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Helping the Ngobe Of Panama

Anyone who has been reading this blog, knows I’ve developed a real love for the Ngobe, a group of indigenous people in Panama. What follows are the projects I have commited myself to working on. If you are interested in any of these projects, whether thru volunteering or what have you, contact me.

Before going into  specific details, I should say that some of these projects may take only a year, while others may take years. The Ngobe are patient and very understanding that positive change can sometimes take time. But they also understand that our world is different than their world, and they hope that if people become interested in the problems they are faced with that perhaps they will have a better chance of making some of their dreams happen.

Simple Suspension Bridge Project:

This project is a suspension bridge that will span across a river. It will be a simple, metal, suspension bridge, made for walking. It will have some additional components to make it easily accessible and safe for small children to walk across it(as young as 5 years old.) It will connect the isolated community of Cerro Iglesias with the larger, more central community of Cerro Limon.

Many people fall off the current “bridge”, a collection of tree trunks and bamboo/cane lashed together. It is extremely dangerous, and unfortunately, is the primary means of crossing the river for people needing medical attention(such as expectant mothers) and young children walking to school. Due to the fact that it is so dangerous, many families choose not to have their children go to school until they are older. When they finally are in school, they perform poorly and cannot keep up with the other kids. Additionally, because the bridge is so dangerous, it is impossible for health care professionals to cross the bridge to vaccinate children, so children die of many diseases which are preventable. Sick people and expectant mothers die without having access to any healthcare whatsoever.

I expect this project to cost about 12,000 dollars, and require tremendous manpower, as the location is isolated and the materials must be brought in by hand.

Medo, the organization I was volunteering with, is currently seeking nonprofit status, so my plan is to wait until they have nonprofit status, and then apply for grants or donations. This can be a lengthy process in Panama-or not. I think it will happen within the next year.

The local people are willing to hand carry everything up the mountain(using horses and manpower), and they are also willing to work on the bridge, build better trails on either side, and host the skilled volunteers neccessary for this type of project. 

To read more about the bridge proect and how it came to be, please read the ” Mountain Journey” series on this blog.

Partera House/Ngobe Women’s Health Center:

If you have read the previous entry interview about Dominga Palacio, you have a pretty good idea of what challenges the Ngobe women are facing in her community regarding pregnancy and childbirth. After talking with Dominga(and other midwives, as well as interviewing over 45 women about pregnancy and childbirth in the surrounding communities), I have decided to help these women by building a simple, two room building to serve as a birthing center/women’s health center.

The building will be conviently situated in the community of Cerro Limon, near a busy road that is used for the Ngobe to come up and down the mountain. It will be used by 5 midwives from the five surrounding communities, as well as any woman in need of assistance at any time.

The building will be constructed of simple wooden slats, and it will have a metal roof. It will have a cement floor, and it will have composting latrines on the property, as well as a line coming from the aquaduct. It will have two large rooms: one will have 1/2 divider, with two “private” beds for birthing and aftercare; the second room will be a waiting room for women waiting to have babies, and it will also be used a classroom for midwives and Western health care professionals to hold workshops and classes on women’s and children’s health.

The general idea of the project is to improve women’s health on the most basic level; increase awareness and improve nutrition during pregnancies;have a place where women can give birth to healthy babies; and lower the astonishing death rate of both women and newborns by implementing some very simple programs.

The cost of the building  for materials is  $1,000.

While visiting the communities where the facility will be built, I found a man who was willing to donate his land for the project. Actually, while I was there, he cleared the land and signed it over!

I also found a “foreman”, or project coordinator, who is Ngobe and lives in the community. He will coordinate the workers and materials for the project. He, and all the other workers, will build the facility for free, as volunteers.

Additionally, the surrounding Ngobe communities have agreed to build a comedor for the pregnant women, which is kind of like a open air kitchen/waiting house. They will construct this in the traditional Ngobe fashion at their own cost. This will allow pregant women and their families to have a place to cook, sleep, and wait, while they are waiting for the baby to be born. It will be near the center, but not right next to it, so that the women can have privacy while giving birth.

To understand on a deeper level the problems Ngobe women face regarding pregnancy and birth, please read the previous entry “Truelifeplanet Interview No. 5: Dominga Palacio”.

Women’s Cooperative:

This is a very simple idea, borne out of many meetings with the Ngobe women in the Cerro Limon area and surrounding communities.

The coop will be a coop of five different communities of women, who will each work at the coop during different weeks of any given month. The goal of this coop is to provide women with a sense of community and a place to meet, as well as a place to have free access to foot- pedaled sewing machines to make clothes for themselves and their children. Every woman will recieve enough fabric a year to outfit herself in one dress and each of her daughters in one dress. She will also make a certain number of dresses to be sold to other Ngobe women at a low cost, as well as one dress for a poor child who has no clothing.

The money made from the dresses sold will go to buy more fabric for the following year’s dresses, and, over time, they hope to save the money for a second building of the same style to use as a classroom. In this classroom they would have free classes for boys and girls about the customs, crafts, language, and so on of the Ngobe(which they fear will be lost).

Basically, it’s a large, rectangular, one room structure, made of wooden slats, with a dirt floor and a tin roof. Attached on to the building will be a small room for a watchman, and there will always be someone on the premises to make sure things are running smoothly. There will also be two composting latrines nearby.

The cost of the building will be $1000., which includes 8 foot-pedaled sewing machines.

The comedor(built near the women’s center) will also be used by the women’s coop.

The idea for this project is too create a self sustaining project that empowers young women and girls while teaching them simple skills(such as sewing) and encouraging Ngobe ways and crafts to be passed down to the next generation. Additionally, it will keep more girls in school-Ngobe girls often do not attend school because they have only one dress(or no dress at all).By having part of the program be about giving, and not just recieving, it becomes a real vehicle for positive change. A simple solution to a complicated social problem-and one that the Ngobe women thought of themselves.

The building will be built on donated land in Cerro Limon, which was officially donated while I visited the community 2 weeks ago.

The “foreman” mentioned above will also organize this project. The five communities participating will do all the work for free.

Computer Lab Project:

When I lived with the Ngobe, I spent alot of time in the community of Soloy, writing this blog on a computer donated by Microsoft and the Bahai. The lab itself is actually run by Ngobe Bahai ,too. Problem is, there aren’t alot of educational opportunities for Ngobe to learn about computers..and that includes the people who run the place.

As it’s the only place the Ngobe have access to computers, internet, and so on, for miles and miles, the lab has had tremendous impact on the life of the Ngobe-whether it be furthering their education or communicating with the world(no cell phones  and no electricity in the Comarca!).

Unfortunately, it’s full impact can’t be realized  since not many people know much about navigating their way around computers.

 What I would love to do is change that-get some people there, even if for short periods of time, who could clean up the software, make things run more efficiently, and train the workers(who are open to being trained, as well). Some general classes might be nice, too, just for adults.

The lab is located on a public secondary school’s property, but the lab is owned and operated by the Bahai.

What I’m hoping is that the Bahai International community can work with me on this project, partnering with the Bahai community in Soloy. Anyone interested? Computer whizes looking for adventure for a week in the wilds of Panama, this is your chance to shine!

Continuing to Help Medo:

Medo, the Ngobe organization I was working for for the past few months, has asked me to keep helping them in various ways.

I will be acting as the temporary secretary for Medo and fielding all emails and volunteer queries for the next 5 months. I’ll be doing this while on the road in various places, until the start of October (I’ll be in Calcutta, India at that point, and I don’t think I will have much time), when I’ll temporarily turn over the responsibility to someone else. Then when I return from my trip, I’ll pick up where I left off, and become their permanent secretary!

 I’m in the process of looking for other volunteers for them as well. During my visit, they experienced alot of positive changes, and they are more prepared to deal with volunteers now: they’ve got a great homestay program; they’re better trained about santitiation, water quality, and food preparation; and they are ready for skilled volunteers to come and help them in many different projects.

Working for Medo has definitely been the absolute highlight of my volunteering around the world experience. I got to live with a group of indigenous people few people know about in the world, and I learned more from them in 3 months than I ever thought possible.  I highly recommend it!

Once again, if you have any interest in any of the above, please contact me.If you contacted me before, please do so again. 

I would love to have many groups and individuals come together from all walks of life work together on these projects.

So…just changing the world, one step at a time.And loving every minute of it.

I’ll keep posting developments on this blog of any changes and blessings…



47 responses to “Helping the Ngobe Of Panama”

  1. Great to see someone actually doing something and making an impact. I wish you the best of luck with your projects, they seem very worthy – and I’m sure the Ngobe appreciate it.

  2. Ezra says:

    Hi Gigi, I’ll be in Panama for a few weeks next month and I’d love to find out some more information about Soloy. Would you be able to email me please?

  3. Bill Stapp says:

    Hi Gigi,Really enjoy all your various writing,especially about lndia…We are interested in building a one room school for the Ngobe…We have read some inspirational stories fron people that have done this —particularly for the indigenous young children who need preparation to get ready for the regular school.We are setting up a non-profit entity to do this and would like your help.Free the Children does something similar but we prefer to have our own program,hopefully with nutrition counseling”

    Hope to hear from you—–Bill Stapp in Bend,Oregon

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