Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Panamá Part 7: The Emberá people of the Rio Chagres

An Emberá village leader gives a demonstration of palm weaving. He wears an impressive crown fashioned from hammered silver coins and topped with the profile of a hawk. Although there were older men in the village when we visited, this man took the lead with a quiet authority. For me, the high point of our Panamá adventure was a visit to this remote village located along the banks of the Rio Gatun (Gatun River) near where it empties into Lago de Gatun (Lake Gatun). The huge lake was created during the construction of the Panamá Canal as a transportation link, water supply, and source of hydroelectric power. In order to reach the Emberá village, we had to travel by small boat across the lake and up the river. This area of central Panamá is part of a national park. Monkeys frolic in the trees and crocodiles doze on the sunny river banks. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the village enables the people to carry on their traditions with a minimum of outside interference. These gentle, indigenous people conduct their lives in a manner not too different from the moment when the first European set foot in Panamá in 1500 AD.


The village

A family lines up to greet us in a large, open-sided, communal structure. The building is made from tree trunks and large branches while the roof is thatched with palm fronds. The people live in smaller but similarly constructed houses scattered along the river bank. There is a rustic wooden bench that stretches around the perimeter of the communal building. This is where community members (and visitors like ourselves) sit facing each other in a broad circle. The open, central area is used by speakers during village meetings, and for religious ceremonies and dancing. During our visit, the dirt floor was swept immaculately clean.


A middle-aged couple stands in front of a display of Emberá crafts. In spite of the rather stern pose they assumed for the camera, they were actually quite warm and friendly. The woman's hair is adorned with hibiscus blossoms and she wears a locally crafted silver necklace and earrings. The silver coins, some of them from the 19th Century, are used for personal decoration and jewelry rather than currency. The coins are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter. Her skirt, called a paruma, wraps around her like a sarong. In the more remote villages, the women and girls go topless. However, this village gets fairly regular visits from tourists, so the women have learned to cover their breasts with various garments or ornaments so the foreigners won't be embarrassed. The men and boys wear loin cloths called guayucos. They were bare-chested except for the long strands of beads that crossed over their chests like bandoliers. Both men and women decorate their faces and bodies with painted-on tattoo designs called jagua. The tattoos are made from the juice of a local fruit and last about two weeks.


A young girl wears a head band and a top made from beads. The beads come from the outside world, but are assembled into garments here. While these villagers are sedentary, elsewhere in Panamá the Emberá are semi-nomadic. This group is somewhat of an outlier from the main population. The villagers won permission to occupy this site within a national park by promising not to hunt the animals. They grow plantains, bananas, yams, manioc and rice. In addition, they are allowed to supplement their diet with fish they catch in the Rio Gatun.  The main population of Emberá lives in the wild jungle of the Darien Gap that straddles the border between Panamá and Colombia. The Emberá occupy areas on both sides of the border, with 20,000 living in Panamá and another 40,000 in Colombia. To them, the international boundary between the two nations is just an imaginary line politicians drew across their almost impenetrably dense jungle.


A rustic ladder, hand-carved from a log, leads up into a hut raised on stilts. The colorful plastic sandals are evidence of outside influence, but no one in any of my photos is wearing them. The houses were all raised on stilts. This helps keep them dry in this damp climate, and also keeps the forest animals out. At night, the log ladder will be turned over so that no unwanted critters can climb in while the family sleeps. Even though it is an outlier, this community is, in many ways, typical of those found throughout the Emberá world. The villages are usually scattered along the banks of a river, with about a half day's walk between them. They are also generally small, each containing only 5-20 houses. Usually there are no more than three villages along any given tributary.


A young boy, wearing only a guayaco, sprints for shelter from the rain. Just as I took this shot, the heavens opened for one of those sudden downpours that are so typical of the tropics. Behind the boy, you can see the stout posts on which the house sits. Like the communal hall, the walls are open and the roofs are thatched with palm fronds. Hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, and clothing hang from the supporting posts. Each house possesses a square, clay platform for cooking fires. Pots are suspended over the fire from tripods made with sturdy sticks.


The dancing

"You should have seen the fish that got away, he was this big!" The young village leader jokes with the tourists as he explains various aspects of their culture. Under his red guayaco, he wears another garment made of colorful beads, called a taparabo. The Emberá govern themselves according to their own unwritten rules and do not participate in, or rely upon, the Panamanian or Colombian governments. The land is communally owned and tilled. In the areas where Emberá are allowed to hunt, if a large animal caught, it is shared with other members of the community. For their health care, they use their own shamans.


Kickin' back and takin' in some tunes. A boy relaxes on the communal hall's bench while a quartet of village musicians plays a flute, two drums, and a set of rattles. They were tuning up for the impending dance performance. All the instruments were hand-made from forest materials. Both men and boys wear "bowl-cut" hair styles.


Puttin' down some steps. These two girls gave a vigorous performance of Emberá dances. The whole community joined in dances that circled the center post of the communal hall. Women and girls wear their hair long, sometimes hanging free as seen above and sometimes pulled back in pony-tails.


Showing the foreigners how it's done. At the finale of the performance, the villagers each took the hand of a tourist of the opposite sex and led them around the center post in a somewhat more sedate version of the dances performed previously.


Grooving' on the music. His eyes closed, the boy slaps his legs in time with the drums. The Emberá culture is under threat from resource extraction industries like logging, as well as drug smuggling and clashes between guerrillas and the Colombian government. In the face of this, they organized themselves and persuaded the Panamanian government to set aside about 300,000 hectares in the Darien as the Emberá reserve. Even so, illegal logging and other negative activities continue. In addition, pharmaceutical companies want to exploit their knowledge of medicinal plants, and this may mean more problems in the future.


The crafts

A woman smiles from behind a display of the Emberá's exquisite handicrafts. Her jagua tattoos are clearly visible. To make geometric patterns, the ink is sometimes applied with carved wooden blocks. Part of the village's income is based on sales of crafts to visiting tourists. The Emberá are famed for their finely woven basketry. The designs include both abstract shapes and animal representations, as can be seen on the baskets that frame the woman's head.


These cords were braided and colored from natural materials obtained locally. The villagers passed them around for the tourists to examine, along with a variety of other crafts.


The young leader displays the vivid cloth used to make the women's parumasWhile the parumas were originally made from palm fibers, they are now more commonly made from commercial cotton purchased in nearby towns. The Emberá use the wildly colorful flowers of their world as the inspiration for the designs.


This little cat mask demonstrates Emberá skill with weaving natural materials. Carole and I collect indigenous masks and we couldn't resist this one. It is about the size a small child would wear and cost about $10 (USD). It was beautifully made and fairly inexpensive and we were glad to contribute to the village's economy.


The kids

Two of the young dancers enjoy posing for a photo. I get my best "people shots" with kids. Although some are shy, most love the attention, particularly if I show them the immediate result of a digital photo. Given a little encouragement, their natural openness and beauty shine through.


Taking a break from the music. I found this young fellow especially photogenic. What appears to be dirt on his arms and legs is actually the smudged remains of his temporary jagua tattoos. There is a smaller sub-group within this culture called the Wounaan that speaks a separate dialect. Both of the names Emberá and Wounaan can be translated to mean "the People." The two groups were once collectively known as the Chocó. However, the term Chocó actually refers to their language group. The people themselves prefer to be called Emberá or Wounaan.


A little shy, but still amenable to a photo. The cloth hanging behind her is of the same general design as the paruma she is wearing. Pieces of this cloth were available for purchase at the craft tables.


Hardly more than a toddler, this little boy stared boldly at my camera. There appears to be no age differentiation for attire among the Emberá. From the oldest adults to the youngest children, all wear the same traditional clothing and adornments.


This young woman shows the same gentle but proud demeanor of her fellow villagers. She was among a large group who accompanied us to the dock. Just before we descended the ramp, small children appeared and grasped the hands of each tourist, acting as our personal escorts to the boat. It was a charming sendoff. The Emberá are struggling hard to maintain their culture and traditions in the face of intrusions from the outside world. I hoped that our intrusion was at least neutral and possibly contributed resources to support their effort.

This completes Part 7 of my Panamá series. I hope you enjoyed it and that you will leave your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below. If you do leave a question PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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