Along the outskirts of Volcán, Panama
The best way to get to know both people and places is by walking slowly, which is exactly what we did this morning. We parked the car and took a stroll through the ragged outskirts of Volcán — the place that many Ngöbe-Buglé families call home. Of the several dozen native tribes that inhabited Panama when Spanish explorers first set foot here in 1501, only seven remain. Of those seven, the Ngöbe-Buglé are the most populous, numbering almost 200,000. Like the other remaining tribes, the Ngöbe-Buglé are struggling to maintain their cultural identity. For the most part, they continue to live in much the same way as they have throughout the centuries, relying almost exclusively on subsistence agriculture. The Ngöbe-Buglé also maintain their own comarca, an autonomous region much like a reservation.
In recent years, many of the Ngöbe-Buglé have been forced to leave their comarca in an effort to find ways to survive. Hundreds of families have made their way from mountain regions to nearby towns where they live as squatters and work for slave wages. The impression I have after talking to people in the area is that the Ngöbe-Buglé (and the other native peoples) are treated like the Dalits in India. They are regarded as Panama’s lowest caste and treated accordingly. And yet, like any of us, they simply want to survive and to give their children the opportunity for a better life.
One woman we met today told us that she is working in a local restaurant and trying to save the money to get electricity to her corrugated metal hovel so that her kids can have light to do their schoolwork. She said that she can no longer afford to keep buying candles. To make things even more challenging, her 21 year-old daughter lives with her. This young girl has four children of her own and a fifth on the way. Remember these women the next time you think your life is hard and then pray for them! After visiting with this family I told my friends Jerry and Susan and their Pastor that Kingsland would provide the money for this hard-working mother to get electricity — a mere one-hundred dollars for us but a fortune to her. The local pastor will discreetly work with her to get electricity in the coming days.
My heart especially goes out to the children. Seeing and playing with them reminded me that they are indeed “precious in His sight.” My hope is that we can engage in working with the Ngöbe-Buglé people on future trips to Panama. They deserve the opportunity to hear the story of Jesus and to be affirmed and encouraged that there are no Dalits in the kingdom of God. Today was a good day. I am glad that we took the time to walk slowly among the Ngöbe-Buglé because God once again showed me that the real beauty of Panama is in its people — and that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.