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Finding Love in a War Zone

In the "Cult of Escapism": Finding Love in a War Zone

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Finding Love in a War Zone

Me:  You see in the States, you don´t have to marry the first woman you have a relationship with; you can have relationships for a few months or a few years and if you are no longer in love after a while, you can both see someone new.

Old, Extremely Short Ngöbe Woman I Wasn´t Talking to: I have a question…I am part of a religion, a religion where men respect women.  Can we still work together? 

Dating in the Comarca
I have been touring the various businesses of Soloy, giving a presentation that introduces Peace Corps, my particular program, and myself and my qualifications.  After finishing one such presentation to a group of women that own a local store, I got hit with the above dialogue and ended up trying to defend the American dating system to an old, extremely short Ngöbe woman (did I mention how short she was?).  She claimed that what I was describing was infedility - I countered saying that it is only infidelity if you have relations with someone else, while you are dating someone.

This didn´t work because dating doesn´t exist in Ngöbe society and I had to dodge a carefully aimed kick from her tiny leg.  There is often no official marraige ceremony, but the minute you start ¨seeing¨ someone, you are expected to spend the rest of your life with them and crank out 8-12 babies in the process.  This relationship typically begins around the ages of 13-17.  As such, there are a lot of single mothers in the Comarca and a lot of mistresses, extra marrital affairs, cases of domestic violence, etc.

So my first reaction to Shorty´s comment was, ¨Bullshit.¨    

Fearing a lifelong curse that would cause me to grow shorter each month, I didn´t say this out loud and instead tried to explain that Americans tend to try and marry out of love and you don´t always get it right the first try.  The other women understood this (I´ve had this conversation several times and the reaction is typically, ¨Hey, that sounds pretty good.¨)  But Shorty was not having it.  And the way she was talking to me, I was beginning to think that she was something more than just an extremely judgemental, conservative Catholic.  I asked her if this religion of hers was Mama Tata and she looked away without answering.  


Mama Tata
It was a dark and stormy night…except it was during the day and it wasn´t raining.  A young Ngöbe woman named Besiko was standing by the river, when all of a sudden the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ appeared in front of her, holding machetes and the severed heads of two newborn deer.  Ok, they weren´t actually holding those things but they did tell her that the Ngöbes have taken enough crap from the outside world and it was time to take pride in their heritage by way of a new religion.  From my understanding, the unoffical Five Commandments of Mama Tata are the following:

1 – Outsiders are the devil.
2 – Outsiders are not to be trusted, as they are, or closely resemble, the devil.
3 – Outsiders are nothing but trouble and may in fact be the devil.
4 –Did I mention not to trust outsiders?
5 – Apart from commandments 1-4, we will behave exactly like Christians.

I live in the district of Besiko.  This young prophet was born and buried in the town next mine and as such, there are a great many individuals that aren´t particularly exctied about my presence.  But in accordance with tenents 1-4 of their scripture, I do not know who these individuals are and rarely speak with them and generally and go about my work in ignorance.  Which is nice.

World War Three
Ironically, my first host family was Mama Tata.  They are apparently not very strict practicioners and do not seem to know much about the religion (at least, they don´t want to tell me).  I was in the middle of a normal conversation with my host brother the other day (i.e. He points to something I own, ¨How much does that cost?¨), when he asked me if I was going to fight in the impending war.  The conversation proceeded as follows:

Me – What now?
Him – Spain, Japan, and the US are going to attack the Ngöbes and then they are going to fight each other. 
Me – You mean, there will be World War Three?
Him – Yes, but first they all want to kill the Ngöbes. 
Me – I am from America and lived in Japan for four years and I never heard anything about this, I don´t think it´s going to happen.
Him – Yes it is.
His logic was difficult to argue with but I thought I knew where he was coming from.
Me – Does this have something to do with the mine?
Him – Yes, they want to kill the Ngöbes and use the mine.


There is a copper mine here in the Comarca that is extremely controversial.  The government claimed that no one could own property here in the Comarca except Ngöbes but a few years later, a Canadian company discovered an extremely rich source of copper, deep in the mountains.  So the government changed the law and said that all property in the Comarca had to be owned by a Ngöbe – unless it´s underground. 
The mining activity has feuled a lot of anti-foreigner feelings among Ngöbes but at the same time, it is widely misunderstood (hence the above conversation).  I tried to explain to my host brother that it was in fact a Canadian company that wanted profit from the Ngobe´s natural resources, not a country coming to kill them, but there was no convincing him.

This is a topic I avoid like syphillis, because we at Peace Corps  Panamá are officially neutral and I don´t even want to give someone a chance to interpret what I say as being for or against the mining.  With this is mind, I assured my host brother that there wasn´t going to be a war and then quickly changed the topic.  

Colored Hats with Strong Opinions
These incidents got me thinking about the root of their xenophobia, which innevitably got me thinking about the historical treatment of native populations.  I have always been, at best, vaguely aware of what has happened to native populations around the world.  I know that in the distant past, our European descendents took their land and their women and their lives and the New World was shaped out of this mix of violence, trade, sex, and death.  But these are distant issues and I never really thought about how these problems are perpetuated today. 

The Ngöbes are famous for being a mountainous people, only because the hispanics pushed them out of the lowlands and the beach front properties to the south and east.  Native Americans in the States are known for living in the desert, on reservations that either boast giant casinos or are plagued with poverty and meth addiction, because the Europeans drove them there.  Similar stories exist with Mayans and Aboriginies and Hawaiians and we all have that friend that, at Thanksgiving, won´t stop talking about how we are really celebrating genocide.  I tend to ignore this person and stuff myself full of turkey and watch the Lions lose to whoever they are playing but, after two years of working with a native group, I may start at least giving this idea some thought during the commercial breaks.    

Honestly and seriously, it´s too early in my service to know how to feel about this.   Every country was born from some type of struggle and my white liberal background tells me to judge and villainize my own ancestors, whereas my traditional, hyper-American, Friedman-based economics and business education tells me that anyone can rise out of any situation if they work hard enough and behave like a good capitalist – so the natives should stop complaining about the past and start producing something.

There is obviously no right answer and I figue in the next two years, after exchanging black hats for white ones for more black ones, I will end up with a dull shade of grey, more knowledageable and more experienced, but just as confused as I am today.       
PS - One of the cooperatives that I work with had a vote on what should be my Ngöbe name.  The options were: Nuzy (in the sky with diamonds?), Jochi, Krätchy (pronounced crotchy - it means skinny), and Ochi.  Jochi won with 6 votes.  


At December 1, 2010 at 4:29 AM , Blogger Lara said...

Jack, we love reading your blog, I think you should turn it into a book.

We are doing well, getting ready for Isaac's fourth birthday! (12/8)
Lara, Brian, Isaac and Samuel)

At December 1, 2010 at 8:35 AM , Blogger Ila said...

This was one of my favorite posts. For future exclamations remember: parcheese, candy land, shoots and ladders, and everyone's favorite chuck woolery show, lingo.

At December 2, 2010 at 12:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At December 2, 2010 at 12:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

are worth more than white hats. keep them.

At December 2, 2010 at 1:41 PM , Blogger Sean said...

Jack, your blog is hilarious. I plan on returning some day in the near future to read it. And if we should ever meet again on the high lonely plains of some distant land, I will Ninja your ass into the ground.

At December 6, 2010 at 12:52 PM , Blogger Alyson said...

So what does Jochi mean? (My guess... "Holy shit, look at that guy's creepy mustache!")

At July 2, 2012 at 6:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read! A good observations about native culture.

At November 9, 2012 at 6:41 AM , Blogger bama said...

Very reflective and insigtful. These questions tug at most of our human hearts. I am a long time student of A Course in Miracles which teaches universal innocence. It is a difficult teaching for me, but when I apply it, it seems to free me somehow. I think you apply it here, by honestly saying you don't really know. Thanks for a great post. Billie


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