Daily Life in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca

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Daily Life in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca

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This is the third from a series of posts about the Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama’s largest native indigenous group. Part 1. Part 2.

Imagine life...

Before the internet and television.
Before GMOs and harmful chemicals.
Before fashion and design.
Before semi-orthopedic mattresses and cushioned chairs.
Before refrigerators.
Before laundry machines and dishwashers.
Before stoves and ovens.
Before Big Business and making money for the Man.
Before cars.
Before farm machinery.
Before cement and bricks and drywall.
Before indoor plumbing.

Washing clothes in the creek.
Washing clothes in the creek.

I’m not trying to take you back to the Stone Age, just to the present-day Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé!

Does this surprise you, frighten you, uplift you, to know that there are people in 2013 still living this way?

I think it’s AWESOME! I think life is more REAL when it is lived this way. In my opinion, we are on information overload to the extreme in this day and age. My advice is to come and see how simple living is still carrying on for some very simple folks here in Panama.

The Ngäbe-Buglé are the largest indigenous tribe in Panama. Though the government has paid them more attention in the past 16 years after giving them their own Comarca (territory), it has been very slow with giving the people the rights that they deserve to a good education, necessary infrastructure, reliable health system, and access to a job market. This has in many ways left them “behind” the rest of us in the 21st century.

Local health clinic in the Comarca. You wouldn't believe what it looks like inside. Medicines... non existent most of the time.
Local health clinic in the Comarca. You wouldn't believe what it looks like inside. Medicines... non existent most of the time.

Is this a blessing or a curse? Depends on who you ask. I come from a positive standpoint and count them lucky for escaping the rat race of our day. Their families are tighter-knit, they use the natural resources that are found all around us, and they use the strength of their bodies in daily chores. They keep up to date with politics and news (local and international) from the radio and converse with community members during daily visits about their lives, families, farming, the future. Isn’t this what we were meant for as human beings?

But the reality is that many of them will tell you that it’s close to impossible to live their life of poverty. They will tell you that they barely receive enough welfare money (funded by the World Bank, Panamanian government and Inter-American Development Bank) to buy necessities like laundry soap, rice, sugar, oil, which often is sold at a much higher price in the Comarca because of transportation costs, since the infrastructure in the Comarca is completely undeveloped. They do everything possible so that their children can get a good education and find jobs outside of the Comarca, since there are very very few jobs in the Comarca. What will happen to this unsustainable lifestyle if severe changes aren’t made soon?

You certainly won't get to experience conditions like this if you're doing a family home stay with us... but you can definitively get up and close with the Ngäbe-Buglé by joining a Cacao Plantation Tour or by going to Soloy.

Whichever side you are on, I thought it would be interesting to share some photos with you of how it is to live SIMPLY in 2013.

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Grinding cacao for drinking and selling chocolate!
Grinding cacao for drinking and selling chocolate!

100% pure organic cacao (chocolate) balls. YES!
100% pure organic cacao (chocolate) balls. YES!

Playing soccer on the school's field.
Playing soccer on the school's field.

Natural materials are used to build houses, with the newer addition of zinc sheets for roofing and sometimes walls.
Natural materials are used to build houses, with the newer addition of zinc sheets for roofing and sometimes walls.

Semi-private bathroom...
Semi-private bathroom...

Making coconut oil – a labor intensive but no-cost way to have cooking oil. They are cooking over a “fogón”, which is the traditional way to cook meals over a fire.
Making coconut oil – a labor intensive but no-cost way to have cooking oil. They are cooking over a “fogón”, which is the traditional way to cook meals over a fire.

Finished coconut oil, YUM!
Finished coconut oil, YUM!

It is very common to have free-range animals for the family’s consumption.
It is very common to have free-range animals for the family’s consumption.

View of some living/store spaces in Hato Chami. The zinc house is partially a small store.
View of some living/store spaces in Hato Chami. The zinc house is partially a small store.

No indoor plumbing means bucket bath! The stone tablets are for washing clothes.
No indoor plumbing means bucket bath! The stone tablets are for washing clothes.

Harvesting medicinal plants and plants used to dye fibers for the bags.
Harvesting medicinal plants and plants used to dye fibers for the bags.

Community pitches together to build a bridge over a stream in a busy section of the village. The men do the building…
Community pitches together to build a bridge over a stream in a busy section of the village. The men do the building...

...while the women prepare and serve food!
...while the women prepare and serve food!

After a long day on the farm, carrying back freshly picked vegetables, fruit, and/or firewood in the traditional bag – the chácara.
After a long day on the farm, carrying back freshly picked vegetables, fruit, and/or firewood in the traditional bag – the chácara.

Stripping a natural pita plant down to its fibers to be used for making bags for carrying things.
Stripping a natural pita plant down to its fibers to be used for making bags for carrying things.

The finished fiber strands drying (pita plant).
The finished fiber strands drying (pita plant).

Making artisan jewelry out of coconut shells. Tiring but rewarding way to pass the day with all of your friends (and while catching a novela on the radio!).
Making artisan jewelry out of coconut shells. Tiring but rewarding way to pass the day with all of your friends (and while catching a novela on the radio!).

School with 4 classrooms. At the far end is the cafeteria where mothers of the children take turns cooking (when the Ministry of Education sends food) sometimes 2 meals per day.
School with 4 classrooms. At the far end is the cafeteria where mothers of the children take turns cooking (when the Ministry of Education sends food) sometimes 2 meals per day.

Sewing class funded by the government (including a donation of 8 sewing machines for the community) so that women could learn how to make their children’s school clothes and/or go into business for themselves as a tailor.
Sewing class funded by the government (including a donation of 8 sewing machines for the community) so that women could learn how to make their children’s school clothes and/or go into business for themselves as a tailor.

Clearing a foundation for a house using picks and shovels.
Clearing a foundation for a house using picks and shovels.

Community activity on Panama's Independence Day (November 3). The goal is to make it to the top of a greased tree trunk.
Community activity on Panama's Independence Day (November 3). The goal is to make it to the top of a greased tree trunk.

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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9 Responses to "Daily Life in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca"

  1. Debbie Sebastian says:

    Oh, Mary Beth! This is wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing this!!

  2. Many Ngäbe-Buglé share your view that the simplicity of their lifestyle belies its richness, a richness that is lost on most people living in First World countries. The poverty of resources and of opportunities that places their existence in the shadows… is also the shade in which they find a respite unavailable to those with more cares, possessions, and detachment from their surroundings. It is a paradox I hope to continue learning about during the year ahead, which I will spend living in Chiriqui.

    Thank you for your posts, Mary Beth. Keep writing of the things you’ve come to know.

  3. Mary Beth says:

    We’ve got to get the word out! :) Miss ya mucho girl!

  4. Mary Beth says:

    Such a beautifully worded statement, Rachel! I’m so glad to hear that you are learning about the indigenous while you are living in Chiriqui. There is so much to learn! If you are interested, I would really encourage you to contact our Explora Ya office and inquire about when we are taking a trip to Soloy next. It’s a large community in the Comarca with a bit of a tourism base (http://www.hablayapanama.com/blog/2012/01/soloy-indigenous-community-trip/). Explora Ya is located on the main street of Boquete across from Los Establos Plaza. Or call 730 – 9427.

    I hope to meet you some day! :)

  5. Thank you for your reply, Mary Beth. I’m a member of the team at The Resort at Isla Palenque which is pioneering Soloy’s first official tours. Unfortunately my onsite tasks kept me from accompanying today’s guests in their visit with the Ngäbe-Buglé of Soloy, but I intend to experience this for myself some time in the coming months, as well as meet you whenever there is an opportunity. You can contact me rmk@amble.com.

  6. Mary Beth says:

    How fantastic! I’d love to hear more about what you guys are doing at Isla Palenque. I’ll be in touch :)

  7. It would be wonderful to hear from you Mary Beth. Take care,
    Rachel

  8. mike says:

    Hey Habla Ya, your students pass by the hostel http://www.bambuhostel.com in David Panama, send a poster down and we will put it up at our hostel, and stop by for a swim in our pool!

  9. Hi Mike. We’ll try to pay you a visit again. At the end of last year we did pass by and put up some material but thank you so much for the offer!


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