Tue 21 Jan 2014 00:51
A wooden dugout canoe came alongside our boat, about 20 feet out. At the stern, deftly wielding a paddle, was a Grandmother, in full Kuna national dress. A red patterned scarf on her head; forearms and calves covered in wini beads, forming striking geometric patterns; a wraparound printed skirt, and a shirt with 'molas' on the front and back. Molas are beautifully patterned panels, made by starting with three or four layers of different coloured material, cutting out the upper layers and carefully folding and sewing back an eighth of an inch all around the cutout to create a pattern. Further layers of different colours can be appliquéd on to complete the designs. They can take weeks to make. In the middle of the canoe was her granddaughter, about 4 years old, with her own paddle. At the front of the canoe was the daughter, a bucket on her lap and a plastic box behind her. They waited to catch our eye then expertly moved the canoe alongside us and calmly offered us mola to buy. They didn't say much, a few words in English, mostly Spanish, they were unsmiling at first but clearly pleased when we gladly bought a local courtesy flag to complement our Panamanian one and some of the molas. The little girl spotted 'Cheeky Monkey' through the porthole, a little monkey on a key fob that I had bought from Monkey World back in Dorset and we gave her him. She rewarded us with smiles and happy waves whenever they passed by the boat over the next two days.
The Kuna are one of the very few indigenous people in the world who have managed to keep their identity. Back in 1925 they revolted against the brutality of the Panamanian police, who where forcing them to abandon their own culture and to mimic the other South American countries. The event that tipped the balance for the peaceful quiet people was being forced to have a 'carnival' and be made to dance through their villages. After that they won self determination and they have guarded their culture fiercely. For example, if a Kuna marries an outsider they generally have to leave the community. There are about 55,000 of them and they have about 450 islands and a coastal strip of the mainland running alongside the islands. They use the mainland for farming and gathering wood and coconuts but don't live there. They are a small people, the only smaller tribe are the pygmies, but they are well proportioned and amazingly healthy.
Later another dugout canoe came by, this time with two men, again selling molas. They came aboard and we gave them drinks and learnt a little of their language. They were fascinated by our pilot book, pointing out places on the charts that we should visit and flicking through the pictures. The younger could read, he had been schooled in Spanish, and he spent some time reading the very limited English/ Kuna/ Spanish dictionary that the pilot book has. It tells you the kuna for heaven and horse, but not hello; for teeth and tickle, but not for thank you; for God and go, but not goodbye! Interesting, but not very useful.
Next day we took the dinghy over and visited their village. Populated islands are densely packed with houses, overflowing on stilts around the edges. Unpopulated ones simply have scrub and palm trees. We were made welcome and were able to wonder around. The huts are made of natural materials, trunks and branches of trees and bamboo with palm leaf thatched roofs, all tied together with creepers. A few had tin roofs. They have very little furniture, but use hammocks to sleep and sit on. It was very outdoor living, with women working at their molas in the shade outside, the children playing around them. One youngster had a crab on a string he was playing with, he was about 3 years old. I wanted to take a photo of the crab "One dollar" the youngster called out. The tale goes that a Kuna traveled to Panama City and saw postcards of his fellow Kuna being sold for $1. Since then they charge $1 to be photographed. The women own the property and control the money, the men move into the woman's compound when they marry. We found a little bakery and the baker made us some loaves whilst we waited, good fresh yummy bread. There was a small store and we bought a beer from a little bar, the rota for 'manning ' it was up on the door.
It was a wonderful privilege to spend a little time with these gentle, happy, peaceful folk. To catch a glimpse of the way of life that they've preserved.
Will post wonderful photos when we get internet!!
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