Notes on the Ngabe culture
After a lot of reading and years of living with Panama’s Ngabe people
and listening their language, I’ve gotten to know them well enough
to dare to share these reflections and notes about their culture.
In the last three years Panama’s Ngabe people have leapt onto the international stage due to unpleasant circumstances. People have tried to impose mining and hydroelectric projects and the Ngabe have responded with the only weapon they have—protests in the streets. Such protests have come only after many attempts to make themselves heard in other ways. They have succeeded in defending their land but the cost has been high: much pain, several deaths, eye injuries and blindness. It’s important that they also be known for their rich, centuries-old culture, so I am sharing some notes about these people.
The jegi: the danceThe jegi is a dance in the Ngabe culture that’s starting to be known. It’s actually more than a dance; it’s an expression of their culture. They dance it to celebrate something on festive occasions and 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 are placed alternately behind the guide. At the end of the line is another person who also keeps the rhythm going with the tän. If one loses the coordinated movement or beat, the dance has failed. Very good coordination is needed since they dance as a team. The guide and counter-guide are responsible both for maintaining the rhythm and for the participants.
This dance shows what a community should be—a well-coordinated group or team that carries a beat while moving in the same direction with a sense of one body and much closeness that expresses harmony in a variety of forms. Everyone contributes, pushing forward and paying attention. There are guides but they are nothing without those who follow. There are no leaders or assistant leaders, only those who serve. If someone decides to “follow their own beat” or do something they shouldn’t, it destroys the dance and the community.
They brought us civilizationThe word “civilization” comes from the Latin word cives or city. A citizen is one who lives in the city. Since the time of the European conquest of America, Europeans decided that there was no civilization here. And while Tenochtitlán was bigger and more organized than the majority of Europe’s cities of that time, the Europeans decided that they brought civilization.
This civilization arrived here with the force of weapons and often in alliance with the Catholic Church. Thus they imposed their language, religion, customs, ways of living, rules, food, clothing, educational system, etc. We all know that what is imposed on a people ends up discounting or destroying it.
The Spaniards classified those they encountered as non-civilized or barbarian and looked down on them. They also set about eradicating certain languages. They said the educational systems like those of the Aztec kalmekak didn’t work and had to be destroyed, and books, such as the Mayan Codes, were considered diabolical and had to be burned. They scorned people’s traditions—what we call folklore today. They considered native religious beliefs superstitious and fought them. There were techniques for making things that satisfied people’s needs but not the needs of trade and were forgotten.
What did the people do after fighting against the invaders? They hid, disguised themselves and fled. If we put these facts together with the devastation caused by the insatiable search for gold and silver, the blow to the native indigenous populations and their environment was almost fatal.
What the indigenous peoples received in exchangeOnce the social fabric of the original communities was destroyed, attacked at its religious, social and economic roots, the Europeans imposed five aspects of “civilization” so “we would leave our barbarous ways.”
Formal Schooling. Whenever and wherever there was “public instruction,” as it was called, it dispensed with oral tradition, used and imposed a supposedly unifying language, allowed only certain subjects, wrote and presented history from the invaders’ point of view and banned indigenous languages.
Written literature. They disseminated books, magazines and newspapers, considered a privileged form of “cultured” expression. Whatever was not written down lost any value and the rich oral tradition was replaced by written material, which meant that those who did not read, especially the elders, were considered illiterate and “ignorant.”
Outside technology. This consumer-oriented technology based on cheap labor, which tends to be dangerous for the environment and is only valued for its marketability, was forced on them. Although it brought some positive results, it was mainly sold as being part of being civilized but nothing was ever really transferred to them.
Bureaucracy. First came dependence on the Spanish Crown and then on the centralized cities and governments. It always meant control from offices, in Spanish, with cumbersome processes, and all conducted from the capital city. All this structure means that people lose hope and don’t demand their rights.
Religion. The set of beliefs, rites and myths that make up a religion serves as people’s identity. The original religions were considered diabolic, barbarian and superstitious so the conquerors imposed the Catholic religion’s beliefs, rites and myths, even though that was not Jesus of Nazareth’s intent.
What is a nation and a culture?A nation is usually understood as people grouped together in a community with a particular connection to the land (birth, country and ecology) historical continuity (tradition, habits, common facts) and commonly understood destiny.
Each nation identifies with a specific historical path. Thus we can talk about the “Latin American nation” or “European nation” or “Panamanian nation.” However, although each nation has a culture, not each culture is national, so we can’t simply identify nation with culture. A variety of cultures con coexist in one country and even be in conflict and compete for dominance. This occurs in Belgium, Uganda and India and between Sunnis and Shiites in several Islamic countries.
According to Bartomeu Melia, culture is the living out of a way of being by members of an historical community. This way of being, which is fundamentally a way of doing and thinking, becomes explicit in forms of expression that are ways of understanding and projecting oneself in the world and are the instruments for working in it—language, art, religion, a social system, material culture. Thus to attack the culture is to denationalize or undo the nation.
After five centuries…What has remained of the Ngabe culture after centuries of such impositions? The majority of the Ngabe population was literally cornered in the mountainous area of the Tabasará mountainous area and the forests of the Krikamola and Calovébora rivers, the present-day Ngabe-Bugle district. Another sector of the population stayed in what today is called La Amistad National Park and the Palo Seco Forest Reserve in Bocas del Toro. The remainder of the population was dispersed in the non-indigenous areas where they were acculturated, integrated and finally became part of the country’s urban centers.
In 1975, roads began to be built to penetrate into the present-day Ngabe-Bugle region for the purpose of opening
the Cerro Colorado mine. Over the past 35 years these roads have multiplied by 50 and with them came “public schools,” health installations and merchants, all with their consequent civilizing impositions, i.e. a “clash of cultures” in which the Ngabe are losing. These elements of acculturation have made it possible for more Ngabe to get education degrees and thus to control diseases somewhat, but the damages the community has experienced by exposure to the wrongly called “national culture” have been greater than the benefits.
Culture is like a web of concepts, ideas and experiences. If you touch one strand, you touch all because the web is holistic and integrated. Thus, despite all the impositions, there are elements of Ngabe culture that continue to make sense to a majority of the people. Beyond the women’s dress and the particular way of speaking Spanish, cultural elements continue to emerge and have remained in spite of the “civilizing” hurricane. These elements have to do with the social structure, with the relationship to the earth, to God and to Nature and with life and death. All are part of the Ngabe’s cosmovision.
Ngabere: The language Language isn’t just a group of phonemes and morphemes, a way to articulate words and to call things by name. Language expresses a people’s vision of the world. The Ngabe people’s language is called Ngabere and comes from much older times than Spanish, which is descended from Latin, Greek and Arabic. The Ngabere language comes from the Chibcha branch of languages and is both older and more original.
of the Ngabe people
According to Pablo Suess, “language exercises an important strategic role in the fight for survival of the original peoples. It’s the specific way of perceiving the world and projecting the future from the distinctive and exclusive perception and representation of their identity as a people.”
According to the 2010 census, probably two-thirds of the more than 260,000 Ngabe in Panama speak Ngabere. For many, their mother tongue is a fundamental element of their identification, even though it’s a source of discrimination. With the imposition of Spanish and schools and the almost complete absence of bilingual education, the use of the mother tongue has been in decline. The majority of young people and children only speak it colloquially and at home. It is spoken very little outside the home and almost no one reads or writes it.
With all of this and even with Law 88, enacted in 2010, which makes the writing of the original languages official and makes bilingual intercultural education obligatory, the future of the Ngabere language is bleak to say the least. The great richness in culture that is held in the language is being lost little by little and no one is remedying this problem.
Ni jamärägätdre: The Ngabe familyAs Philip Young and others have pointed out, Ngabe settlement patterns are scattered hamlets with close kinship ties. For the past thirty years governments have pressured the Ngabe to form bigger villages around the schools and/or health posts, which has caused more negative than positive consequences. The reason for their form of settlement has to do with kinship groups being based on the residency of the male and in areas near agricultural work.
The difference of names between the relatives of the father and the mother are defined by where they live. Husband and wife are called nomugo merire and nomugo brare which mean “companion wife” and “companion husband.” They are also called ti kwäräe which means “my half” because the woman is “half” for the man and vice versa, which sounds much more intimate than Spanish words for husband and wife (esposo and esposa) which literally mean “handcuffs.”
Mother and father are meye and rün. Siblings of the same sex are etdeba and 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. On the other hand, the mother’s siblings have another name, grü. Grandparents are roa and mölöe as are the paternal grandfather’s siblings, but not the maternal grandfather’s.
These strong familial ties have to do with inheritance. Since where the family resides is based on the male side of the family, they inherit the land. Today women also inherit land but in a lesser percentage. It’s important to note that in recent years the pressure for land reached its limits in most of the region and the possibilities of inheriting have lessened; i.e. there’s little to pass on to the children.
Juritde: SharingForty years ago the cultural element of sharing was the norm in Ngabe communities. Nowadays it doesn’t happen. Juritde is translated incorrectly as to beg or ask for alms, when in fact it is a right and a duty. If an old person has nothing to eat he can go to his neighbor and say “ti gi baran juritdaire,” which means “I have come to share a banana.” The concept of juritde is a cultural institution that encompasses the concept of sharing and reciprocity. If one doesn’t respond to the request, one is kobore or stingy.
This concept of sharing also has the sense of respect, similar to the respect given to older people. The word comes from ju, which means house, and torire, which means to ask, but it doesn’t have to do with flaunting the fact of asking and not working. It has to do with honestly asking something of someone as an exchange in a moment of need.
It probably was a way to avoid having people who were very poor and very rich in the communities and was a rule of conduct that sought to bring balance. In Christianity we would call it solidarity with the needy.
Krün gitde: Raft pole throwingKrün gitde or raft pole throwing is related to an ancient Ngabe ritual using wooden raft poles. In his written account of 1682, Friar Adrian de Santo Tomás mentions many of the pole throwing rituals. In this case, as in many, we interpret “the other’s” traditions and customs from our own point of view.
In this ritual game the community invites another community to come live with them for four days. They share a fermented drink while others compete with the raft poles and solve their problems through the physical struggle or simply measure their strengths. Very negative interpretations having to do with the pole throwing ritual have been invented over time. It is said that it encourages drinking binges, that it’s simple fighting, that women are exchanged, that the people become poorer, that it’s against tradition....
Although those who have studied the ritual are not in agreement about its significance, the krün gitde probably “symbolizes the many ways that harmony and discord in daily life are omnipresent for the Ngabe,” according to Philip Young. It could also be a ritual for leveling surplus energy and strengthening community ties. During the krün gitde alliances are created, ties are established, friendships are developed and a very special ritual brotherhood, called etdebali, is formed. The krün dobobitdi, which is held at the cemetery, is part of the ritual in that it commemorates a good rafter who has died.
There is both friendship and rivalry in the krün gitde. There is a leader, the köböbu (he who sets the date), who does the inviting; those who receive, gwiri (those of the house); and the invitees, kugeni (those from outside). All have their etdebali. The celebration lasts four days: one to arrive and survey the raft poles, another to eat and drink together, another for the pole games and the final one to disengage. According to some, the ritual allowed people from different communities to get to know one another. It involves a preparation and a waiting time, in which the days leading up to the krün gitde were counted by threads.
Only those who are the most experienced play the game. The first to play are called motdo gitde dego and they play four times early in the ritual. One can play ten to forty “hits” of the pole and must have a great deal of skill. One player takes a pole in both hands, balances it, and in a threatening manner throws it at the feet of his brother rival who stands with his back to the pole thrower. The challenge is that, without turning around, he must try to see the pole and avoid being hit. This is done again and again.
The mama-tatas, representatives of a new nativist religious movement that arose in the seventies in the region and restored the native culture, prohibited the raft pole throwing ritual. They said it took up a lot of time, caused accidents and distracted the people from more important things.
Kugwe kira: stories and mythsWhen speaking of kugwe kira, which means the old (kira) word (kugwe), one is talking about a theme that holds much respect and tradition in the 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 stuck in the historical memory that keep reminding us of our identity,” even though, thanks to the educational system’s work, they no longer have anything to do with the education the youth receive these days in the schools.
The kugwe kira touch on themes and aspects of life such as what the ancestors were like, facts about several of the mythic leaders who fought for the people, the origin of some of the hunting and fishing implements, the beginnings of the people’s knowledge about botanical medicine, the forefathers’ struggles against threats, things that are prohibited or simply bad, their successes in overcoming the invasions of the Miskitu Indians and the Spanish, stories about men and women who are important to 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.
In each of the three areas (Ñö Kribo, Nidrini and Kädriri) that make up the present-day region, one finds different ways of doing things but the same lineage of identification. Several of these stories also appear in the songs of other cultures of Abya Yala, the term of Panama’s Kuna people, which variously translates as Continent of Life, living earth, land in its full maturity, or, more simply Our America, from before the arrival of Colombus.
Ka: The songsVery related to the kugwe kira are the ka, or songs through which much of the very orally rich tradition of the Ngabe people is recovered along 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. They are a language of communication with the supernatural.
The thematic content of the songs is quite varied. There are allusions to flat plains, hills, houses, serpents, the sea, wind, rain, lightening, 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. Texts written in the 17th century already provide evidence of the use of these songs.
There are songs exclusively for certain rituals or stages in the ritual, ones for healing and ones that must be performed in a certain way, accompanied with or without maracas, and ones to be sung standing, sitting or danced to and can be sung at any time of the day or night.
The Ka recreate a world that’s hard to enter if you aren’t from the Ngabe culture. It’s the world of the elders. We’re accustomed to other kinds of songs, shorter and with different melodies.
Krägäbotdä: Traditional medicineLife and death, health and sickness are fundamental themes. Krägä, which means medicine, and botdä, which means together with, combine in translation as traditional medicine.
When is a person sick or healthy? It’s a basic question. In the old days people came to the elders, who were the ones who took care of the people’s health. One spoke of boin or fasting which meant taking care of the body so the illness wouldn’t spread. Back then, there was enough food for everyone and people ate natural foods because the earth was more productive, and if anyone had more there was the sharing tradition (juritde). Now there are many problems, including food scarcity and workers on the banana farms who are sick from the chemicals they must use. There are now Ngabe doctors but they don’t act the way the elders did in the past. People go to the hospital and come back the same or worse. And there are cases in which people who aren’t healed by the Western doctors are taken to the traditional Ngabe doctors who in fact cure them. They always tell the sick to fast as a condition for healing.
The Ngabe do not speak of “curanderos” or folk healers because this word is associated with magic. It’s better to use the term krägä bianga (bian means give and ga is an action suffix, so this term 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 can work together with the sukia or those who know the tradition and stories and can diagnose psychological illness for which there are other treatments.
A different pathThese are only some notes about the Ngabe culture that has developed over centuries in Panama. We haven’t honored this culture, which is a treasure, but rather have marginalized it. We should neither lose it nor only conserve it. Cultures are dynamic, they change and develop. One should live this culture in the 21st century, delving more deeply into the richness of its cosmovision, which opens up new and different paths for us.
Jorte Sarsaneda, sj, is a member of the National Indigenous Pastoral Coordinating Council.