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Losing Identity in the Camarka: The Plight of Ngöbe People

Losing identity in the Camarka: The plight of the Ngöbe people


By Amanda Wheat

20 November 2010
With huts made of dirt and penka leaves, wood stoves for cooking and warmth, and the dark illuminated only recently by flashlights, the Ngöbe people live a quite simple and isolated life in the mountains of central Panama. But change is softly stirring this peaceful community. Ngöbere, the spoken language, is no longer being taught to the village children, though it’s still used by 170,000 indigenous Panamanians, and despite a lack of electricity, expensive modern utilities like cell phones have found their way into the hands of Ngöbe youths.

“It is the roads that have brought change,” said Klaus Geiger, resident Peace Corps Volunteer in the 500-person Ngöbe village Aguacatal. “Before the main road was introduced, Ngöbes would have to travel six hours by foot to get to the nearest town, but now it takes only one hour’s hike to get to the main road. Thus, the Latino culture has been able to permeate Aguacatal, providing things like cell phones which these people don’t need and definitely can’t afford.”

Inhabiting the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas, the approximately 170,000 Ngöbe are the largest of Panama’s seven indigenous groups. Their territory once stretched from the Pacific to the Caribbean but Spanish conquistadors pushed many of them into the mountains of central Panama in the early 1500s. This central region, called the Camarka, did not become a semi-autonomous state until 1997. After more than 100 years of fighting, 400 men, women, and children marched 250 miles to Panama City and demanded their autonomy.

However, gaining some measure of self-governance has not solved all Ngöbe problems. Today, the battle to hold onto their heritage is slipping through the cracks of a broken education system. Since the Camarka schools receive funding from the central government of Panama, it is the central government that defines the curriculum. Today this curriculum no longer includes the native Nöbere language. Instead Ngöbe children are only taught Spanish.

Esperanza Ortega, one of six staff teachers at Aguacatal’s primary school told MediaGlobal, “I think it’s incredibly important for Ngöbe culture’s survival to at least teach the language in school, but we only have one teacher who knows the language, so how can we be expected to teach it to 300 kids?”

Indeed, the village has one school for its 300 children, and only one of the six teachers is Ngöbe. His name is Teodoro Tugrí. In interview with MediaGlobal he explained that, “The history of education is a difficult one here in the Camarka. First we fought for the right to even have an education system in place for our children, now we fight for the right to maintain our culture in that education system.”

Before 1978, the Ngöbe education system was purely voluntary. Teachers gave their time and those children who wanted to learn were taught. But in 1978, under the administration of Gen. Omar Torrijos, the right to educational funding from the republic of Panama was won and the system began to grow.

Funding came with consequences as the Ngöbe people had little control over what aspects of the curriculum would be funded. Teachers were brought in from urban areas with little knowledge of the Ngöbe culture or language, and no funding has been granted to hire indigenous teachers to keep the heritage alive.

Under Tugrí’s leadership, small Ngöbere initiatives are underway. He has instituted an annual “Concurso,” or spelling competition, conducted in Ngöbere which has been in place for three years now. Friday afternoons, he goes to the nearest town, Tole, and teaches Ngöbere at the public library; Saturdays, he teaches in Cerro Sombrero at the university level.

But can one man be responsible for the perpetuation of an entire language? “I want the culture to survive, but we need funding and more teachers who speak and understand the language,” said Tugrí.

Geiger added, “Already it is visible in the village that the younger children have only a basic Ngöbere knowledge relative to the older generations. If funding doesn’t come for a Ngöbere language program, it’s only a matter of time before the language is lost completely.”

ENDS

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