The Kuna Yala Adventure Continues!

Kuna Living and Loving

So much excitement has happened since our last blog post from Panama! Not only have I been lucky enough to explore more of the beauty that lies in this magical part of the world with a few excursions in the mainland mountains and a visit to one of Kuna Yala's gorgeous uninhabited islands, but I have also continued learning so much more about Kuna culture through the deep connections I have made living within the community-- an experience that very few foreigners have been granted the opportunity to do. I hope my previous blog posts let you get an idea of the difficulties I was facing getting acclimated to hut-living on an island in an indigenous village where I barely speak the primary language and butcher the second, but luckily that transition period has ended and I am quite the happy Community Catalyst!  I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone and began to really feel integrated within the community, leaving my love growing leaps and bounds for these extraordinary people, their culture, and the place they take so much pride in calling home. I am excited to be able to continue sharing this exhilarating journey with ya'll, and give a peek into the unique culture behind our beautiful Kuna Kicks!

This is a picture of some of my closest animar (my friends in dulegaya) discussing a fire that happened on a nearby island. Seated behind the sewing machine is Rosa, and her mother is to her right.  I love to sit with them because there is a constant flow of new people to meet coming through to buy madu (bread in dulegaya) from her house turned bakery.  They love introducing me to them, and all go out of their way to make me feel welcome.  We have daily lessons in dulegaya/English, and they love asking me questions about my life!  The other week they even asked me if it was cold in Texas that day.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Last week I stumbled upon a book written in the mid 1900s by an anthropologist at the Gothenburg Ethnographical Museum in Sweden. Combined with my conversations, I am forming a more complete version of the history and traditions of the Kunas and really realizing the consistent changes the culture has undergone over the past centuries. Living on the islands has only been the custom since the early 1900s and the culture actually developed from living near rivers in the mountains. Molas, the distinct art form that make up our ballet flats and smoker slippers, actually began as body painting.  Natural dyes were used to create geometric designs and it wasn’t until cloths became readily available that they transitioned to the molas we love today.

Winis have changed too!

Rosa preparing the fish her son just brought back.  The bracelets on her wrist and ankles are winis.  They are one long string tied in place with every wrap around the arm/leg.  Mine were made by Rosa ahead of time simply because it allowed her the freedom to work on them when she could, but if created directly on the arm/leg I have seen it take hours.

Winis actually used to be made with seeds from the mountains, like these Santa Maria semillas (seeds) that eventually turn white and are still used in necklaces.  I love the semilla necklace I have, and think you would too!...Kuna Yala Semilla Jewelry anyone?

Fighting through multiple subjugation attempts since the 1400s to protect their beautiful culture and traditions has left the Kunas known worldwide for their fierceness, but unfortunately the conquistadors don’t have anything on globalization. Things as a whole are still very traditional, with many continuing to drink cacao mixed with plantains every morning and spending their days completely immersed in traditional agriculture, fishing, cooking, mola making, and hammock lying just like their ancestors.   However, the increased desire for money has helped drastically change the values and structure of the community over the past 50 years.  Increased individualism has led to wide-spread hunger and a general lack of trust that never existed in the past. Some, especially the younger generation, are beginning to lose interest in important traditions like working in the mountains, making and wearing molas, chanting traditional songs /stories, and respecting mother earth.

Making a traditional fire for the day's cooking with dried coconut husks as a starter, and a fan made of weaved palm leaves. 

 Imports from Colombia and Panama have begun supplementing the otherwise whole food based diet with unhealthy items typically packaged in plastics. Since the culture has always thrown their trash in the sea and there is no education or system for this extremely recent and rapid change, these products aren’t only hurting their health but also that of the ocean!  My nutrition degree really leaves me especially hurt by this diet change though.  These imports provide regular consumption of refined breads and cakes, fried foods, and other processed items that are guaranteed to not be helping the Kunas with their track record for having remarkable health. While they do help individuals with shoes, clothes, and other needs that are beneficial to the community, it is obvious they have a huge negative impact on it as well. Most notably is a decrease in men working in the mountains, which could be a major contributor to the increased food insecurity on the island, in conjunction with a lack of sharing that will be discussed later.  


Hojaldre, a fried doughnuts of sorts popular for breakfast.  While delicious, the grease pictured shows it is not the best way to start the day…

Luckily, I have come to discover many people working with their own passions to keep the traditional way of life alive. For instance, we have recently begun collaborating with the incredible owner of the Casco Viejo Karavan Gallery and founder of the Mua Mua Foundation.  She works with 110 Kuna women to provide a more steady income by celebrating traditional mola making with functional products just like we do with our Kicks! The foundation is the first Kuna cultural center in Panama and works to preserve the traditional Kuna culture in the midst of families moving to the cities.  Now more than ever we are at a point where it is necessary (and very possible) to use globalization to combat the problems it has caused.  When on the island strutting down the street in my Kuna Kicks I usually have people start up conversations asking where my shoes are from, showing me that Teysha’s celebration of the culture not only helps show it to people like you around the world but also contributes to a sense of pride for the culture so necessary for protecting it.

Sharing is Caring

The book I mentioned places lots of emphasis on what I have already come to experience firsthand: community, generosity, and friendship are absolute pillars in the Kuna culture. Not only have I learned about the many different donations our Kuna led partner organization, Foundation of Light and Indigenous strength or in Spanish Fundacion de Luz y Forteleza Indigena, has poured into the community over the years, but I have also experienced the intense generosity given by everyone in my new community of animar. When I am sitting talking with different families in their homes I am frequently offered chicha maiz, a traditional drink made of corn that is chewed up by the women and then boiled. I will admit I did enjoy the cacao and madun (plantains) chicha I was offered the other morning MUCH more, but the thought of pre-masticated boiled corn is much worse than the light pink drink actually tastes and I believe them when they say it has a lot of nutritional value. (Chicha is the generic name for traditional Kuna juices made with cacao, corn, lemon, plantains, pineapple, mango, guava, or a mixture of each)

Also, I am constantly having my thoughts of what to cook finished for me with a surprise bowl of fried fish or dule masi compliments of my neighbors or Rosa, a woman who lives in the neighboring community of Ogobsucun and helps my Kuna papa and I with a variety of hut-living tasks.  Dule masi is a plantain soup with hand shredded coconut and usually fish but can have other catches from the sea like shrimp or lobster as well. The name literally means kuna food in dulegaya (dule=kuna person masi= comida), and since fish, coconut, and plantains are the 3 most common food sources I have witnessed it makes sense that it is eaten so much and has the name it does.  Luckily for me, I still find it really delicious with a splash of picante (hot sauce) even after eating it nearly every day.   

Ochi, dulegaya for bananas.  The other day I was practicing my dulegaya with Ellie and Elida, women I am working with on the virtual consignment shop project, and their sister surprised me with this gift as a part of the lesson! 

We get by with a little help from our friends

When I first came to the island I would frequently hear ‘uua, uua’ being chanted from the streets, and only after the second or third week came to realize uua means fish in Dulegaya and this was people walking around selling their daily catches. Since there obviously isn’t much refrigeration on the island, fish and other daily harvests used to be shared throughout the community, but now they are sold for anywhere from $1-$4 per fish.  Hence, the new hunger in the community that I briefly mentioned early. This shift in communal sharing has also sadly affected important ceremonial rituals, like puberty rites ceremonies. These are a celebration of a girl’s coming of age, involving large feasts, the cutting of her hair, and drinking lots of the alcoholic chicha fuerte (fermented sugar cane). Traditionally this was put on by the entire community with everyone sharing sugar, fish, and other needs for the festival, but with fewer men working and able to contribute it is a completely different scenario with the average cost incurred by a family in the thousands. There are several community festivals throughout the year that are still done traditionally, such as the Nele Kantule Festival Sophie and I attended last month, but individual ceremonies like puberty rites ceremonies are becoming fewer every year. 

These signs are all over the community selling various foods

The other day I was speaking with someone named Laidislou (excuse spelling), and these values were his response for what he loved most about Kuna culture and is most fearful of losing.  The ones that supported one another no matter what and would never leave a child hungry. They are the same values that have been pushing him to use his farm to help feed the community with sustainable agriculture, and why another woman I was speaking with asked me to start a comedor (children’s feeding program), without realizing this was already a passion I have been figuring out how to accomplish with Fundacion de Luz! While these changes are creeping in, there are still so many Kunas fighting to hold on to their culture’s traditions just like their ancestors have done for centuries, and I truly believe Teysha’s work here empowers them to tighten that grip even more!

Awareness Andres

One of these people bridging the gap between industrialization and traditional way of life is a nephew of my Kuna papa Augustine (common theme in Kuna Yala: everyone is someone I know’s cousin, nephew, etc.) named Andres. Andres has travelled all over the world as an ambassador for Kuna Yala, and now uses cameras donated to him by a group of Italians and Canon to document community events and teach kids how to create multi-media projects for education about the importance of the environment and other serious issues relating to the continued strength of Kuna Yala. 

Appropriate to my recent realizations of the cultural shift, he made a display a few weekends ago for October 12th, a day to come together to stand up for mother earth, protect the rights of indigenous groups, and collaborate for la buen vida (the good life.) The display had pictures of indigenous groups from around the world that still exist, and also facts about those that were completely wiped out over the past centuries. Witnessing how many people stopped to read it gave me a lot of hope for advocacy based education as a whole in the community.  Also, it helped remind me how strong the Kunas truly are to have survived what so many other indigenous groups couldn’t giving me hope for their future in the face of all these changes.


Andres with his display

Indigenous groups from all over the world

A man named Henri that is always smiling with an adorable group of neighborhood kiddos in front of the display.  


To leave you with some anticipation for my next blog post dedicated completely to my time in the mountains, here is a picture of the absolutely gorgeous Sugandi River.  Until then, nade (dulegaya for ciao)!

1 comment

Say, you got a nice forum post.Thanks Again. Keep writing. Frevert

Williamlame May 11, 2016

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