Kuna

     
       
I came down here last year to the San Blas off the jungle coast of Panama with an anthropologist from Georgia Southern, Steve Hale, whom I met at an Americas World Council mission to Jalapa, Mexico. ďIím sure weíre doing some good,Ē I told him during a break between meetings, ďbut they ainít enough action in this deal to keep me stoked.Ē

ďGo into the Kuna Yala with me next spring. Iím doing a study down there. Weíll cross the Cordillera de San Blas in a puddle jumper from Panama City and stay in Playon Chico with the Kuna.Ē So we did. I slept in their hammocks and ate their coconuts, fished with the men and flirted with girls in bright molas, earning the dubious distinction of being the fattest man ever to stay upright while flyfishing from a dugout canoe. But I also spoke before the Congreso (the council of chiefs) promising to bring three community-minded young people to Albany, where they would take a two-week community health course then return to teach nutrition, sanitation, drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases to the school children. I retired before the Kuna came, but I left sure and assured that everything was in place. All I had to do was sail down to San Blas in my 20-year-old 44-foot sailing yacht and sojourn at Playon Chico until I could put the Kuna on the plane. I didnít have time to learn to sail, so I recruited a friend to administer on the job training.

The passage from Tortola BVI to Porvenir in the San Blas Archipelagoes Conmarca (Kuna Yala) was rough but instructive. About a hundred miles out from landfall I gibed and tore the mainsail in half at the seams, and we had some other minor problems such as seasickness and saltwater sores, but we finally got to Playon Chico after an eight-day passage across the Caribbean and another several days, I donít remember how many, of hopping islands. Iím settled in more or less, anchored in a beautiful lagoon amid deserted coconut islands and pristine coral reefs two miles from the nearest village and even in the village there are no bright lights to dim the stars. It takes electricity to have a bright light. The only lights are mine or from a couple of generators two miles away on Playon Chico. There is very little unnatural noise. Only the breakers against the top of the coral reef at low tide. A sea bird squawks every now and then, or a kid in a dugout brings a lobster or a giant crab for dinner. The only boats are dugout canoes, a few with outboard motors, lots with sails. The only airplanes are puddle jumpers that bring supplies into the little airstrip at the edge of the jungle. No cars. No dead armadillos the road. No armadillos. No roads. No streetlights. No streets. No dogs barking at sirens. No sirens. Few dogs. The crocodiles thin them out at night. In the village you walk along the dirt paths between the thatch and reed huts to hear the nele (witch doctors) chanting and rattling gourds.
My secluded lagoon is on the lee of a rich and fantastic reef. The rain forests on the mountainous mainland (from a distance) are lush and lovely. Iím planning a trek into the jungle next week with a medicine man to learn some of the pharmacopoeia. Iíve also gotten permission to go wherever I want to take pictures or to research writing material. The Peace Corps volunteer, a 24-yr.-old American who was born and raised in Greece and educated in England with forestry as her specialty, goes up into the mountains to study and apply conservation techniques. She has connections with the ecological groups and I have made some too. The Kuna are big on saving their rain forest.

Yesterday I treated the sore throat of a six-year-old Kuna girl by giving her lemonade with honey, vitamin C and aspirin mixed in to take twice a day with a Hershey silver bell. I have to make a house call later today to her island within easy sight of the Kestrel. Her mother promised to blow the conch shell, no kidding, if her little girl had a bad night. I told her as soon as I heard the conch, Iíd zip over in the inflatable. Today I visited a baby who has asthma and who had round sores on her back and arms. Two days ago I gave the grandparents some bacteria ointment and a 1000 mil vitamin E capsule to puncture and apply to the sores. Today the sores had healed. It takes so little to do so much. A six-pack of Neosporin would do wonders for the whole village.
Hereís my take, my needs assessment, as it were: Cultural preservation and conservation of the sizable rain forest depends on Kuna independence and this involves economic self-sufficiency and continued separation from the colonial engendered politics and economy of mainstream Latin America, which would absorb their race, language and culture. Outsiders (Wagas ) are standing in line to exploit natural resources, anxious to mine their minerals and turn their rain forest into match stems and toothpicks. The Kuna themselves are no fatal threat to the forest so long as they are traditional. They slash and burn to plant a few mangos and pineapples, but their dwellings are made of small sticks, reeds and thatch and the only old growth they cut is for their dugouts. The hope and the condemnation, as it often does, lies in the youth, who constitute along with the old folks an overwhelming nonproductive percent of the population. About the only things they can sell for money are molas and coconuts. Colombians have the market cornered with better and more coconuts. Kuna parents struggle to buy pencils, books and paper for their children.

The only high school (itís agricultural) in the entire San Blas Conmarca is on Playon Chico. I donít think they even got funded this year. Unless they live on Playon Chico and want to learn agriculture, Kuna children must leave the Comarca for Panama to obtain a high school education. The parents can ill afford to maintain their children in Panama City with deflated coconuts and molas in a saturated market. Children who leave the Comarca rarely return.

They need English books for all levels, any books regardless of condition written in English. Comic books. Pulp fiction. Romance novels. Theyíre even hard up enough for printed material to read my work, which I provide only reluctantly due to its questionable moral content. Childrenís books would be very useful for students and adults who want to learn English. Already they are asking me to hold classes, but I donít think Iím quite up to that right now.

 

The sea and the jungle provide subsistence for the Kuna, but the number one health problem is malnutrition. They eat fish, mangos and plantains bread. Theyíll eat rice. They donít eat vegetables, but they will, I just discovered, eat a mound of peanut butter the size of a fire ant bed and wash it down with canned powdered or soymilk. Pregnant youngsters and nursing mothers are dramatically malnourished. If I could scavenge enough PB&J and milk to wrap every school kid around each morning, I believe I could get these chirren to start acting up like wild Indians. It fueled us up well enough, didnít it?

The Kuna are a proud, loving and hospitable people who respond energetically to education and new ideas. Most see English as the ironic key to the survival of their cultural identity and economic future, in part perhaps because the U.S. supported their revolution against Panama in 1925. With English the young people can study in American colleges and universities and return as professionals to teach and serve the Comarca. Spoken English also promises an edge on ecological tourism. A thatch hotel on a nearby island is being built now to specialize in eco-tourism, a great place for a youth group, ecological, or anthropological hootnanny.
I paid a social call to the Wesleyana (that's got to be some kind of Methodist) minister, Pastor Gil Ayarza Perez; Iglesia Union Chistiana Wesleyana; Ucupseni, Kiuna Yala, Republic of Panama. His church is a one-room thatch hut, but he says some ďbrothersĒ from the US are coming down this winter to build a ďproperĒ building. I think Jesus might have made do with the hut, but Iím no theologian. I liked this guy. He offers English classes too. Iíd hope that any assistance offered the Kuna through any church would emphasize Christian charity rather than evangelism. Methodists, in my experience, incline more toward charity than some of the others do who seem to out and about mainly to add names to a roster and notches to the pew. These Indians, as you may well imagine, have been subject to abrasive conversion tactics since the Spanish Inquisition. Modern religious pressures are leveled against them politically to rob them of their heritage, homogenize them into the mainstream to nationalize their land.

The Kuna are the largest organized group of Native Americans remaining in the world. Their territory and their culture are threatened. Because there is much good to be done. Because Iím down here, at least for the time being, to encourage the connection and to offer help and hospitality to you when you visit. I speak Spanish and am learning Kuna. I know a little about English education.  I fish with these people, give medicine to their children, visit them in their homes, and invite them to visit my boat. They trust me even though more than a year has gone by since I promised them a Health Education Workshop that never materialized. While Iím here the food will get into the children and the books and pencils will get into the schoolhouse, but the best reason is this gives me a project that will keep me out of Albany, thereby improving the general moral atmosphere in that area.