Local Woman Serves Ngabe Community in Panama

Learning how to make a kra from kika with the Ngabe community women.

On Monday, April 10, Chelsea Rozanski, a Peace Corps volunteer, spoke to a group at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center about her experiences serving the Ngabe indigenous people of Panama. Ms. Rozanski, whose parents live in Georgetown, entered the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in Anthropology as well as Women and Gender Studies.

“For a year and a half, I have lived with the Ngabe people,” Ms. Rozanski explained.  “Peace Corps requires a 27-month commitment and we spent the first ten weeks going through training. I was placed in the environmental health program where we work with locals to educate them on healthy water sources, waste treatment and other environmental factors.”

Ms. Rozanski explained that the Ngabe people were one of three cultures in the area where she lived. The Kuna Yola and Embera making up the other two. The Ngabe speak Spanish for the most part, but there are also dialects that can vary from region to region. Ms. Rozanski said that the people are substance farmers that grow crops for consumption as well as to sell. Crops include cacao to make chocolate, bananas, yucca, sweet potatoes and heart of palm.

“They are a very traditional people,” Ms. Rozanski explained. “They use natural products to make traditional clothing. I learned to peel and beat pasanto bark to make material the people use for underwear. They also make chacara, woven purses out of recycled plastic bags or leaves of the a banana plant. The women create dyes from plants and seeds to color the bags which they make by hand with no loom. It takes them about a day to strip the fibers and about a week to weave the fabric by hand.”

Ms. Rozanski lived in Renacimiento which means “rebirth.” The area is a 20 minute hike into the mountains, so it contains many waterfalls. It is about an hour and a half hike to the ocean where the people fish. The area was once part of a larger community but gained independence which is where the name originated.

“All the homes are wooden, although they used to be formed from tree trunks or bamboo,” Ms. Rozanski explained. “Now they have roofs made out of zinc although many are still thatched. All the homes are raised due to heavy rains in the tropical climate. We are surrounded by jungles so there is quite a bit of wildlife. We often see monkeys and there are a lot of sloths which the natives call ‘oso perisoco’ which means lazy bears. We must wear rubber boots when we hike into the mountains due to the poisonous snakes in the area.”

Ms. Rozanski said there is a daily meal in the community that usually consists of rice, rice with coconut, boiled green bananas or a stew made of chicken and callaloo, which is a type of green. Often meals consist of rice with boiled root vegetables. There is also a considerable amount of fish in the diet.

“Once, two young boys brought a boa into town that they had killed while hiking,” Ms. Rozanski said. “I asked what they planned to do with the snake and they told me they were going to throw it away. I explained that there was a lot of meat in the snake, but they were afraid to eat it, thinking it was poisonous. I tried to explain that a boa is not poisonous and that it kills by constricting, but they didn’t believe me. My boyfriend and I cut the head and tail off, gutted and cleaned it. We cooked it over an open fire and ate it. They thought we were crazy, but it really tastes a lot like chicken although it smelled a little fishy. Most of the people refused to eat it, thinking it would kill them.”

There are only 160 people in the village where Ms. Rozanski lives and they must travel long distances to work. There is one small store in the area that sells some supplies like spaghetti, rice and other staples. The locals use a bus to get to the store and it is there that Ms. Rozanski can get internet service. Ms. Rozanski said that although it is a small community, there are five churches in the area.

One of the projects Ms. Rozanski was in charge of completing was creating rainwater tanks. The community has only river water as a water source, but it has a high bacteria level which leads to intestinal issues. Ms. Rozanski said that they created rainwater tanks from concrete by filling a form bag with leaves and wrapping chicken wire around it. The bag is then coated with layers of cement. When the cement sets, the leaves and sticks are removed. Each tank holds 85 gallons of water. She completed one for her home first and when the community saw the value of the tanks, she applied for and received a grant to make ten more. The community members performed the labor to create the additional tanks.

“They must constantly conserve water and prepare for times when it is not raining,” Ms. Rozanski said. “The rainwater tanks are used for cooking and drinking. We use the aqueduct water from the river for showering, laundry and other household needs. We also spend a lot of time explaining the importance of hand washing. The people make soap out of natural materials.”

Waste disposal is also a problem, Ms. Rozanski said. “Latrines are usually compost latrines that are above ground. There is a long tube attached to a box that is slanted, allowing the waste to flow onto the ground. Every two or three days, a layer of wood chips is placed over the waste. Every six months to a year, they remove the seating chamber and plant a tree where the latrine was. The tree gets the nutrients from the waste and another latrine is built nearby.”

Ms. Rozanski said that her term in the Peace Corps ends soon. She will return to Panama in May to finish her term. When she returns home in August, she will begin working at Indian River School District as a Spanish immersion teacher. She said she entered the Peace Corps because she loved learning about other cultures and volunteering to help people. She recommends anyone who wants to immerse themselves in another culture to volunteer for the organization.

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