Learning from the Embera of the Panamanian Rainforest

Reporting on a January 2023 trip

Arriving in Embera Quera was like arriving in paradise.

On the way to the village, as our dugout boat was gliding through the rainforest, we saw toucans, sloths, and capuchin monkeys, and heard the unmistakable rumble of the howler monkeys disturbed by our noise.

There were cows in the clearings and occasional fishermen.
No crocodiles, though we heard there are plenty, as are the snakes.

The waterways our native guide took continue into the inner valleys of the Darien Peninsula, which leads into Colombia, and further into the Amazon region, to whose people the Embera are related.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the villagers in beaded skirts and wraps, men drumming and women dancing.
Do they dress the same way when the tourists are not around? I doubt it. But it certainly made it special.

What was authentic though was to see a one-room classroom hut educating all of the village kids, watch bare feet stomping terra cota red earth in a circle dance, observe the artisans working achiote-colored grass strands into baskets and masks representing the jai, and others carving tree nuts into the netsuke-like figurines of the creatures of the forest.

My daughter and I bought these handicrafts for very little. You do not bargain with the Embera, we’ ‘d been told. They set their prices low based on the days of labor it took to create them. There is no overhead.

And we lunched on the plantains grown among the huts and fish from the river that had brought us to the village.

The Embera live on a government-deeded land in a semi-autonomous region of Panama housing many indigenous tribes. The village has no running water, and the electricity comes on for only several hours a day, via a generator. There are no plugs in the walls of their huts; the huts, in fact, have no walls, only elevated platforms and thatched roofs.

And yet, there is a pull to stay home, rather than move to Panama City, the modern, urban, financial heart of Central America. The village provides the basics, and the rhythm of life is slower.

I learned some things about the Embera beliefs from the local guide – a young woman who spoke both Spanish and Embera – and the village jaibaná (shaman) told us quite a bit about the traditional beliefs. Some of them are summarized in the “Embera” entry in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures (2019).

Emberá religion is centered on invisible forces called jai. These constitute the essence of things, natural phenomena, animals, and people. They belong to nature, and only the shaman (jaibaná) can see and control them. . . Illness occurs when these elements, which must be kept separate in everyday life, unite; they must then be separated anew by the shaman. The Emberá are emphatic in their belief that the jai are [not spirits, but] material forces or energies. They also believe in “mothers” or “root stocks” of animals—for example, the mother of fish, or the mother of peccaries.

A beautiful village and a memorable experience.

PS. Panama is famous for its wide variety of huacas, poisonous dart frogs, often represented in indigenous / pre-Columbian jewelry and pottery, as well as sloths and butterflies. All photos are taken in the Caribbean rainforest near Embera Quera.

© Lane Igoudin, 2023

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