Management and the San Blas Islands

Tue 27 Nov 2007 00:19
Travel, along with the stuff they sold us in Sapzurro last week, broadens the mind it a peculiar way. Clearly, I now see, there are lessons to be drawn from the way this region is governed that could be applied in in other underdeveloped areas of the Globe such as the NHS. Within the region of Kuna Yala, each village is on its own Island, and is run in a semiautonomous way by three village chiefs, called Sailas. One of these guys seems to be in charge of getting money, and another spends it. The third guy is the font of all local knowledge and wisdom, and has to remember all the ancient tales of the village and its rituals: custodean of culture and experience (CE).
Thing about these three is that they get to spend all day in hammocks, rigged in the middle of their boardrooms (called Congressos). This is really true: I've seen them. The congresso is otherwise an ordinary but big Kuna village hut, made of bamboo sticks tied on to another with string for walls, and topped with palm tree fronds, many layers thick, to keep out the heat and the rain The Sailas are surrounded by Argars who are the folk who interact with ordinary mortals. The argars have desks and oil lamps, but not as yet computers. Each evening the entire adult population, except the women of course, congregate in the Congresso to discuss matters of importance: the hour for congresso committee work (HCC). Sometimes this is so boring that a man has the job of periodically waking everyone up by suddenly shouting and shrieking. This man has a title, but the abreviation of this bears uncanny similarity to a known and living person, such that it would be unkind of me to tell you about it.
Curiously the Doctors seem to play no direct part in day to day management. They are called Neles (honestly, would I make this stuff up?) They, quite rightly, are important and powerful personalities, 'capable of accusing anybody of harmful sorcery'.They take drugs themselves to acquire special powers. There are many differnt specialties and subspecialties of practice, so many neles are needed, and it can be confusing for the ordinary folk to get to see the approprite one. As they don't allways cure, they have a neat each way bet by virtue of being in charge of funerals as well.
Women look pretty in coloured frocks and  thongy socks around their calves. They wear molas: finely embroidered waistcoats. They have children and undertake landfill: all the villages are threatened by rising sea levels and erosion, therefore the women paddle off each morning to fill their dugouts with shale from the mainland. So full, that they often have to stop many times on the return trip to bale out water to prevent sinking. They then use the shale to fill the puddles between their houses. The men do important work like fishing, they are the real hunter gatherers.
The reason that this system of governance is interesting is that it has sucessfully resisted any progress or change for hundreds of years, and this despite the energies of the Panamanian Central Tribunal (yes, thats the PCT): charged with dragging the whole enterprise into the 21st Centuary. Banks Brewery and the dear old NHS, take note.