Port of Call
Cristobal, Panama - A Day with the Kuna People , Jun 15, 2013
Children and women in brightly coloured traditional clothes welcome us to the Kuna settlement.
The Republic of Panama became an independent nation in 1903. Formerly a department of Colombia (1821 - independence) it was an important Spanish colony for around 300 years. Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1501, Panama was densely inhabited by a number of indigenous peoples whose kinship groups extended into the Caribbean as well as South America and along the isthmus as far north as Honduras.? Panama's current indigenous population consitute about 8% of the population of the country and can be divided into three distinct groups the Ngobe-Bugle (Guaymi) Kuna and the Choco (Embera-Wounan)

At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Kuna were living in the area which became Colombia. They have since migrated into what is now Panama and live mainly in three comarca indígena, politically autonomous reservations which have a large indigenous population. The participants of Peace Boat's 79th voyage visited one of these settlements when the Ocean Dream docked in Colón at the port of Cristobal.

A delicious feast prepared by the Kuna women
At the settlement, participants were greeted by many children, a flood of colour and a sea of curious looks. They were ushered into a small hall adorned with numerous colourful crafts made by the Kuna women. After an introductory speech by the community elder, the group was invited into the Casa Communal or communal house where a beautiful lunch had been laid out.

We feasted on traditional Kuna fare of fried fish, coconut rice, sweet plantain, seafood soup and tropical fruit and washed it down with delicious fresh pineapple juice. The food had been prepared by the Kuna women who laughed at how quickly and eagerly we ate the food.

A Mola expert shows how it's done.
After lunch, the Peace Boat participants were put to work! They learned how to make Mola, the beautiful artwork that adorns all traditional Kuna clothes. The Mola is made from layers of coloured cloth, painstakingly sewed on top of each other. Mola are detailed, intricate and stunning. making them also takes years of practice.

The Peace Boat participants took part in a workshop where they were taught the technique of cutting, tacking, folding and sewing the layers of fabric together. The talented and industrious Kuna craftswomen who taught them how to make the Mola had finished almost half of their sewing in the time that it took the visitors to stitch a line or two giving them a greater appreciation of the art form and also the sheer amount of work involved in making Mola. The Mola that the women design and make bring in a significant amount of money for the community. Indeed, within matriarchal and matrilineal Kuna tribes, the women are often the main breadwinners.

La Tribu, wows the audience with its unexpected and highly infectious fusion of traditional Kuna melodies and ska.
Having worked hard at their Mola, the group from Peace Boat were rewarded with special dance performances by the children and the adults of the community. The traditional dances they saw depicted ancient legends and had been handed down from generation to generation. They were grateful for the huge effort that they must have put in to prepare these performances for us.

After the traditional dances, they were treated to a truly standout performance by a group of four young men. Combining their love for rock music and their pride in Kuna culture, the band which calls itself La Tribu, played an infectious and energetic fusion of traditional Kuna melodies on flute set to thumping rock or ska beats and accompanied by electric and bass guitar. The mixture was refreshingly creative, incredibly catchy and 100% original.

Peace Boat participants show their appreciation for the hospitality they received with a rendition of the song Voy a Cantar con la Esperanza.
The Peace Boat participants decided to perform for the community to thank them for their wonderful cultural performances and the welcome they had received. A few of the participants performed a song called 'Voy a Cantar con la Esperanza' (We will Sing with Hope), a song from the onboard musical A Common Beat for which they were in the process of rehearsing. They also taught the community a simple Bon Festival dance which everyone all danced together. It was fantastic to see how easy it is to communicate without language when singing and dancing are involved. The children of the community were particularly adept at mastering the steps of the dance they were taugt and took it upon themselves to teach their parents and other adults.

Peace Boat participants take a walk through the village accompanied by some of the local children.
After the cultural performances, the group took a walk around the village with the children of the community. The small, unembellished brick houses did not all have phonelines or electrical wiring and members of the community explained that even the houses that did have access to electricity did not benefit from an uninterrupted supply. Power outages were common and as such many still relied on mini, portable generators and in the worst case, candlelight.

Set in the lush green countryside, the community lives with few amenities and generally enjoys a simple lifestyle with little influence from the outside. There are, however, some serious social problems among the Kuna including alcoholism and the use of illicit drugs. Many young people are opting to leave the community for the city in search of greater wealth, excitement and opportunities - and they are not coming back.

The children of the settlement enjoyed playing with the Peace Boat participants.
During the walk around the village, the group from Peace Boat learned more about the threats to Kuna culture. Many of the school-going children in the community only speak Spanish are not likely to be able to pass on the Kuna language to their own children in the future. This is a great source of worry for the adults who easily switch between Kuna and Spanish.

By making Mola and other traditional craft, by wearing traditional clothes and by speaking the Kuna language, the people of the community are trying to keep their culture alive. To the Indigenous Kuna people, culture and the sense of community are very important. It was clear to all how close the community is: Everybody knows everybody; families look after each others' children and the little boys and girls refer to the other children as "brother" and "sister".

The Peace Boat participants pose for a picture with their new friends at the end of a long but enjoyable day.
The visit to the Kuna settlement will remain one of the most enjoyable experiences of the 79th Global Voyage for many Peace Boat participants. They learned so much about the Kuna people and felt so thoroughly accepted and welcome by the community.

Before leaving, Peace Boat presented the community with some gifts for the community collected by Peace Boat participants in Japan to show appreciation for the day including clothes, shoes and toys for the children and most importantly, reams of coloured fabric and a sewing machine for the women of the community, which can be used to make the Mola which is of such great economic and cultural importance.

Peace Boat thanks the kind people of the Kuna community for their warm hospitality and hope to be back to visit again soon.