A day with the Embera Indians

Today we visited an Embera Indian village north of Panama City. It was a fascinating experience providing an opportunity to learn first-hand about their culture and how they live. To reach the village, we traveled by road for about an hour out of Panama City towards Colon, and then about 30 minutes by dugout canoe down a river and across a lake. The village has no road access.

The Embera are one of eight indigenous groups that live in different parts of Panama. Sometimes the Embera and Wounaan (which have similar cultures but speak different languages) are referred to as Chocoe Indians, so that’s why there are references to there being seven indigenous groups, rather than eight. The village we visited comprised 16 families, most of whom were relocated from the Darien Gap about 15 years ago (due to raids on their villages by FARC guerrillas from Colombia).

It was a wonderful day. We were welcomed by one of the village chiefs, and it looked like the whole village came out to meet us.
Later the village medicine man showed us around, and then they cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and fried plantains.

It was so peaceful (the visitors comprised just four people – me, my wife, an American film maker and a guide/interpreter) and so far removed from the reality of modern day living, that when it came time to leave in the afternoon, we really didn't want to go.

This teenage girl looked so sad the whole time we were there (but I took quite a few photographs of her as she was very photogenic). I guess she was about 13 or 14 and maybe suffering ‘puberty blues’. In the Embera culture, girls get married soon after puberty. Most are married between 14 and 17. They will marry only other Embera or Wounaan. It is rare for them to leave their villages to live in the ‘outside world’. It’s hard to know whether they are better off living the simple lifestyle that their culture provides, or whether they should be given the opportunity to join the modern world. That’s a question that can be debated for hours.

This little girl was another that I photographed quite a lot during the day as she had a cheeky smile and was happy to be photographed.
These children (they looked to be between 4 and 7 years old) were paddling a large dugout canoe across the lake to feed some monkeys living on a island in the lake. They were doing it without any adult supervision. Parents in western countries would probably freak out at kids so young doing something like that, but I guess in the Embera culture this is how kids have fun.

The medicine man told us about some of the many medicinal plants that they grow in the village. Illnesses are treated almost entirely with herbal remedies. All of the villagers looked very healthy, so I guess his remedies must be effective.

He also told us that he is alive because of this tree. He said his mother drank a tea made from the leaves when she was 60 years old – way past menopause – after which she gave birth to him.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took at the Embera Indian village, please follow this link:

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