Comarca de Kuna Yala of Panama is a narrow, 226km-long strip
on the Caribbean coast. The comarca (autonomous region)
is home to the Kuna, an indigenous people who have lived
here for approximately 200-400 years (previously lived in
the Columbian highlands, but left after devastating attacks
from poison dart-wielding tribes). Starting on February
25, 1925, after a violent and deadly uprising against the
government and a self-imposed ethnic cleansing within their
own people, the Kuna were granted permission to implement
their own system of governance and economy while still maintaining
their language, representation in the Panamian legislature
and full voting rights.
Kuna inhabit the coastal islands, preferring to settle in
tightly-packed settlements while leaving entire islands
untouched. On the untouched islands, they grow their prized
cash crop; the coconut, of which they harvest about 30 million
each year! The mainland is primarily reserved for farmland,
where they grow rice, yams, squash, yucca, breadfruit, mango,
bananas, plantains, and pineapples.
The comarca includes over 400 islands, of which about 48
are settled. Many of the rest are completely uninhabited,
or contain a single bamboo hut; home to a Coconut Caretaker,
usually a married couple, who spend a few weeks on shift,
guarding the coconuts, raking the beaches and selling the
odd Mola to passing yachts.
are an estimated 70,000 Kuna; 32,000 live on the islands,
8000 live on the coastal farmland, and 30,000 live outside
the region (such as Panama City and Colon).
Each island has at least 1 chief, called the Sahila (pronounced
Sigh-la, like silo with an A at the end), who always has
the final word. He can be found swinging in a hammock in
the Congreso (government) hut each afternoon before the
nightly village meeting. Talking directly to the chief is
often considered highly rude and visitors are required to
speak through a translator or secretary, who often appears
to edit our
questions and the Sahilas responses as well, shortening
or adding to them at his discretion!
Every night, each villager attends a compulsory meeting
in which all the village problems are discussed. The Sahila
often will sing his wisdom, incorporating Kuna religious
beliefs (traditionally involving the gods - the Great Mother
and Great Father - but increasingly, Christian beliefs -
as well as nature and the cosmos) and this is translated
by his secretary. Often the whole village will vote on a
solution and the resolution must be adhered to, including
even domestic disputes! Nothing is private on a Kuna island,
particularily under the Congreso hut!
the Congreso hut lies the Chicha hut. The Chicha hut is
completely dedicated to the consumption of Kuna Grog!
Chicha is a mild alcoholic drink, made from fermented sugar
cane juice. The cane is cut and squeezed, dripping the juice
into a large hollowed out gourd. The gourd is placed underground
and left for a week or so to undergo natural fermentation.
It is often flavoured with coffee at the time of consuming,
and is only consumed during a celebration; most commonly
weddings and during puberty rites. It is during this latter
occaison that I was able to guzzle Chicha!
a young girl in the village of Moremaketupu had recently
received her first period (no secret in a small Kuna town,
see Congreso notes above) and the town quickly began preparing
for a celebration.
On the day of celebration, Yugea is dressed in the traditional
Kuna attire (molas, facepainting and uini) for the first
time. Early in the evening, the whole village crowds to
the Chicha hut, and the grog is doled out in small bowls
from gourds. Men and women sit separately, and 5 or 6 people
drink at a time, starting with the chief(s), being served
by a group of volunteers. Each gourd-bowl holds about 2
cups of the liquid, and drinkers are obliged to finish their
serving; to not finish is to anger God, and to warrant teasing
from friends and family.
Chicha tastes slightly sweet and cider-like and is probably
the same strength as strong beer (5-7%). The flavour and
aroma of coffee is also quite strong. One might describe
it as a sort of primitive Kahlua. Not bad; I liked it so
much, I drank about 8 servings. From that point on, the
party got a little hazy.
Yugea received a haircut (by tipsy Chicha drinkers, no
doubt) in her home as part of the ceremony, and is later
sat down in the hut with a cloth over her head. Her outstretched
hands are filled with shots of water and strong liquor,
the first to cleanse the palette, the latter to ruin it.
Later, I find myself sitting next to the Sahila (who is
100 years old), with my arm around his shoulder, laughing
and singing songs in the Kuna language (I mummed the words),
and listening to villagers playing the pan flutes. Our group
whips out some harmonicas and pretty soon we get a jam session
going with the Chief. We laugh until tears are practically
rolling down our faces and our sides are aching. The Chicha
is mostly to blame for such behaviour.
In midst of the debauchery, I turn to the Chief, and noticing
his translator has disappeared, I realize this is my big
opportunity to get some Sahila wisdom! The raw deal from
the source itself! A piece of the puzzle! The search! The
Exchanging pie-eyed glances, I ask the chief in Spanish,
"Sahila. I have a question. What is the meaning of
life? What is the most important thing to remember in this
He looked me straight in the eye, nodded, and after a few
moments, he said....
Hmm. The search continues.