naïve to cultured

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10 Cultural Differences of the Ngäbe-Buglé Indians in Panamá

This article was first published on Habla Ya Spanish School Blog on May 23, 2013.

Each culture is unique all over the world. Just to go from American culture to Panamanian culture is a shock. I want to take you one step deeper into the culture of the Ngäbe Indians, with whom I lived in their reserved land for 2 years.

When I ponder about the huge culture gap, SO many things come to mind! I’m going to write about the 10 most noticeable ones for me, but it’s seriously difficult to limit the list.

1. Organic Food & Simple Diet

Though the Ngäbe have plenty of land to cultivate, the past generation or two have seen a decrease in the food variety planted and harvested in their region. This may be because of pereza (laziness), increase of packaged products in the community store, and/or less people staying in the community to work the land.

Two different varieties of bananas, avocadoes, spinach-like leaves, yuca, an egg. For more about what is available during different times of the year click here…

The typical Comarca staples are rice (either fresh or bought packaged in the community store), starchy root vegetables (such as ñame, otoe, ñampi, yuca, dachin), bananas (eaten green and ripe), and raised or wild game (fish, chicken, pig, iguana, rabbit, turtle, etc.). So limited! You can still find some leafy greens growing on some farms, but they are not often harvested nor replanted. Breakfast is either skipped or if the family has oil, they will fry up some green bananas or plantains.

Even though the women of the Comarca don’t have a lot of food choices at their disposal, they will ALWAYS offer you whatever they are having, and it’s going to be a BIG plate or cup! So whether it’s coffee or cacao (hot chocolate) with 3 tablespoons of sugar, or a huge plate of rice with some mystery meat, it’s rude to say no. So get it down however you can with a big smile on your face, even if that means sneaking some to the dog or the kid next to you!

Portions are huge… eat up!

2. Pets are Animals, After All

Not all animals in the Comarca are hunted or raised to be killed. Many families keep dogs, cats and birds as mascotas (pets), just like the developing world! One stark difference, however, is the view of spaying or neutering the pet.

My friend, Carolyn, and I, each spayed our cats and had completely different experiences (Carolyn’s experience and my experience). But, what we can take away from this is the likelihood that our community members will NOT do the same. The main reason? El “costo” (cost). I paid $45 plus the headache of getting my cat to the vet and back on a boat, taxi and bus. Comarca sites are not easily accessible and veterinarians are not typically close to our neck of the woods.

In Panama, it costs $45 to have your female cat spayed. Shoot, that’s totally worth it in my opinion after having gone through two litters in only 4 months.

On top of that, Ngäbes have a much different relationship with their animals than westerners. Personally, my community members at the time thought I was NUTS to spay my cat. “She will never have babies again?!” “You paid how much?!” They don’t see it as a loving companion, but as it’s own separate being that we don’t own nor have the right to decide whether it has offspring or not. They also don’t buy their animals dog/cat food nor give them vaccines… they really just live symbiotically in the house together; the pet hunting either on the finca (farm) or bugs in the house (rewarding to the owner) and the pet gets some table scraps at every meal (rewarding to the pet).

The sad reality is that many pets in the Comarca die from starvation.

My friend, Scott, wrote a great blog post about when some dogs “se murieron” (died) at his house. The reactions of the owners of the dogs to their deaths was sad, but fleeting. As Scott points out, the Ngäbes are used to death and have seen much more of it at a young age, especially in household pets.

3. Family is Everything

The communities in the Comarca are relatively small. There are some large communities of about 5,000 people, but the majority are very small villages of less than 500 people maybe 20 minutes apart from each other. This makes a “red” (network) of small communities that have one large community center, but mainly they keep to themselves in their own community. Probably this is where they were raised, or where their husband or wife was raised. You will find the grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters all close by too. At this point, many have probably left to find work outside of the Comarca, but amongst the women, many are still there taking care of the children, grandchildren and old “abuelos” (grandparents).

Family is not just mom, dad and kids: it includes aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins as well, and in many occasions all live together. This is one of the 6 host families I lived with.

To give you an example of how the communities are where I lived on the northern Caribbean coast of the Comarca, what I just described to you is one family, but multiply that by about 10 and there you’ve got the current community. There are typically about 10 apellidos (family names), but maybe 40 – 50 houses in the community. Of course these are the brothers and sisters that have stayed in the community, but started their own families and built their own houses. But these same 10 family names all grew up together. And their grandparents all grew up together. And so on… so you can just imagine the stories that they tell of one another that go back decades!

Family is really important down here… just how it should be.

Not only is the community close because of time and history, the families themselves are extremely close internally. Privacy and individuality is not sought-after in the Comarca (though this is changing with the entrance of the internet and cell phone service). Whenever I moved into my own house by myself (which was literally only a stone’s throw from 3 other houses), everyone in my community asked me the same questions: “¿Te da miedo?”(Aren’t you scared?) Aren’t you going to be lonely?” From birth they are sleeping at their mother’s breast. They are surrounded by siblings and cousins as soon as they can walk. Most of their houses only have one room where everyone sleeps together either directly on the floor or on a thin mattress.

Another big difference is how “family clusters share in the meaningful work” to run a house and farm. Family businesses are dying down in the U.S. as sons and daughters are drawn to different opportunities. The Ngäbes don’t have many oportunidades (opportunities). They are proud of the land that their family owns and rarely sell it because they know its value. Though many leave to work outside of the Comarca, most have hopes of returning to their homeland to work the land as their parents did.

4. Relationships are Simple Because Everyone Knows Their Role (and they keep quiet about their problems)

Now that you know how families relate to their communities, how do individuals relate to each other? Social norms are “MUY” (VERY) different in the Comarca. These also great depend on the region of the Comarca.

In the mountainous part of the Comarca, the women are quiet and shy and will take awhile to warm up to you and look you in the eye. On the coast, the women are more animated and direct. For women it is considered dangerous and a bit scandalous to travel by yourself and unthought of to travel with a man who is not your marido (husband) or a close relative (travel meaning mainly walking to other communities or going to work on the farm). Gender roles are very apparent as each gender has their own share of important, difficult and time-consuming chores (women don’t build houses, men don’t wash their family’s clothes unless it’s an extreme circumstance).

What is even more intriguing to me, is how men and women date and marry. This is also very regional. My friend, Scott, had a deep conversation with one of his community members about this interesting tradition and he shared his findings in a blog post, “The Comarca: Where Getting Married is Synonymous with Getting Socked in the Face.” Though his region seems to stick with the “fight and win” mentality, where I lived on the coast was very different. Fighting only took place at drunken parties and was not usually over a woman. “Relaciones” (Relationships) happen much like they do in western countries – boy and girl meet, flirt, talk… and eventually are introduced to the parents and sometimes are allowed to live together (even when the girl is only 14!). Someone cheats and either runs off with the lover or it bridges a gap between husband and wife, though they continue living together. Polygamy is rare and is dying out.

In some parts of the Comarca you are allowed to freely fall in love… in others it’s a bit trickier.

The biggest difference in relationships is communication. Ngäbes do not communicate well. They would prefer to sweep problems under the rug until they can’t get the front door open. That’s why cheating happens, Dad’s aren’t present, and the kids have no direction in life. They live simply and prefer not to ponder the big ideas, “what-ifs”, reaching “perfection”. They act off impulse many times and don’t know how to critically “analizar” (analyze) a situation. Believe it or not, analysis is not something we are born with, it must be learned.

5. Sex Education is Learned by Peers

What would relationships be without sex? I say “relationships” because unfortunately sex happens between all sorts of people in the Comarca, not just intimate couples. And kids start having sex really young, like at 13/14 years old. Parents don’t teach their kids about safe sex, so they learn in school (usually in 7th grade) and from other kids. Abstinence is a completely foreign concept in the Comarca, even amongst very religious communities. Men rely on the pull-out method because honestly this is usually the only option available (this depends on the region). “Condones” (Condoms) and birth control are typically not stocked at local Clinics. As well, there is a big stereotype against birth control, that the women who take it are whores.

If you have your first child when you’re 15 or 16, you can easily become a grand parent in your thirties.

6. Pregnancy is Scary and Not Discussed

What follows unprotected sex? Babies! Oh my gosh you will have never seen so many “bebés” (babies) in your life if you visit an indigenous community. “Baby” in the Ngäbe dialect is “chichí”, with the accent on the second syllable. Just some fun information for you.

¡Qué lindo chichí! What a cute baby!

As you have probably guessed, births are quite different in the Comarca than in western countries. Hospitals are far away and are under-stocked and under-staffed. Most births happen at home with a midwife, who may or may not be properly trained. This causes all sorts of “problemas” (problems), as you can imagine. Personally in the two years that I lived in the Comarca, I experienced 2 baby deaths at birth (one was born dead and the other was born “horribly deformed” and couldn’t survive). There were also multiple miscarriages mainly because of “accidents” as I was told (some were real accidents but some I question as domestic abuse).

Teen pregnancies are the norm in the Comarca

They also don’t celebrate “embarazo” (pregnancy) like the western culture. It is really that much of a celebration to have a child at 15 years old or to bring your 5th child into the world in 10 years to a family that is already barely getting by? It’s not at all to say that they don’t love their children, but it’s a much different reaction to childbearing in this sort of environment.

7. Death is a Normal Part of Small Community Life

As you can probably imagine, death in an impoverished small community is very real and it’s a pretty big deal. In western cultures, we have an entire industry around “funerales” (funerals) to help the grieving family flawlessly plan and execute the “closing ceremonies.” Not quite so in the Comarca.

My friend, Evan, wrote a very touching account of a funeral for a 3-month baby girl in his community. He has been unlucky enough to have “experimentado” (experienced) 4 funerals during his service (and he still has until October 2013 to complete 2 years!). Of course the entire community is affected when someone dies, whether is it a small child, grandmother, expected, or accidental. Grief affects everyone differently and I would venture to say that westerners prefer to grieve in private, as this is natural and comfortable to us. We want our closest relatives and friends to be with us in our private moments, but in public we do our best to hold it together.

Ngäbes don’t really have a concept of privacidad (privacy) or alone-time. Therefore, even during the grieving process the family is surrounded by extended family and neighbors, at least for the few days surrounding the death. Everyone from the community who is able to attend the funeral attends. It is customary for the closest relatives to be completely distraught in public: crying, screaming, singing – anything goes. Extreme emotions are rarely shown in day-to-day situations (extreme meaning on the opposite ends of the spectrum, angry/livid – elated happiness). So the emotions are all poured out in moments like funerals and while drinking alcohol because it is culturally appropriate.

Death is a reality experienced with more frequency than usual in the Comarca

What brings us to death? Sometimes accidents, but usually “enfermedades” (illnesses). Sometimes unknown but many times known-but-not-curable because of lack of funds to pay for medical procedures and medicine. This sad reality isn’t too surprising as most families live on only $50/month for a family of 5+. This is why holistic medicine and botanical doctors are very popular in the Comarca. And many times I have witnessed the positive and miraculous results.

8. Motivation is Seriously Lacking

A real serious problem that development workers come across all of the time is lack of motivation. In a group of 50 people in the Comarca, you might find 3 who are truly motivated to work hard and better their lives and their family’s lives and who have what it takes to succeed. The Ngäbes live in a rich country, but are denied access to most economic activity because of where they live and their low education level. For someone to “superar” (overcome) these obstacles, they almost always have to have connections, usually politically in order to be awarded a grant or scholarship to study in high school or college and also connections through family to give the student a place to live and eat while he or she gets on his or her feet.

With so much against them, it’s easy to see why government handouts are not always the solution. They start to rely on this instead of fighting hard to overcome obstacles individually and as a Comarca. Though the government is “alabado” (praised) for their work with Red de Oportunidades, the truth is that it’s probably hurting the Ngäbes more in the long run because they are temporarily distracted by the handout. They forget about what they really need to better their lives – roads, infrastructure, electricity, clean water, decent schools and teachers, business investment to create jobs, etc. – because they are temporarily placated with their bi-monthly handout of $100.

The gobierno (government), of course, loves this. Instead of spending millions of dollars actually building up the Comarca andhelping the indigenous build their own productive and successful lives, they just give them a little money each month to keep them in their place of poverty. It’s a hell of a lot easier (and cheaper), that’s for sure.

9. Ngäbe Traditions are Rooted in Fighting

Every culture has it’s own unique traditions and the Ngäbes are no exception. However, their “tradiciones” (traditions) are quite different from the ones that I grew up with in the Southeast United States and I venture to say that this extends to most westerners.

The Ngäbe’s most famous tradition is the Balsería. This event happens once per year in the larger communities of the Comarca on the mountainous side (the tradition has already died out in the coastal region). One community invites a neighboring community to a “parranda de borrachera” (drunken brawl), more or less. The men (and some women) drink ridiculous amounts of a fermented corn drink and afterwards partake in a brutal one-on-one game of throwing a sharpened balsa stick (balsa is a type of wood) at your opponent’s ankles. There is also a lot of fist-fighting that goes on during this multi-day charade. Alcohol only brings out the best…

Indigenous gather for three days of festivities

Though this appears pretty barbarous to western cultures, let’s keep an open mind here and remember what this group of people has had to do all their life: “pelear” (fight). Fight for their land against the Spaniards, fight for their rights with the Panamanian government (who currently want to take their land away to build hydroelectric plants), fight foreigners who want to build resorts and hotels on their pristine beaches. And they’re damn proud of their skill and where it’s gotten them!

Some men will wear the women’s traditional dress while they engage in combat

Similar to the Balsería, which is starting to die out and become looked down upon in religious Ngäbe communities, the Ngäbes’ other holidays are also a prime time to get drunk and fight. This frequently happens on November 3 (Panama’s Independence Day) and New Years. It’s also common to shoot fireworks at New Years (I have no idea where they get fireworks from, probably a homemade concoction). As well, Mother’s Day is hugely celebrated usually with the entire community coming together to make lunch and give “regalos” (gifts) to every mom in the community.

Mother’s day is special here too

10. Loss of Culture

Even though the Ngäbes have so many cultural differences in relation to western societies, these unique traits of the Comarca are slowly starting to die out as Ngäbes become influenced by advertising and the “outside world”. “Publicidad” (Advertising) actually creates a “one-culture society” if you really start to analyze it’s effects. And advertising is global now-a-days, even in the Comarca where the government recently gifted all high school students laptops and installed free internet in big high school towns.

Access to technology should help with the digital divide, shouldn’t it?

Slowly but surely Ngäbes are leaving the confines of their homeland to look for opportunities abroad. I don’t mean abroad necessarily as to other countries, but even going to surrounding cities outside of the Comarca is like entering a whole new world. They leave and stop speaking their native tongue, don’t attend holiday traditions back home, purchase man-made “medicina” (medicine) rather than visiting the botanical doctor, buy all of their food instead of planting a garden or working their own farm, stop wearing their traditional dress. This is a normal process as they are acclimating to a “new world”. They have to give some things up in order to gain in other areas.


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This entry was posted on August 3, 2013 by in Minority Race/Poor/Indigenous Rights and tagged , .
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