I am in a National Geographic documentary right now. Well, not really, but this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The scene is very reverent, very quiet and calm. We have been admitted into the Kuna village.
We took a 2 hour drive into the interior and then had to load into a boat to take a 30 minute ride across a lake to a village that is more or less cut off from the rest of civilization. The village is much cleaner, much less polluted, and much less Westernized than anywhere else we’ve been. I do not see many of the American influences that I’ve seen in other villages we’ve visited. All of the homes are huts, made out of wood and leaves.
I made a good friend with a little girl within 5 minutes of getting here. She is probably about 6 years old and she has a very pretty name that I can’t quite spell or pronounce. I believe she is a granddaughter of the chief, because she lives with her mother in the chief’s hut.
We are currently interviewing the chief in his home. There is a fire on one side of the hut with a pot on top, cooking. Hammocks hang from wooden beams, while children and women sit swinging in them. Children and dogs wander in and out of the huts. The women are wearing traditional dress but the children are wearing more Western style clothes (though some are wearing no clothes at all), probably donations from other groups that have come to help.
My little friend has taken my hand and insists on sitting beside me and staying close by my side while we interview the chief. I think she can’t figure me out. I feel sure she’s never seen a white woman before, with blond hair, fair skin, and freckles. As I write this, the children have crowded around my computer, to see what is going on on the screen. I don’t know if they’ve ever seen a computer before but I would guess that they have not. Even some of the older teenagers have come to crowd around and look at my computer.
Some of the chief’s grandchildren (or maybe even great-grandchildren) have gathered around him as he speaks to the camera. I see a baby, probably a year or two old, wrapping a skirt around her waist. How does she know how to do that already? Could my nieces even dress themselves at 2?
It is obvious how much the Kuna value and revere their children. They are very loving toward them and talk about how important it is for their children to be happy and well fed. They would gladly sacrifice and go without for the sake of the children in the village. The chief explains that because of the recent flooding, the children in the village have not eaten in a few days. Because of the extreme situation, we decide to donate money to the village, so that the chief can go into town and purchase food.
While we travel around the village, we gather a fan club of kids. There are so many little ones here. Delberto and Serifino from the foundation joke that since there is nothing to do here (no electricity, tv, radio, etc), people spend a lot of time making babies. Many of the families have 10 or more children. Young girls, maybe ages 6-10, are seen all over the village carrying their younger siblings on their hips like baby dolls.
Again, I take a more hands off approach with interviewing today, choosing to stay out of the way and trying to entertain the children while the rest of the group gets video and photos. We visit only a few homes before getting back on the boat and heading to the mainland. Children gather in canoes as we leave and shout goodbyes to us.
We eventually make our way back to our villas in the late afternoon, and the foundation leaders give us heartfelt thanks and goodbye. Serifino and Delberto invite us back to visit them in Panama any time. They are such kind men, and they have begun to use more English as the week has gone on. Before they left our villa, they gave us each a handmade Kuna bracelet. The beads show both the Panamanian and the American flag and spell out “PMA.USA” I’m not sure I’ll ever take mine off…
I am still too close to the experience to be able to sum it up at this point. Right now, I’m excited to get back to the States tomorrow and see my boyfriend and my dog. After seeing so much love and family all week, it makes me long for mine. However, I know that when I get back to the U.S., I will look at life differently. I have been given everything I could ever want or need. I have been afforded an education, health, and a very comfortable and stable lifestyle. If I could take all of the children home to the U.S. with me, I would. I joked all week about stealing a little boy and naming him Roy Rice Jr., but I’m not sure that would go over well with Roy or with their families.
This has not been a luxurious vacation. I have worked hard, sweated hard, cursed, cried, laughed and battled pollution, bugs, the jungle, and even a primitive bathroom. But I know I have come out of this as a better person; someone who has more empathy and understanding of the world. Most importantly though, I have learned that people really aren’t so different from one another; whether they live in a grass hut in the jungle or a country club in North Carolina. We all thrive on family, hope, faith, health, but most importantly: love.
“Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” -Philippians 4:8