In Panama, some Guaymis blaze a new path

This article appeared in the October-December 1994 issue of One Country.

Facing strong pressures from the "outside," an isolated people discover spiritual resources that help maintain their identity -- and move them progressively forward

As has been the story with many indigenous peoples, the impact of "outside" society on the Guaymis has been almost unavoidable - and in many ways negative.

Loosely bound by a common language and diffusely settled in the rugged Cordillera Central mountains in Western Panama, the Guaymis exist largely on the margins of Panamanian society and have historically been among its poorest members.

Twenty-three-year-old Tahirih Sanchez is one of a new generation among the Guaymis in Panama. She works at Radio Bahá'í Panama, broadcasting in her native language and working to help preserve her traditions and culture.

For years, their traditional lands have been slowly consumed as "Latinos"-- which is what the Guaymis call Panamanians of Spanish descent- have moved into the region looking for farm and grazing land. Pushed ever farther into the remote and less productive highlands, the 80,000 Guaymis have been increasingly unable to support themselves with the slash and burn agricultural techniques they have relied on for centuries.

To survive, families have sent their young men out to work in coffee and banana plantations for a few months each year. But this has come at great cost to the community and family structures here.

Vulnerable to exploitation because of their unfamiliarity with the Spanish language and culture, Guaymi men often have had to work in unsafe conditions for very low wages. And the long separations have opened the door to alcohol abuse and a loss of their cultural identity.

The centerpiece of the Guaymi Cultural Center in Soloy is a large, open-air meeting place, which was built almost entirely by the Guaymis themselves. Capable of accomodating several hundred people, it is used for large meetings, folk festivals and musical events. Materials for the galvanized roof were trucked in from outside, a contribution of the national Bahá'í community of Panama.

In response, some Guaymis have turned inward, manifesting an increasing distrust of outsiders, albeit at the risk of an even lower standard of living. Others have accepted Latino ways, seeking to accommodate the outside world, though such a move sometimes takes them even farther from their roots.

And then there are the Guaymi Bahá'ís, who have embarked on a rather bold path that appears to offer a way of preserving elements of culture of which they are most proud and at the same time giving them tools to control their own destiny.

Over the last 30 years, some 8,000 Guaymis have embraced the Bahá'í Faith, attracted to it, some say, because of indigenous prophesies that spoke of the coming of a new religion of unity. In the process, Guaymi Bahá'ís have built a distinctive community within a community, one that both serves to strengthen and reinforce their own culture while at the same time promoting such "progressive" principles as equality of women and men, racial and ethnic tolerance, and education for all.

A Guaymi man in traditional dress.

"Among ourselves, we are very kind and socialize a lot," said Tahireh Sanchez, a 23-year-old Guaymi whose parents were among the first Guaymis to become Bahá'ís. "But with the outside people, we are very afraid to talk to them and relate to them. But in my family, I was taught to socialize with others and to treat everyone as equals. So this allows me to go out and make friends with all people. I will do this because I understand that women are equal to men - and also that Indians are equal."

This process of community-building, which has been accomplished with very little help from outsiders, can further be understood as a rather extraordinary case of grassroots-based, participatory development practices.

The fruits of this effort - which has a long way to go before it can be fully judged - can be seen most vividly in the system of community-based tutorial schools the Guaymi Bahá'ís have established, which operate in up to 11 villages.

The schools have quite clearly had an influence on the entire community. Not only have they increased the general level of literacy, but their moral content has helped give an entire generation a renewed appreciation of their own culture while at the same time providing a yardstick for evaluating what is good and bad in the outside world.

Other aspects of this community-wide development process can be seen in a series of projects which are conducted under the auspices of the Guaymi Cultural Center, located here in Soloy. The Cultural Center, built by the Guaymis themselves with some materials and technical advice from national and international Bahá'í communities, serves as a regional training and conference center for the Guaymis. In this role, it not only provides a critical element of support for the tutorial schools but also offers a platform for launching other community efforts.

Managed by a committee that includes both Guaymi and Latino Bahá'ís, these broader efforts include a project to experiment with and introduce new agricultural techniques, a forum to create and encourage new leadership capacities among the Guaymi young people, and the sponsorship of culture and folklore festivals. The Center is also associated with Radio Bahá'í Panama, a community-based radio project, which itself has had a huge impact on preserving Guaymi culture and language.

Tutorial Schools

The tutorial schools were initially established entirely by Guaymi Bahá'ís, who realized that only through education could their community progress and control its destiny.

Ruth Pringle was one of the first Bahá'ís to bring word of the Faith to the Guaymis. In a recent interview, she told how two brothers, Luis Cuevas and Cirilo Sanchez, started up the first tutorial schools after she and her husband visited the area in 1961, leaving behind some basic literacy primers and workbooks.

"After about a year and a half, we saw Luis again, and he announced that he had established a school in his community, so that the children could learn to read and write, and that they would never have to face the embarrassing situation that he had had to face of being ignorant for lack of these skills," said Ms. Pringle, who now lives in Costa Rica. "This was the first tutorial school to be established in the area, and it became the source of inspiration for the other communities over the years. So early on, the Guaymis themselves began to take charge of their own affairs."

Cirilo Sanchez, who like his brother was among the first Guaymis to embrace the Faith, said he and his brother were motivated in part because of the emphasis in the Bahá'í teachings on the importance of education - and because of their own difficult experience at having to go out to Latino schools to get an education.

"When we became Bahá'ís, there were no public schools in the area, so we started teaching in our communities, my brother and I, teaching children to read and write," said Mr. Sanchez, who is 64 and lives in Soloy.

Although there are today some government-run schools in the Guaymi region, the system of Bahá'í schools continues to flourish.

"There are still places where there is no other school," said Alfaro Mina, a 39-year-old Bahá'í development specialist from Colombia, who now works as a full-time advisor to the Guaymis. "And in places where there is a government school, our schools start earlier, providing preschool education."

Mr. Mina said that in every case, the tutorial schools are taught by community volunteers - usually young men - who donate a year of service to their communities. This in and of itself is an enormous sacrifice for such a materially poor people, in that it often takes the teachers away from farming or other sources of income for this period.

"The community helps by providing food, and we also manage to give a salary of $20 a month, which comes from the international Bahá'í community," said Mr. Mina. "We have a curriculum committee that provides three to four weeks of training, which takes place here in Soloy, at the Guaymi Cultural Center. "The school buildings themselves are very simple. Sometimes just a small hut or shelter, mostly open, with four pillars and a roof."

Focus on Moral Education

While the focus has long been on basic literacy and math skills, the tutorial schools have also emphasized moral education. In addition to teaching basic ethical principles, the moral curriculum in Bahá'í schools promotes a set of progressive ideals, including the equality of women and men, the importance of eliminating all forms of prejudice, and the concept of the oneness of humanity.

Some 30 years of this type of education has had a distinctive impact on the Guaymi Bahá'ís, who have sought to incorporate these principles in their daily life.

Guaymi youth in the Soloy region, where the network of schools has been most fully developed, speak forthrightly about the degree to which this educational process has given them a new vision of their own identity and capacities.

Ms. Sanchez, for example, works as a broadcaster at Radio Bahá'í, producing and reading programs and news in their native language, Ngabere. A one-kilowatt non-commercial station that reaches most of Chiriqui Province, Radio Bahá'í has thus helped to give Ngabere a new regard in the region.

Tahireh said she feels her service at the radio station is important in helping to protect and preserve her culture. She also feels, however, that some aspects of her culture, such as the traditional domination of women by men, can and should be discarded.

She herself has married another young Guaymi Bahá'í, and they have sought to apply the principles of equality in their marriage, she said.

"In the house sometimes he cooks, and sometimes I do," she said. "Sometimes I wash the clothes, and sometimes he does."

Carbila Cuevas, who is also 23 and works with Tahireh at the radio station, feels similarly about the importance of preserving those aspects of culture of which they are proud and discarding those aspects that are oppressive.

"My father used to tell me that we should not let the outside world come to the area, because it will destroy us," said Mr. Cuevas. "My father said people are forgetting the old language and traditions.

"But Radio Bahá'í has preserved many of these old traditions and we are trying to help people not to forget about them. So during the last 10 or 15 years, most of the Guaymis are learning to love their language, and also their traditions and stories."

In his view, however, not all of the old traditions are good. Mr. Cuevas tells about a traditional form of ritual combat, called "balseria," in which the men of whole villages battle each other by swatting at each other's ankles with huge logs of balsa wood. Injuries are common, he said, and balseria is usually accompanied by much drunkenness. It can also produce lingering feelings of hatred or resentment if participants come to feel their opponents have been unfair.

"Now in the Bahá'í communities, we don't do this," he said. "We dance in the traditional way to celebrate holidays." But because drinking and fighting are against Bahá'í teachings, they avoid balseria - and the divisions it often produces, said Mr. Cuevas.

Structures of Unity

Because of their commitment to certain common principles and their participation in joint activities, the Guaymi Bahá'ís can be said to form a community within a community. However, although the highest concentration of Guaymi Bahá'ís resides in villages near Soloy, the Bahá'ís do not live separately or apart from their kinfolk. Rather, Bahá'í families live dispersed throughout the region.

What unites them is a network of local governing councils, known as local Spiritual Assemblies, which guide their activities. The Guaymis have established about 25 local Spiritual Assemblies throughout Chiriqui Province.

Like the some 20,000 other local Spiritual Assemblies in the Bahá'í world, these local councils are elected each year, following democratic principles, and they utilize a distinctive non-adversarial decision-making method known as consultation.

Mariano Rodriguez, his wife Bernarda Bejerano, and their youngest son, Abraham, standing in front of their house in Soloy. Mr. Rodriquez said he believes that the Bahá'í teachings on equality and consultation have helped him get along better with his wife, improving their family life.

The very act of gathering together and electing such locally based institutions has contributed greatly to a new sense of empowerment and capacity among Guaymi Bahá'ís say outside observers.

"Until recently the concept of Guaymi ethnicity was probably very weak," said Whitney Lyn White, an American anthropologist who spent some three months studying the Guaymi Bahá'ís in 1993 and is one of the few outsiders to carefully analyze their situation. "Family alliances, and shifting kin-based alliances expand and contract depending on the 'enemy.'

"But the Guaymis are under a survival pressure to resist the encroachment of outsiders. And one level of response to this pressure is found in the creation of unity among the Guaymi Bahá'ís.

"The Bahá'í Faith has provided a new leadership model in its institutions, which has greatly expanded the group identity. It also offers spiritual principles that help to maintain unity in groups, so that the group can do something together. Principles like the elimination of racial and ethnic prejudice, in this situation, work to eliminate divisions between families and between clans," Ms. White said.

Guaymi Bahá'ís said the teachings of the Faith about unity had indeed helped them to get along better with their neighbors.

"Lots of my neighbors have problems with their families," said Mariano Rodriquez, a 53-year-old farmer near Soloy who has been a Bahá'í since 1963, explaining that fighting between families and between husbands and wives is not uncommon. "The difference is that the Bahá'ís, within their understanding, are trying to live in peace."

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