Site Meter
Send Us An Email
Panama Guide

Welcome to Panama Guide
Wednesday, September 03 2014 @ 12:35 AM EDT

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

History & ReferenceBy Amanda Wheat [MediaGlobal]: 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.” (more)

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.”

  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks

Story Options

Losing identity in the Camarka: The plight of the Ngöbe people | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Losing identity in the Camarka: The plight of the Ngöbe people
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, November 21 2010 @ 05:18 PM EST

Pretty arrogant of Klaus, who probably has a cell phone and gets to leave the comarca occasionally for provisions, a warm bath, and dinner at Bennigan's, to proclaim that he knows what the Ngobe need and don't need. These are tough issues, because I support indigenous cultural preservation as much as anyone else, but at the same time it's patronizing to say that a certain group doesn't need development that we have embraced. That road that brings in vice also can carry out a sick newborn that might otherwise die.

Losing identity in the Camarka: The plight of the Ngöbe people
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, November 21 2010 @ 09:05 PM EST

The Ngobes need an economy culture costs money - in North America - Ngobes or Native Americans/First Nations people support their culture from their own businesses or grants from the Governments of United States and Canada. It does not cost any money for parents to teach their kids their traditional language - the problem in the Comarca is that there is no economy, poor leadership and a culture of poverty.

Even the dresses the women wear were introduced by the Church - take a look at any photo of a Ngobe before 1930 and the men and women wore much different clothing.

As for their history - you bet the Spanish were bastards to these people - the people ran away to the highlands as this land was shitty for agriculture - however today this shitty land holds a serious treasure in copper and hydro potential.

I really hope the Ngobes in the Comarca to use their law #10 to develop the Comarca as I believe under Article 48 of the law the Ngobe have the right to participate in any and all natural resource based projects.

I have also heard that there is a large group of Ngobes called Jadran out in Nidrini pushing for their piece of Cerro Colorado - as owners of this 33 billion pound copper deposit (at $ 4.00 per pound) these Ngobes could use the proceeds of the sale of their concession to fund a lot of bilingual education programs in the Comarca - not mention kick start their economy - just like Ngobes in North America....