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Ngäbe Fighting Culture in Krömbtä

February 23, 2012

Finally, it is quiet in Chichica. The faint background noise of horns and whistles has faded and all of the chicha (fermented corn alcohol) has been drunk. All visitors have returned home and all the men, and some women, are nursing hangovers that might last for the rest of the week. What type of community rabble would cause this? It can only be one thing: balsaría (krömbtä in Ngäbere).

Balsaría is a Ngäbe tradition that takes place in the dry summer months where one community invites another community to hike over for a few days and camp out in order to share the new harvest, drink chicha, fist fight, and play a game called ‘balsa’ where participants throw sharpened logs of balsa wood (fatter than a spear but skinnier than a branch) at each others’ ankles. It is typically characterized by drinking so much that you don’t feel the pain from fist fighting and playing balsa until a few days after, in which case you may have a swollen face (in Ngäbe fighting culture, it is only acceptable to hit the face of your opponent) and swollen legs which render you unable to walk. Sounds obnoxious, right?

Beforehand, I struggled to sparse out my feelings on the event because it is at once the single-most representative tradition that Ngäbes maintain at the same time that it is brutal and risks inviting harsh judgment from outsiders. Knowing this, several people in my community asked that if I attended to refrain from taking photos – which is why none will be posted to this blog. I was nervous because I did not desire to see my community members, people I work with and care about, drinking themselves silly and getting in fights (which my culture dictates I must be averse to watching). However, after attending, I have a decidedly new found respect and appreciation for the tradition.

Along with some other volunteers from around the Comarca, I arrived in the afternoon on the second night, which, as we were told numerous times, was a day dedicated to fist-fighting. We weren’t sure how we would be received and, as the only outsiders present, proceeded with caution.

As we walked around a watched as small fights broke out, people kept saying that this is ‘our culture,’ and ‘our system’ as if afraid that we would report their actions to the nearest news source under some heading that accuses them of being barbarians. People are pretty used to seeing volunteers in the Comarca, but wanted to make sure that we were friendly and open before welcoming us fully. And after offering us some chicha and exchanging some words in Ngäbere, we were officially in, and the fear of unknown between us and them faded.

The most fascinating part took place starting at dawn on the third morning, which was the day dedicated to playing balsa. A group of participants (balseros) from one community took turns challenging another community in a series of ‘throws’ of the balsa wood. They wore traditional straw work hats decorated with the triangle/toothy design, feathers, and strips of fabric. Several men wore women’s ankle-length nagua dresses in order to make their leg movement more difficult to see by the thrower.

The ballsiest ones wore stuffed animal pelts on their backs – jaguars, panthers, foxes, and sloths, as (I assume) a demonstration of hunting skill and masculinity. Everyone blew whistles and horns. If it was your turn to take the hit, you danced back and forth, trying to anticipate how your opponent will throw the spear and trying to hide your pain if you got hit. If it was your turn to throw, you danced around your opponent and tried to hit them with all of your might. The fights are refereed and surprisingly well-coordinated.

Between the horns, the whistles, the dancing, and the throwing, the atmosphere took a trance-like feel, made all-the-more possible because people were reaching trance-like stupors from drinking so much corn alcohol. Some people weren’t drinking at all and were there, like us, just to watch and understand.

While I want to rebuke the perpetuation of male violence and assert that all of this fighting is brutal and unnecessary, I simply cannot. Thinking about the history of Ngäbes, I don’t see how their culture could be considered anything but a fighting culture. To survive Spanish colonization on this isthmus was no task for a peaceful, nonviolent group of people.

As recently as the 1970’s, Ngäbes had little contact with outsiders and were highly suspicious of other Panamanians. I speculate that traditions like the balsaría came about as a way to maintain fighting skills in order to defend their land and themselves in the case of invasion. It also reasserts their sense of self-preservation and gives them an almost undeserved sense of confidence when it comes to the non-violent battle for autonomy that takes place at the government level.

Either way, the tradition lives strong and in an era where old traditions are being traded for new ones, it is important to pause, reflect and appreciate the fighting need that they feel to keep their culture alive.

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