It has been over a year since I was fortunate enough to spend a day with the Embera Indians in Panama and I still feel just as angry and sad as did the day I left; angry at missionaries who won’t leave them alone and sad for the people of the village who will soon lose their identity.
When I arrived, via dug-out canoe, the villagers were lined up near the shore line playing a welcome song on their handmade instruments. As I walked up the dock they each came to me, shook my hand and welcomed me to their village, even the smallest of the children- big smiles and open hearts. Dressed in colorful garb, covering just the “important parts”; the women wore red hibiscus wreaths in their hair, brightly-patterned wrap-around skirts with bra-tops made from shiny nickels and dimes. The men were shirtless with only a loin cloth covering their man-parts and everyone, from the youngest infant to the eldest villager, were covered in a henna-like ink. The ink is made from the berry of a native plant is used as not only decoration but also as a bug repellent.
It was a magical day spent just hanging out- chatting, eating and learning about each other’s culture. They had as many questions for me as I did for them. The Medicine Man took me on a tour of the village, pointing out different plants and telling me about their medicinal properties. He told me a bit about their agriculture and their faith in nature.
It was quite literally the most delightful experience of my life. No one had a care in the world. The villagers just went about their business of cooking and napping and playing and chatting. And although the first hour or so was a little uncomfortable for me, I quickly became acclimated and felt like I was a part of their community.
The day I went was a very special day. Not only was it Miguel’s birthday, but they were also celebrating the new community structure that had just been completed. It was an impressive bit of architecture built using the same techniques that the Embera had been using for centuries. One large log in the center and smaller logs that make up the rest of the frame. There are no walls, only a thatched roof made from large palm fronds. (Before they were booted from their land just a few years ago, all of their materials came from the area in which they lived. However, since the Panamanian government moved them to a “reservation”, much like the American Indians, they Embera now have to buy logs for their buildings as it is against the law for them to cut down trees –that’s a rant for another day.)
On to the point of this essay- MISSIONARIES
As I was saying, it was a special day. It was Miguel’s birthday and the new building was complete- those are two pretty good reasons to celebrate, no? Of course they are! But guess who showed up to do it “right”. You guessed it, missionaries. In this case it happened to be a Catholic Bishop and two nuns, but it could have easily been any other denomination.
You see, the bishop wanted to “bless” the structure- apparently he didn’t think that whatever the Embera had been doing for hundreds, possibly thousands of years was good enough, so he came with his rosary and bible and probably some holy water, to bless this new building. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I missed the actual ceremony as it happened just before I got there, but my guide/interpreter told me about the goings on. He told me that this bishop had been visiting the village for the last few years, teaching them about Christ and the bible and encouraging them to build a chapel at the top of the hill where their homes were located.
The bishop also arranged for other missionaries to come to the village back in 2008 to give them running water and while this sounds like a noble cause, it comes with consequence.
When the Embera were free, they were somewhat nomadic, and were always sure to live near clean, running water. However, when the government moved them to the reservation, not all of the villages were near drinkable water. This particular village was now a mile from the nearest drinkable water and therefore had to walk back and forth with buckets the closest spring daily.
While this was not as convenient for the Indians as having the spring run through their village, they were used to acclimating themselves to the necessities of their circumstances. They did not complain; they just dealt with it- just as they had with any other inconvenience they had to “suffer” in decades past.
If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “what’s wrong with providing them with running water?” When the medicine man took me on the tour and showed me the spigot, and my guide explained to me where it came from, I said, “oh wow! That’s cool!” That’s when he explained to me that, no, it really wasn’t. He said that since that spigot had been provided, the villagers had become lazy. Not only were they no longer walking the distance to get the water, but they were becoming more and more dependent on outsiders to bring them things that, until now, were never necessities.
CAKE AND ICE CREAM!
The bishop and his nuns had brought a tub of ice cream and a sheet cake to celebrate Miguel’s birthday, along with disposable plates and utensils. A thoughtful gesture? Sure, IF YOU LIVE IN A CITY WITH A TRASH DUMP AND A DIGESTIVE TRACT THAT’S USED TO CONSUMING DAIRY AND LOADS OF SUGAR!!!
Do you see where I’m going with this? This bishop and his nuns and all the other missionaries out there who are “just trying to help” will eventually make this tribe and every other tribe of indigenous people EXTINCT by converting them to Christianity, making them sick and creating a dependency that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
These amazingly beautiful, happy, peaceful, nature-loving people will become poisoned with diabetes, guilt, shame and “civilization” all because the “civilized Christians” think the “uncivilized” can’t survive without them or their god.
After lunch, I got to sit down and have a chat with the chief. He spoke a little English, but not enough to communicate, so my guide translated for us. I asked him if they believe in god, he said, “we believe in nature” and when I asked him how he felt about the bishop wanting to build a church, he just shrugged his shoulders. My guide explained to me that it’s not their culture to say “no”. Not because they think it’s a good idea, but because they think it’s rude to turn down an offer.
So regardless of your religious beliefs or dis-beliefs, the next time you think you’re helping someone, ask yourself, “am I helping myself more?” Because while your intentions may be good, all actions have reactions and sometimes those reactions are more like consequences.
As for the Embera, my best guess is that they’ll continue being polite, the missionaries will continue bringing them cake and “wisdom” and eventually, the Embera will become another extinct society. Only they won’t die off, or vanish overnight- they’ll be swallowed up by those who “meant well” but were oblivious to their self-serving motives.