I´m currently in an indigenous village called Arimae in eastern Panama, in the Darien province, a little under 100 kilometers from Colombia, but separated from it by the Darien Gap. The village I´m in was founded by 28 indigenous Colombian immigrant families in about 1960, and has since then grow to house (I believe) around 200 people – some from Colombia, some from other small towns in Panama, but all are either Embera or Wounaan. Arimae is directly off the south side of the Interamericana, and if you stant on the highway facing the town, the right side of the ¨main¨ street of Arimae is Wounaan, and the left is predominantly Embera.
I´m staying in the Casa Cultural, which is a basic structure funded by USAID – it´s built in the same fashion as all the houses here – up on stilts, 6 – 8 feet off the ground to counter the heat with a crossbreeze. The roofs are thatched dried palm leaves and are held up by a couple of beems – there are not really walls given the heat and humidity. I bathe out of a barrel next to a basic outhouse, and eat all my meals with a nearby Embera family headed by a woman named Rucila, and a man named Cervante. The meals are pretty basic since there´s not a lot of cashflow here and there´s not universal electricity (the family I eat with has no electricity so there´s no ability to refrigerate), but good. Arimae owns its land communally under a law passed in Panama in 2009, and most of the food consumed here is grown here. Generally my meals consist of rice or bread with either an egg, sausage, a little bit of chicken, or if I have made a trip to Santa Fe to stock up on water, I bring back pork or beef. I eat breakfast at 6am, and then head out further into the campo with Cervante. The community tends both the mixed species tree farms brainchilded by Planting Empowerment, the social entrepreneurship venture I´m studying, and standard crops like corn, rice, bananas, yuca, and so on. Today I pruned trees; tomorrow I imagine I´ll do the same. Cervante says that next week we´ll work with the corn.
In the afternoons, after lunch between 12-1pm, I generally read and journal and eagerly await dinner because I´m rarely full. Around 3pm I get desperate and head to one of the three tiendas for a soda to tide me over. I´ve learned that instant coffee doesn´t need hot water to dissolve – this discovery has saved my life and tides me over from breakfast until lunch after I get back from the field. Last night was the first meal I was truly dismayed about – it was a pile of liver and some rice. I truly hate liver and it´s dry, crumbly texture, awful aftertaste, and the way it gets stuck behind your teeth. Still, I couldn´t allow myself to leave any in the bowl, since some of the kids eating didn´t have any protein on their plates and were just eating rice. It was a serious moment of mind over matter, and after dinner I followed it with some pan dulce to get the taste out of my mouth.
There are a couple of guys here who are attending university, and lucky for me, one of them has already down a detailed survey of Arimae, and compiled an extensive knowledge of it through oral history. As my Spanish improves, I´ll get more details from him. He´s writing his thesis on the loss of indigenous languages due to the omnipresence of Spanish. In the evenings, I sometimes help him (Yasmin) and his cousin (Liriano – also the field manager for Planting Empowerment) learn English, at their request. I plan on starting to attend church with the rest of the community – Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. people here seem to be predomenantly Catholic, but services are accompanied by singing, instruments – generally lots of music. I can hear it from my room (while I´m hiding under my mosquito net trying to avoid the troup of bats that lives in the roof) – I´m excited to see what it´s all about.
I have no idea yet how I will compile all of this into a thesis. My plan for now is to do as much as possible, get to know as many people as possible, be as friendly as possible and when I get back to my room, write everything down. I have decided against taking notes in public – if I were a resident here and some gringa was following me around with a notebook I´d be seriously turned off. Anyway, that´s all for now.
Rachel Brooks-Ames, MA Candidate, CLACS