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Friday, 28 October 2016
Ngöbé or Guaymíes

All the work in the plantation, the up keeping, the cultivation of coffee, harvesting etc., is done by staff of the ethnic group of the Ngöbé. These are skilled workers, specialized in cultivating coffee while during harvest time they take special care of the product in its final stages. Most of the Ngöbé live in the area called “La Comarca”. This district of Panama is given a special recognition by the central government, such as an autonomous region. In this way, attention was given to maintain their culture and to preserve the roots of this ethnic group. It is very eye-catching to observe their laborious garments worn by the women folk and young girls while going after their daily chores. In their rural villages, we find them growing yucca, rice, beans and corn. They also raise farmyard animals for food such as the pig, chicken and other domestic animals. During harvest seasons thousands of them move to the coffee plantations spread throughout the national territory, like Boquete, Volcán and Renacimiento. Being aware of these circumstances as are their daily living conditions, their meager yearly income, etc. we are motivated to pay them a just compensation and give them dignified housing quarters. Also medical care is available for 24 hours every day.

Which the origin of this ethnic group? The Guaymíes are descendents of the Chibchas which embraced Central America and grew to be the most populous area between the Mexican empire and the Incas.

What is their populaton and place of habitation? The Guaymíes constitute the largest indigenous populace in Panama though the census is not exactly up-to-date (1990) but even at that time they surpassed the number of 123000 inhabitants. In view of the copious birthrate amongst this ethnic group, the actual number of inhabitants must be by far superior to the census figure shown at the beginning of the decade of the nineties of the past century. At present the largest concentration of the Guaymíes of Panama is found in the provinces of Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro and Veraguas. The total extension of this part of the country is about 6747 square meters. The major part of the terrain populated by this ethnic group is characterized by mountain ranges, (high, and medium high mountains as well as hilly countryside). On March 17th 1997, the government of Panama appointed the area occupied by the Guaymíes with the status of “District” or “Comarca”, differentiating it henceforth from the “Provinces” which make up the rest of the country. The district “Ngöbé Buglé” enjoys to a certain degree the rights of an “autonomous region”. The Guaymíes are governing themselves through their general chiefs “Caciques Generales”, the regional chiefs, intermediate chiefs, spokesmen and commissionaires. They affect the national parliament when it comes to deciding weighty issues.

How do they survive economically? One of the activities they are very skillful in is the manufacturing of handbags. We speak about the confection of the “Chácaras” or bags made out of hemp, a fiber obtained from the plant “aechmea magdalenae”. These handbags are offered in unnumbered sizes and shapes, miniature size such as a wallet for money, to big bags able to fit and carry even children.  From elaborating beautiful neck chains made of beads, shells and bones, to those of colorful and geometric designs which are called “Chaquiras” worn as special adornment during festival seasons. These and suchlike artfully designed articles constitute only a small source of income. The economic resources of the Guaymíes or Ngöbé stems from agricultural activities which at any rate amount only to support a subsistence economy.  They cultivate the ground for food with rather basic and primitive means. Their crops include corn, banana, cacao, green banana, otóe, pixbae, cocos, ñampi, yucca, rice, beans and sugar cane. The agricultural year begins with the winter precipitations which mark the sowing season. In this activity the women have a share. Their precarious economic situation compels them to work in a yearly cycle in gathering banana crops, harvesting sugar cane and especially in the cultivation and harvesting of coffee beans. Their manpower in agriculture is much appreciated. They are willing workers who perform their duties in spite of inclement conditions such as rainfall or hot climate. They also breed their domestic animals in open spaces, some for their own consumption such as chickens, pigs, ducks and turkeys. In the coastal regions they dedicate to fishing and catching turtles. They also gather the eggs laid by turtles in order to sell these.  On occasions their meager nutritional diet is enhanced by some hunting of game, like rabbits or iguanas and in some areas as in “Bocas del Toro”, they obtain some specimen of Stag, Ñeque, Zaíno(pecarí), Mountain Boar and Rabbit “pintado”.

How are their families structured and their dwellings? Even at this time polygamy is not unusual amongst them. Far from being scorned upon, a man having various wives is considered a prosperous person. Usually the oldest wife is the one exercising some authority over the other wives. It is customary that each wife and her children live in a hut called “choza”, apart from the others. But occasionally due to failing economic resources, several wives and their children live under the same roof with the husband. These micro hamlets or farms are formed by family units of 2 to 6 huts or “chozas”. The dwellings are simple shelters in circular format, no flooring but earth, walls and roofing out of plant material. A variation is found in “Bocas del Toro” where alongside cost lines and beaches, the huts or dwellings have a rectangular or square form, constructed above pillars. Usually these houses have two cooking facilities or burners, one inside and the other outside the shelter.   

What is their apparel? Women wear a type of very, very ample gown. The fabric used to confect this gown has very eye-catching colors. The dress is of one piece and color, but adorned with edgings based on geometric designs. These edgings encircle the arms, the bosom and the lower part of the hips. We talk about a very laborious piece of dress due to the intricacies of the edgings. The girls wear the same type of clothing from childhood on. However, the men cloth themselves in Panamanian, not indigenous type of fashion.

Do they have some rituals or outstanding customs? The religion of the Guaymíes is focused on the existence of spirits. These are divided into good and bad ones. When confronted with some apparently unexplainable phenomena they do not hesitate to signal that a certain spirit is responsible for the occurrences. They also have a type of doctor and healer called “Sukia”, who has ample knowledge of the surrounding botanicals and which he uses to perform cures. At the same time he is the one presiding all meetings and social acts in the community. One of his favored festivity is the “Chichería”.  The host lays out a feast with food and drink and on this occasion they “sip” the “chicha” a fermented brew with considerable alcoholic percentage.  Music plays and with it dancing goes on, while it is a must to finish off food and beverages.