Panama – The richness of Ngabe culture

Twelve percent of Panama’s population is made up of seven original peoples – among them the Ngabe. They live in the highlands of western Panama and are one of the country’s largest indigenous groups. These are some notes on their culture.

In the last three years, Panama’s Ngabe people leapt onto the international stage because of unpleasant circumstances. Governments and multinationals tried to impose mining and hydroelectric projects and the Ngabe have responded with the only weapon they have – street protests. Such protests arose only after many attempts to make themselves heard in other ways. They succeeded in defending their land at a high cost: much pain, several deaths, eye injuries, and blindness. They should, though, also be known for their rich, centuries-old culture.

The jegi: the dance
The jegi is more than a dance; it is a cultural expression. The Ngabe celebrate on festive occasions, when they want to express joy or protest, to affirm their identity, and in remembrance of their ancestors.
In the jegi there’s a guide, the ji dogwä or head of the line. This person marks time and keeps the rhythm with the tän or maracas. Men and women place themselves alternately behind the guide. Another person at the end of the line keeps the rhythm going with the tän. Great coordination is needed since they dance as a team. Guide and counter-guide keep the rhythm. This dance shows what a community should be – a well-coordinated group carrying a beat and moving in the same direction like a single body with a closeness expressing harmony. Guides are nothing without followers. There are no leaders or assistant leaders, only servants. If someone decides to “follow their own beat,” they destroy the dance and the community.

pan2Ngabere: The language
The Ngabe speak Ngabere, an old and original Chibcha language.
According to the 2010 census, probably two-thirds of the more than 260,000 Ngabe in Panama speak Ngabere. For many, their native language is a fundamental identity trait. Most young people and children only speak it colloquially and at home. Very few use it outside the home and almost no one reads or writes it.

Ni jamärägätdre: the Ngabe family
For the past thirty years, governments have pressured the Ngabe to form bigger villages around schools or health posts, causing more negative than positive effects. Their forms of settlement derive from basing family groups on where male members reside and near agricultural working areas.
Name differences between the father’s and mother’s relatives are defined by where they live. Husband and wife are nomugo merire and nomugo brare, meaning “companion wife” and “companion husband.” They are also called ti kwäräe – “my half” because the woman is “half” for the man and vice versa.
Mother and father are meye and rün. Same sex siblings are etdeba, those of the opposite sex are ngwae. The siblings of the father or uncles and aunts are rüngrä and meyegrä, which come from the same roots as father and mother. The mother’s siblings are grü. Grandparents are roa and mölöe as are the paternal grandfather’s siblings, but not the maternal grandfather’s.
pan5These strong family ties are linked to inheritance. Since the family residence is based on where the male lives, they inherit the land. Today women also inherit land but in a lesser percentage. Recently, land pressure reached its limits in most of the region. There are fewer possibilities of inheriting since there’s little to pass on to children.

Kugwe kira: stories and myths
The kugwe kira, the old (kira) word (kugwe), is a theme that holds much respect and tradition in Ngabe culture, like in any culture of the original peoples. These are the myths, origin stories, ancient testimonies, and words that form part of the elders’ fundamental teachings. They are like “the roots of historical memory that remind us of our identity,” even though, thanks to the school system, they no longer have anything to do with the education youths receive today.
The kugwe kira touch on themes and aspects of life such as what the ancestors were like, facts about several of the mythical leaders who fought for the people, the origin of some hunting and fishing tools, the origins of the people’s knowledge about botanical medicine, the forefathers’ struggles against threats, prohibitions, their successes in overcoming Miskitu Indians and Spanish invasions, stories about men and women who are important for the people, people’s artistic expressions, and more. They are, in short, stories that have to do with life, history, the way of the people and basic teachings.

pan3Ka: The songs
The ka are closely related to the kugwe kira. They are songs that recover much of the orally rich tradition of the Ngabe people, with those of other Panamanian original peoples. The ka are expressions of knowledge, rituals directed towards nature, people or beings who no longer are with us, and God. Ka is a language that communicates with the supernatural.
The songs touch on various themes. There are allusions to flat plains, hills, houses, serpents, the sea, wind, rain, lightning, fish, animals, plants, famous people (sukias) and God. There are songs to teach, bless, remember, and for rituals. They usually last hours and are sung in Ngäbere and in Buglere, the language of the Buglé peoples. Some songs are for certain rituals or stages in a ritual, others for healing. Others change when performed with or without maracas. Some are sung either standing or sitting. Others are accompanied by dancing and can be sung in the day or at night. The Ka recreate a world that is hard to enter if you don’t belong to the Ngabe culture: the world of the elders.

Krägäbotdä: Traditional medicine
Life and death, health and sickness are fundamental themes. Krägä, medicine, and botdä, together with, combined translate to traditional medicine.
In the old days, people came to the elders, who took care of people’s health. One spoke of boin, fasting, which meant taking care of the body so the illness wouldn’t spread. In the past, with enough food for everyone people ate natural foods because the earth was more productive. The surplus was shared (juritde). Now there are many problems, including food scarcity and workers on banana farms who fall ill as a result of the chemicals they use. Ngabe doctors are not like the elders of the past. People go to the hospital and come back in the same condition, or worse. People who aren’t healed by western doctors are taken to traditional Ngabe doctors who cure them. They always tell the sick to fast as a condition for healing.
The Ngabe do not speak of curanderos, folk healers, because they are associated with magic. It’s better to use krägä bianga (bian means give and ga is an action suffix), a term that means traditional medicine doctors or nurses. Some krägä bianga treat children in particular. They give them kä büre, new cocoa beans, and nungótdó, resin from a tree, and recommend that nursing mothers put them on jaboine or a kind of fast. By using the cocoa bean, these doctors can “see” what illness of bad spirits little children are going to have. While treating a patient, one sings. When looking for a plant, one sings. The traditional doctor works together with the sukia or those who know the tradition and stories to diagnose psychological illnesses, which receive other treatments.

Jorge Sarsanedas


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