-talking, Spanish-speaking woman named Ana that doesn’t speak a lick of the Ngobere. She rocks. After a day of the conference where we talked about all of the groups and businesses that are in the town for me to work with, we traveled to Chichica together on Thursday morning. While she was untraditional, I certainly expected her be the exception to the rule and that I would soon find myself in Ngobe-land among the isolated indigenous group that has quedado atras – been left behind – in the economic lottery of modern Panamanian society.

Photo Captions: Main road leading into town (rt). View of Chichica from a distance taken during a hike to another community.

The main road  is dotted with houses that are made of wood and cinder block – very sturdy and expensive by Comarca standards where most houses are recycled tin or bamboo with dirt floors. Many houses are made of cinder-block and/or wood and were astonishingly high-quality compared to the rest of the Comarca. While my first host-family does have a dirt floor and bamboo and zinc siding, the other two host families have concrete floors. There are also literally 15 tiendas, or small, family-owned stores, that sell the dry goods (rice, sugar, packaged chips and cookies, etc). Some even have small generators or solar panels that run refrigerators with cold goods (usually juice and soda) or charge cell-phones for the town residents. There are definitely more stores than there is disposable income to be spent. As per my assignment description, “it is an interesting demonstration of how culture affects business, and an opportunity to develop new business ideas.”

Photo Caption: The town center with the school in the background.

Upon arriving Thursday afternoon, I was showed the way to Felipa’s house, where I would stay for the first month. Peace Corps requires volunteers to live with host families for the first three months, and it is typical to divide it up among a few families in order to get to know more people. Felipa is a 70+ year-old that is probably the light of my life at this point. She also doesn’t dress traditionally or speak Ngobere, but she grew up here and is part of one of the founding families. She is a generous busy-body that wakes up early, cooks meals all day, and takes pleasure in people passing by her house to eat with her throughout the day. Let’s just say that when I arrived there were no dogs at the house and by the time I left there were four dogs and a cat. She would feed the world if she could! I woke up every morning to her grinding up corn to make tortillas and brewing up some coffee so that I would leave with a full stomach. I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t know or care what the Peace Corps is, and all that matters for her is that someone staying with her needs to eat.

Sitting under the stars and candle light during the evening, I loved asking her questions that let her embellish long stories in the way that people her age often do – What was it like here before there was a road? Or, What is your family like? I also delighted in her explanations of other foreigners that have come to town, or about the snake bite she got when she young that was cured using botanical medicine. She keeps pigeons at the house (yeah, jungle pigeons) because her cousin was once cured of life-threatening disease using pigeon blood.


After meeting Felipa, Ana, and many of their family members, I pieced together that there are a few dominate families who, at some point and for some reason, set to only speaking Spanish. Confirming this trend, as I met more teachers and community members throughout the visit it became clear that Spanish is the dominant language. While many women wore the traditional dress, it was also perfectly normal to be out in town wearing jeans and t-shirt. This differed vastly from what I saw in Hato Chami on my first visit to this semi-autonomous indigenous region. There, traditional dress dominated and Ngobere flowed through all conversations.

I was struck by the apparent lack of tradition in Chichica. It is a cross-road of old and new. I speculate that part of this is owed to the presence of a full high school (through 12th grade) in the town for the past forty years. In a region where over 50% of adults are illiterate (speculatively due to a lack of schools and teachers in these far-reaching areas), the presence of a high school instigated the creation of a small professional class of teachers and agency workers. Coupled with those founding families and their apparent rejection (or at least subordination) of Ngobe dress and language, the Spanish-speaking high school changed the face of this town. Of course, for every sign of Latino influence in Chichica, there were reminders that Comarca culture is still present. I still have to hike in a half-foot of mud to get home. There are still WAY more horses than cars and subsistence agriculture (that is, farming to feed a family, not outside sales) is the norm. It only took walking further down the main road outside of town to be confronted once again with the precarious houses and families with deficient income and food sources.

Especially after conversing with my fellow PCV’s in other Comarca towns, I can confirm that this site is unusual. This cultural puzzle has left me perplexed. It plants questions like Would other communities also eventually phase out Ngobe tradition as education improves? Does speaking Spanish indirectly contribute to the apparent higher living standards in this community due to increased contact outside the Comarca? Which came first, the high school or the families? Is there a trade-off between maintaining culture and achieving higher education?

Not to be daunted, fair reader, for these questions have no single answer. I appreciate that, in many ways, Chichica serves as a test case for development in the Comarca. If not just to throw a wrench in the thought process that I’ve lead you down, there is also a University in town that is training people for a degree in teaching bilingual education. Bilingual, you ask? Yes, that would be Spanish and Ngobe bi-lingual education that is tentatively being phased into schools over the next few years. I met two people who, frustrated for not having learned their native language as children, are now taking Ngobere classes in order to conserve their customs. Alas, while some factors push Ngobe out, others pull it back in.

Where do I fit in all of this? As I gladly informed anyone who asked, I am a volunteer sent to teach business skills and help build capacity of microenterprises, associations, and cooperatives to improve their ability to identify and take advantage of economic opportunities. Am I pushing or pulling? Am I cushioning the old or inviting the new? Any good Peace Corps volunteer will always provide the following answer to any question that demands a conclusive answer: Well, it depends

I’m torn about the effect that developing has had on the local culture. Mostly my job is not to make a decision about this, but rather to inform community members about options and train them in business per their own assessment of their priorities and needs. Thus, if it is businesses they want, then it is business training they shall get. It is just important to be aware of the long-term affect of outside influence. Also bears to mention that I’m basing this assessment on a measly five-day visit. It will only get more complex from here… and I’m giddy with excitement to get more involved! Bahhhh one more week and then I get to be a real volunteer!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristin Walsh permalink
    October 25, 2010 3:52 pm

    Sounds interesting and I can totally understand your internal conflict. Can’t wait for the next post.


  1. The One About All the Tiendas « La Viajera Encantada

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