Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Child´s Play

  Dispatches from the developing world often use images of children living in poverty to tug at our heartstrings and evoke pity and maybe a little guilt at our own comfortable lifestyles. But relax, this blog post won’t be like that.
  It's not that the kids here don’t live in poverty—by World Bank measures our people are clearly among the 86 percent of indigenous Panamanians that live in “extreme” poverty. And it would be easy enough to frame up some cringe-worthy photos.  But I’d rather focus on the up side of a Ngäbe kid’s life.
  Although kids here have  no T.V.’s or video games, no books or tinker toys, no soccer teams or karate lessons, they do have the forest, the creeks and the sea, and lots of other kids who are determined to find ways to have fun. And most importantly they have the freedom to go for it.
  There is also plenty of work to be done, and most kids have their share of chores to do: washing clothes in the quebrada,
helping carry food down from the finca,
 or catching and cleaning the little minnows  known as sardinas that provide some much needed protein when there are no bigger fish to fry.
And to cook it all up takes a lot of firewood, which has to be hauled down from the forest in impressive chakras loaded to the breaking point,
over terrain that would certainly break all safety standards and child labor norms  in our world.
And for the girls, there is the minding of younger children -- there are always younger children to be minded.
  ...and boys can be seen wielding  machetes at a shockingly young age to fend off the ever encroaching monte.
But does it look like these guys are whining about it?
  It’s no great revelation that all the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle don´t necessarily equate with a happy childhood, or that a kid can have fun without a bunch of store-bought toys. And for kids, having fun is what it’s all about once the most basic needs are more or less met. Where these kids really excel and have it all over their counterparts in the developed world is their ability to invent ways to have fun.

There are toy boats whittled from the locally abundant balsa wood,

and even hand carved tops, cleverly tipped with a broken off  piece of a nail.
  When the breezy months arrive, kites fashioned from sticks and old plastic bags become all the rage. I'm not sure where the little stickers came from, but they work brilliantly to hold it all together...
... and with a little spare fishing line and some room to run, you´re in business.
  No X-Box?  Try this; flatten out a pop bottle cap with a rock, poke a pair of holes in it with a nail, unravel some plastic string from an old rice bag and make a loop  to thread through the holes.. Set the bottle cap spinning by rhytmicallly tightening and loosening the tension on the loop and you’ve got yourself a toy that can entertain for hours.
 The real fun though is matching up with your friends to see who can cut the other's string with your "battling bottle caps".
No one would ever accuse Ngäbes of being overprotective "helicopter" parents, hovering over their offspring and swooping in to save them from experiencing their lumps, and I have to admit  there are things to envy in the freedom these kids have to go out and play. I'm pretty sure that building a fire is something that universally appeals to kids. What could be better than building a fire right under your house? Mom won´t mind.
  A while back, all the kids were making bows and arrows, some of them with some pretty serious arrow points- They used then for shooting at fish and crabs and stuff down by the shore. It seemed pretty dangerous to me, but I´m glad to report the tally of eyes put out is still at zero.
  It's not that Ngäbe parents don´t love and take care of their kids. They do, especially when they're tiny babies,
   And they have lots of them. Six or seven children per family is still about average here.
  Teen pregnancy is the norm, but it doesn´t cause a lot of hand-wringing.  Having babies is what women do, and they embrace that role. After all, there´s no angst wasted on questions of balancing carreer and motherhood. Motherhood is the only carreer of women here.
Grandmothers continue in their childrearing role, since daughters almost never leave home to start their families.  Ngäbe society is basically matricarchal and the norm is for a man to move in with his woman´s family, at least to live there part time, and eventually build a house next to theirs.

  All in all it makes for a pretty full life for the kids. And if you're a kid who's lucky enough to have a Peace Corps volunteer living your town, well, you can go over and play on his porch and look at his books or maybe help out with little projects,
or even share a late supper of beans and rice, 
or maybe just hang out being a kid and remind him of just how lucky he is to be living out a dream. That's when it all really does seem like child's play.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Still Afloat

After such a long hiatus from posting to this blog I've been feeling a little writer's block. So instead of trying to talk about all the things I've been up to I'm just going to  break the ice again with a little snapshot of my life in Peace Corps Panama ,

  I took a few days away from my home in Bahía Azul and paddled across the bay where a trail leads over to a community called Playa Balsa, where my fellow volunteer and very good friend Charles lives. It's also one of the most stunningly beautiful places you could ever hope to visit, let alone live and work.
    This wasn't a vacation though. I went to help out with construction of a small water storage tank for an aqueduct the town is building. The local men had already done some of the hardest physical work you can imagine, hauling tons of rock, sand, rebar and cement through treacherously muddy forest trails and up the steep hills|to where the the water tank was to be built. Making this hike empty handed left me winded, so loading a 95 pound bag of cement into a chakara and strapping it to my head like the muchachos were doing never even entered my mind.

We broke ground and started setting up forms, and some girls carried a bucket of water up from a nearby stream to make chicha to drink.

 Each day while we worked with a crew of men on the hilltop, women were preparing lunch down in town.

 Boiled green bananas with rice and little sardines might not be considered gourmet cuisine, but it certainly is filling

The work days were long and hard, but the tank construction went great. The rains came and went with fortuitous timing and we got the foundation , floor, and first level of walls all poured as planned.

The day I was heading for home, clouds moved in and I walked the forty five minutes back to the bay in a steady warm rain that was drenching, but at the same time welcome. Another forty minutes of paddling and I was back home, back in my hut, relaxing in my hammmock, weary but satisfied,  warmed by a nice glass of rum and the images of loved ones in the glow of the candles, very, very happy to still be afloat here in Panama.

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