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What the French Guy Said

June 13, 2011

There is a myth among a few Chichica elders that one of the first foreigners to arrive was French guy. He wasn’t a missionary, he wasn’t a development worker, he was a student studying abroad here in Panama. He was curious about what these Ngäbe people were all about and basically wondered into the Comarca and found Chichica. This actually seems like it would take a lot of effort and luck, because, at the time, there was no road. It figures that this mythic man did not preach the bible or modernization, but rather warned about the negative consequences that come along with growth and increased contact with the world outside of these mountains.

According to the myth, he arrived right as the school was being built. That puts him at about the mid-1970’s. He stayed with my Grandpa Marcus and Grandma Juanita. He commented that seeing the school being built made him sad. It seemed like such an odd comment at the time because education seemed like an important first step on the road to progress and modernity. He explained that it made him sad because it meant that the community would lose part of what made it unique, “lose part of the community” he said. He implied that it would usher in change that would be irreversible and sometimes uncontrollable.

Though he thought little of it at the time, Marcus said that he can’t help but reflect back on that conversation now, with 40 years of hindsight, and recognize that much has changed and that the progress brought on by modernizing has not always been positive. He never imagined that Chichica would take shape the way that it has: a center for education, a place where Spanish, not Ngabere dominates, a road where cars rush past at all hours. He, nor anyone here, would posit that education has had a negative impact on the community,  rather, I don’t think they recognized all of the costs that it might bring, such as loss of traditions and uncontrolled growth. As Chichica grows bigger and gains more access, some essential traditions that make Ngabes culturally distinct are disappearing. I’ve reflected months and months on this conversation, and here is the short list that I have recognized. You can note that some change is definitely for the better.

  1. Custom of “Regalar” – Before the local economy started to look like an actual market economy based in financial transactions and interchanging money, people just used to give each other stuff, or regalar, as it is said in Spanish. One man would kill a cow and instead of charging $1.50/pound, he would just share it with his neighbors and family members. He trusted that when the time came for the neighbor to kill a cow, they would reciprocate the favor. This trait still lingers. Even as I visit families in their homes, they often give me some fresh bananas, root vegetables, some beans, or, at a minimum, a cup of coffee.  As you can imagine, I then give whatever surplus food I have to the people that visit me or to my neighbors. As another example, men would always work together during planting and harvesting seasons. A farmer would rotate which farm they would plant or harvest one day, knowing that soon they would also reap the benefit of free labor on their farm. The host would whip up a batch of chicha fuerte, or fermented corn liquor, to keep the group motivated and working despite the hot sun.  A few groups of men still do this, but farmers are increasingly working alone.
  2. Traditional Medicine and Medicine Men – While many still know more about plants than I ever could, and can identify them with ease, the relationship with medicinal uses of plants and natural medicine has faded. Lipa and Encarnaciona (two of my fav old ladies) often wax nostalgia about how their father was a curandero, or medicine man. People would come from all over for visits with him. Neither learned the trade from their father, and his knowledge was lost when he passed. Some traditional medicine sounds odd to our ears but was just the way of the world when it was practiced years ago. For example, for a cut that won´t stop bleeding or a fever, using urine from the opposite sex of the patient was common to resolve ailments in the past.
  3. A Road – I can´t walk thirty feet down the road without someone reminding me that there never used to be a paved road to Chichica. That, especially during the rainy season, they had to walk 3 hours over two ridgelines to reach the highway where cars run. The road has ushered in the quickest change that anyone has cited. For example, the road is always buzzing with merchant trucks to sell goods to store owners, cars from government officials, ice cream men on motorcycles, materials for construction, veggie and fish trucks, and cars for transport. In also opened up the possibility the ability to leave and come back in one day, increased access better hospital service, and relinquished professors and teachers from the nuisance of walking in and out of town each week for school.
  4. Traditional justice system – During the local congress back in March, a surprising issue surfaced that caused people to become impassioned and divided: Whether or not to permit traditional forms of corporal punishment. Specifically, using a device called the cepa to punish small criminals. The method was one of the many lovely traditions gifted from Spanish conquistadors in the preceding centuries and consists of locking the person down by their leg and placing a large stump over it so that, if the person moves, the stump gradually crushes their foot. In their isolation, the Ngabes retained this style of punishment until recently in large towns, and it is still in use in smaller, isolated areas. Some people argue that it is tradition and should be retained for tradition’s sake. While others contend that it is simply cruel and that the national system of punishing criminals should be applied. I do believe this is one case where human rights outweigh tradition.
  5. Rites and rituals for coming-of-age – Traditionally, when a Ngabe woman passes from childhood to adulthood (aka gets her period) she is supposed to stay in the house during the day and be attended to by only the oldest women in her family. During this time, they teach her the art of weaving chakaras, or traditional bags made out of natural fibers. It is a long process that takes several days, which is why that stage of life is marked by the dedication and patience required to learn to make quality bags. This ritual has become a myth about the past. No one seems to know anyone that has done it within the past 20 years.
One Comment leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011 4:34 pm

    Hey Jess great blog! So much of this can be said about my site too. The other day a ngabe woman was complaining to me about sex ed in the schools and that girls now will secretly buy kotex and don’t have pena about getting their periods anymore. At the time I didn’t know how to respond and kept my mouth shut. Since that conversation I’ve learned more about the tradition. Its tricky this confrontation between tradition and education.

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