About 12 miles off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, there lies an archipelago of 365 islands known as the San Blas Islands or more recently Kula Yala. They are the home of the Kuna, the indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. The Kuna believe there is one island for each day of the year but inhabit only 49 islands. The remoteness of these coral islands protect the Kuna, who prize their traditions above modernity. Living miles away from one of the most important commercial and financial centres of the Central America, the Kuna are still fishermen and handicraft makers whose main sources of income are ecotourism and selling their produce.
We visited two islands, one they kept for tourism and the other that they lived on, and they were vastly different. On the island that they kept for tourism, there were beautiful and clean beaches , very photogenic palm trees, around a dozen wooden cabins to rent and a small market for basic needs. There were the traditional fishing boats – the cayuco, so I am guessing one could easily get some fresh fish and lobsters as well. All in all, it was another tropical paradise.
The island that the Kuna lived on was totally different and much more interesting. From a distance it looked like a shanty town, or more correctly a shanty island. And it was one. It was small and instead of beaches, it was full of narrow alleys, huts with thatched roofs and people. There was no real infrastructure, sanitation or electricity, although here and there we could see some solar panels. And there were no beaches on this coral island. There were a few huts selling cold drinks in old refrigerators working with gasoline. Children were running around at a small square where there was a school and a tiny clinic. Two little boys were showing off their acrobatic talents to impress their cute girl friends.
Most of the huts were covered with mola – a colourful textile art form made with the techniques of applique. They are hand sewn layered panels depicting geometrical shapes, plants , beasts and birds. The Kuna were once painting the same figures on their bodies, in later years these same designs were woven in cotton, and later still, sewn using cloth bought from the European settlers of Panama. Today, they are a major income item for the community.
Mola panels are used to make the blouses of the Kuna women’s national dress, the tulemola, which is worn daily by many. And the Kuna women like to dress up. Most wear colourful dresses and on their arms they wear multicoloured beaded bracelets, known as chaquiras which are believed to protect against evil spirits. As women everywhere , they like their gold as well.
Most of the women have mola stands in front of their huts and wait for the tourists to come and buy their products. But there was one young mother who was a true entrepreneur. She had trained a loro i.e. a small parrot to stand on the head of her cute baby daughter and every time the parrot was near the little girl was shrieking with laughter. It was a lovely sight that made people que in front of her mola stand to take photos and to shop.
Although they have their own language, the Kuna, the Kuna people speak some essential Spanish – un dolar por agua, cinco dolares por mola , so we got by easily.
Reading about the Kuna culture, I learned that they are a matriarchal society. After the marriage the groom moves into his wife’s house and takes her name. They have their own deities who are still important in the daily life. The Kuna are governed by Saila – a political and religious chief , who uses songs which relate the sacred history of the people to interpret today’s challenges and decides best ways to cope with them. Politics is mostly a man’s job.
I left Kuna Yala with mixed feelings. The Kuna are an independent people and there lies the magic and the problems. Although some Kuna are leaving their comarcas for higher education and more paying jobs in Panama, most are devoted to their traditions and ways of living. They have their songs, lullabies, rites of passages, chants and pride. But of course they want better schools, better sanitation and healthcare.
Perhaps the most striking thing about of Kuna society is simply that it has managed to survive. After centuries of contact with Europeans, the Kuna emerged in the 21st century with their cultural and political autonomy largely intact, a fact which singles them out as member of a small minority among the Latin American Indigenous groups.
I wish them well for the future. It will not be an easy one, but they have managed quite well so far.