My first contact with the Ngäbe happened in 2011 on a bus trip from Panama City to David, in the province of Chiriqui. We had just left Santiago when suddenly our bus pulled over and stopped, and remained so for the next eight hours. Hundreds of vehicles were lined up on both sides of a roadblock orchestrated by the Ngäbe tribe. That’s when I became interested in them and their cause.
Not unlike Indigenous groups the world over, they were protesting the encroachment of their lands by their own government, as well as the multi nationals, hell bent on plundering their lands with their mining operations and hydro electric projects. Ironically, my young seat mate happened to be one of that particular tribe. It wasn’t long until she was fast asleep, using my shoulder for her pillow. I learned a lot that day, and although most of the people on the bus were extremely annoyed over this sudden interruption, I was not one of them. The driver was gracious enough to let us out to stretch, so I immediately headed to the front lines (once my seat mate woke up) to see the action for myself. It was ominous at best, and it would lead me to research their cause at length once we arrived at our destination. In fact, it would become a central theme in my apprenticeship novel I AM THE ONE written under my pen name (www.ddander.com).
Finally, about eight hours later, we were allowed to pass. A couple of hours prior to that, they’d lit a huge bon fire in the middle of the Pan American highway. I snapped a shot of a protestor which seemed to encapsulate the moment, at least for me. I’ll attach it, but it means nothing without the above context.
I experienced many more rotating road closures, particularly during 2012, and in fact wondered if I’d even make it to the airport to catch my flight. I did, but a visit with friends in Boquette would have to wait for another day. Even though these were minor inconveniences to me, to the Ngöbe, these protests were central to them finally getting some rights constitutionally. Rights that they’d fought and died for, and still fight for every day.
I have a tendency to get to know people quite well, particularly those of other cultures. The biggest draw back, it seems to me, is that they rarely trust us, at least as a group. I don’t blame them. Individually, it’s quite a different story, but I have to keep reminding myself that even though I may not be prejudice, that doesn’t mean others aren’t prejudging me because of my race, my language, and a whole host of other supposed offences that I or others have committed.
I’m in Panama now, and have spent several weeks helping build a home for a family of the Ngöbe tribe in the mountainous region on the side of Volcan Baru. What an experience it’s been, and continues to be! Trust me, it’s incredibly labour intensive, and I haven’t shovelled rock and sand, and wheeled cement to this extent in a very long time. Physically demanding but oh so satisfying.
We’re making great progress, and in fact, the pastor in that area, (Rodrigo), is planning a surprise service at that home this evening instead of at the church, which is still further up the mountain. Remember, everyone walks here, in fact, they walk miles to attend these events. I hope I’m able to join them this evening, weather permitting and I have a ride.
I’ll try and post a few photos as well. This family survives on very, very little, but they are generous beyond measure. We pack our lunches but they insist on feeding us. We know they don’t do this out of their surplus. They have none. But they’re happy and they treat us as family. Men and women, and indeed their children, all pitch in. Even when we leave for the night, guaranteed, any gravel pile, sand pile, concrete blocks, etc. that needs to find its way to the job site will have materialized by morning. The path from the road to their home is approximately 300+ meters long (1000+ feet), and the mighty wheel barrel is their only mode of transporting these items.
So, yes, I love these people. They greet us with hugs in the morning, they feed us at lunch time, and they walk us to the road each evening, and again, there is never a shortage of hugs. This is my brief take on the people of the Ngöbe that I’ve gotten to know. Soon this project will be completed and then I’ll make my way down to the Comarca to see what awaits me there.