Not many people have the privilege of witnessing the cultural celebrations of the very closed off and very secretive Kuna people. They consist of a group that is indigenous to Colombia and Panama and currently live in the Comarca Kuna Yala on a section of Panama’s northern coast. Here’s a wikipedia article that can tell you a little more about their culture:
The plan was to hike for two days from Panama Este, through the Comarca Kuna Yala, and end up on the coast where a boat would take us to an island inhabited by the Kuna people. Our guide on this journey was a character to say the least. His name was Gaspar de Leon and for the duration of the hike his attire included a camo wife beater, jorts, two rosaries, and a black fedora. Although his continuously updated ETA of “30 minutos mas” was never accurate, he clearly knew this route like the back of his hand.Three days before the 25th anniversary of the Kuna revolution our group of 28 Peace Corps Volunteers left the town of Pigandi in the province of Panama Este to hike 5ish hours to the secluded Kuna village of Nurra and another 4 or 5ish hours to the base of the cordillera (continental divide) to camp out for the night.
Two days before the celebrations we had another full 9 to 10 hour day of hiking including crossing the continental divide and following a river to the coast. The total hiking distance was just under 30 miles and left everyone thoroughly exhausted. Upon arriving at dusk, we took a boat across a short stretch of ocean to complete our trip to the island of Ustupu where we devoured large plates of dinner and guzzled a few beers at one of the local restaurants before passing out for the night in Gaspar’s dilapidated two story house.
Wandering around town the day before the celebrations left all of us stunned and intrigued. This town was unlike anything I had witnessed in Panama so far which surprising since I had already been living in another indigenous community for the past 8 months. The children were unnaturally friendly and welcoming and their parents were beautiful and culturally proud. They were intelligent and kind and filled with a desire to make all of us foreigners feel at home and give us a chance to see the significance of their culture. The streets were kept nearly spotless and throughout the central park area they played (somewhat creepy) music resembling children laughing and singing. The swastika Kuna cultural symbol took some getting used to and was displayed on the many Kuna Yala flags hung up as well as on items of clothing, decoration, and cups or bowls. After talking with some of the people about the symbol we discovered that they do in fact know of its association to the Nazi flag but since the Kuna had been using that symbol since before the Nazi party came along, they did not feel any obligation to change their culture. An enlightening wikipedia article on the swastika symbol:
Another interesting cultural fact about the Kuna is their population’s unusually high rate of albinism. Not only are there many albinos on these tropical islands but their cultural acceptance is extremely inspiring. Traditionally, they were viewed as “Children of the Moon” and were charged with protecting the moon from dragon and jaguar attacks during lunar eclipses while today, the albinos are revered and seen as talented artists and capable leaders.
The day before the revolution ceremony, the Kuna people of Ustupu participate in various traditions including community breakfast and lunches where locals will prepare small dishes to share with whoever needs or wants a free meal. It was a great way for us to explore the town and get to know some of the villagers over hot chocolate and bread or banana juice. I can’t stress enough how welcoming and friendly these people were and unfortunately I found myself constantly making comparisons to the people in my community. It’s really not surprising how developed this town is for an indigenous population given the quality of the people inhabiting it. In the afternoon, the town gathered around a cleared space to watch reenactments of the revolution that took place in 1925. Although it was all performed in the Kuna language it was still an interesting series of events that was relatively easy to follow and understand. Basically, when Panama received its independence in 1903, the government tried to suppress the Kuna people and their cultural traditions. They didn’t like this very much and in 1925 successfully rebelled against the Panamanian government and earned semi-autonomous status as the Comarca Kuna Yala. The leader of this revolution was called Nele Kantule and was actually from the island of Ustupu (where we were staying) so the revolution celebrations on this island are popular and quite incredible.
February 25, 2013
The celebration begins with a parade in which Peace Corps Volunteers were actually invited to walk in. The women dress up in their traditional garb and the men all wear red shirts to show solidarity with the Kuna bloodshed of the revolution. The march culminates at the local basketball court where more reenactments proceed until finally the long awaited festivities of the Casa de Chicha (House of juice) begin. What happened in that house was probably one of the most bizarre, fascinating, and mind blowingly surreal experiences of my life. The men line up in groups of six and dance around while chanting and screaming in imitation of the drink servers until they are given a hollowed out calabash bowl filled with chicha fuerte (literally means strong juice but refers to any sort of fermented and alcoholic drink) made from sugar cane, coffee, and cocoa but tasting like bad wine full of coffee grounds. This cycle is repeated as many times as one desires by anyone who desires. The Kuna people are the second smallest people in the world and technically they are only supposed to drink alcohol once a year on the day of the revolution ceremony so what that means is that they have an extremely low tolerance and get really, REALLY drunk. Especially the old people. That was probably the funniest part of this whole experience: tiny, ancient, drunk people dancing around and running into you like bumper cars until they have to be carried home by 4 or 5 of their equally drunk friends. The women’s side of the house was just as entertaining where they were just dancing around and playing harmonicas while constantly being served the same chicha fuerte. This festivity continues until around noon when everyone is too tired and too drunk to dance any more so they return home for the remainder of the day to sleep and nurse any incoming hangovers.
The following day we said our goodbyes and had to tell many good people that we didn’t know when we’d be returning to see them. After a six hour boat ride that took us past some of the most beautiful and isolated beaches in the world (who knew that those still existed) and a 3 hour car ride, we found ourselves back in Panama City and hardly ready to get back to work.
So far this trip has been the absolute best experience of my time in Peace Corps and I am so thankful that I was able to participate in it and see all of these amazing things.