MPH Panama Practicum 2013: Cultural Experience Weekend

Michelle Nguyen

July 15, 2013

On day seven, a Saturday, we went to visit the Embera indigenous Indian village. By bus, it took us a little over an hour to get to the Chagres River. There we met with four young men from the village who took us by canoe to see the river. As the canoe approached their village, the women in the village came out to welcome us while some of the men who were musicians (including the village?s medicine man) came out to perform for us. The chief of the tribe then invited us into their hut and young ladies of the tribe performed for us two dances, of which the first was called the Monkey Dance and the second was called the Tiger Dance. After the performance, we were all invited to take part in the dancing ourselves. The chief then told us about the different animals that were used to make the different musical instruments used by the tribe such as deer skin and a turtle shell. From there, we were then invited into the hut, where they cooked their meals, and we were served a traditional Embera meal of plantain and fish presented beautifully in a wrapped banana leaf. After the meal, one of the second chief of the village came to talk to us about the history behind the village, and to share with us how the hut and other materials were made and used in the village. He said the village has 20 families, and is comprised of 62 individuals. However, they cannot make a living by selling their land for money. Instead, they sell their art and craft work in order to have money to buy materials to build their hut since they are not allowed to cut down trees for building materials. It is by tourism and selling of their crafts that they are able to afford materials to build their huts, which can cost up to $10,000.

On the following day, day eight, I visited a local Catholic church with several of the staff. I was curious to see and to participate in their morning mass to compare how Catholic churches in Panama are alike and different from those in California. Unlike the churches I have been to in Southern California, this particular church I attended had no pews, but the congregation sat in rows of chairs. Also, instead of having a layperson, a nun was the cantor for the service. Additionally, the priest was very friendly to the congregation; even coming down from the alter to shake hands and wave to the congregation of which is more uncommon in churches I have visited in Southern California. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to watch a baby girl get baptized without squealing or crying during the ceremony.

Thus, my weekend was spent experiencing the Panamanian culture. Visiting the Embera community was the main highlight of my cultural experience. The view of the Chagres River was breathtaking, and I wish in the future I can return to see the waterfall. I also recommend visiting religious places, such as churches, because the architecture in these places are also very beautiful and the people are welcoming and friendly.


About the MPH Panama Practicum

A group of University of Southern California graduate students are researching public health in Panama City, Panama, for a two-week international practicum, organized by the USC Master of Public Health (MPH) program. This post was excerpted from panama.usc.eduView all posts in this series »