Central America | Panama – Women in Development, Gender and Development (a conference)
The morning I left for this conference, Balbina’s roof blew off. The wind has been incredible in Chami, as it always is this time of the year. The wind was howling and dust was flying, painful to encounter. It had shook my little house violently all night.
That morning, I was taking Milka (14 years old) and Eberilda (17) to our annual Women in Development, Gender and Development youth conference, and we were waiting for the chiva to take us downhill. One moment I was sitting in Balbina’s dirt floor, zinc walled and roofed restaraunt. I followed her daughters out back for some reason. Then we heard a terrible crack, and looked back, a sheet a zinc, 15 feet long, right over where I had been sitting finally gave in to the wind and blew away, breaking the board it was attached to on its way to freedom.
Soon after a chiva came, and the three of us rode 2 hours down to San Felix. It was exciting for the girls, who have rarely left Chami, and for me to be with them. They were best friends and the most active girls in my girls youth group, and they gasped when I invited them and they first heard where we were going. One had only been as far as David in her life, the other to Santiago once. I showed them on a map we were going TWICE as far as Sanitago.
Two and a half dusty hours later, we arrived in San Felix, and caught the Panama-David bus, the first time the girls had ever been on it, to Penonome. We arrived late, around 7, some of the last people to arrive. We ate rice and beans and chicken for dinner, the girls weren’t used to eating chicken twice in one day. The caretaker informed us not to throw trash in the toilets, and apoligized that the electricity was going on and off, a sloth had messed up the wires.
WID-GAD is the group I am the educational coordinator of. Four other girls are on the directiva with me, and we have been planning this conference for quite some time. The focus of WID-GAD this year is HIV prevention, that is the focus of the conference, for 14-17 year olds. The conference was being funded by PEPFAR money (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) signed by George W. Bush, which is fantasic. BUT… Panama is a non-focus country, so we are lucky to have freedom in how we use the money. The money in the US and focus countries (all southern African) are only allowed to use the money for abstinence- only education.
Volunteers sent youths from all over Panama, so it was quite a mix of cultures, latino and indigenous (Ngabe, Embera, Kuna, Wounan). And, like the youth camp I counseled a year ago, in the beginning, Latino kids played with their cell phones and made friends quickly, indigenous kids sat quietly with their hands in thier laps. My girls were the only ones wearing nagwas, Ngabe traditional dress, and I think they were a little self- concious. We had eight conselors, and Trisha and I were administrators, or, probably more appropriately, errand runners.
The first night, the kids divided into their eight groups with conselors, made up a group name and cheer. And we went over the conference schedule, rules, etc. It was not a late night, as everyone had been traveling all day, and they slept in dormitories.
The next day was all about life skills. There were four activities the groups rotated around: communication, goal setting, self esteem, and decision making. At the end of this day, the kids talked about what they learned in small groups. The following day all about HIV. The Ministry of Health talked about the basics of HIV. Then a man came from an organization called PROBISIDA. He talked all about HIV, then revealed at the end he has HIV. I think it was surprising to a lot of kids he could have HIV and look so healthy. Afterwards, the kids were divided by gender, so that they could ask questions they may not have asked with the opposite sex there. The last full day, a group for the Institute for Development of Women and Infancy came and showed how youths could convey what they had learned in their home communities.
I think the kids learned a lot, and I know they had fun. This was because of the evening activities. Allison organized them, and did such a great job. One afternoon, we went on a little hike to an overlook, then went swimming in the river, which was divine, since it was so hot. Lots of splash fights and seaweed-throwing ensued. Another afternoon, a person was blindfolded, and put make-up on another, including on guys. Everyone was laughing hysterically. One evening we had a talent show. The Ngabe girls (with some encouragement from Rebecca and I) did a traditional dance, kids told jokes, sang, etc. One group of guys spoofed the Matrix, it was hilarious. The final evening there we had a bonfire, and roasted marshmellows (an American tradition). When marshmellows were passed out, Eberilda asked me what it was. A malva, I replied (the spanish word for marshmellow) Its to eat? she then asked. I told her it was.
I think so many things were new for the girls, and they were having a great time in general, and I was happy I helped make that happen. They were so quiet at first, but as the days went on, participated more and made friends with Ngabe girls from Bocas del Toro. It was great to see them on the last day, totally participating and with big smiles.
The last day, we just had a ceremony to hand out certificates. Then all the kids said goodbye to their new friends, and started for home. I really hoped we made it back to San Felix in time to catch a chiva back up.
It was an eventful trip back. After a long time of waiting at the restauant/bus stop in Penonome, in front of a huge wall of Panama hats for sale, we caught a Panama-David. We were all spread out across the bus, and I thought I saw a guy bothering Milka (shes very pretty). We were all getting off the bus in Santiago for lunch, but then Eberilda wouldnt get up. She asked me to bring her toilet paper, I was confused, saying, come on, lets go get some. She finally revealed she had gotten sick and puked in the lap of her nagwa! Okay, Ill get you some, I said, jumping off to find Milka, who was still being bothered by that guy! Ughh! How creepy! I pulled her away, giving the guy a dirty look, got Eberilda toilet paper like she asked for, look Milka to the pharmacy to get Eberilda tummy medicine, and without thinking because I was flustered, then took her to the ATM, to get more money. You should have seen the look on her face when the machine spit out a twenty at me. I instantly wondered if I should have brought her in, but I couldnt leave her alone with that guy out there! It still wasnt loud, but it was the loudest I ever heard her talk when she said, “how did you do that, where did that money come from?!” Umm, that machine is my bank, was all I could think of to tell her, embarassed to think of her going back to Chami, and telling everyone, Cristina has a machine that makes money! Eberilda was off the bus, thank goodness no one was bothering or had kidnapped her, and had amazingly washed out the front of her nagwa, so besides the wet spot, you couldnt tell she had puked in it. Then I got in the cafeteria line, while the girls sat at a table, and got us three meals, three drinks, and three pieces of chocolate for dessert. We ate and got back on the bus. All that took place in a thirty minute lunch stop!
Back at the piquera of San Felix, we hung out with a Ngabe couple, their eight children, and their pets, a cat and a raccoon, all going up to Chami. I ran into Jennifer there, who lives in Oma. She had visited the states recently, and had lots of big news. She got engaged to her boyfriend, and they are fixing the road to Oma. They are fixing the road! This is huge! It was true, later that day I saw the road was wide and smooth, so that you didnt even need four wheel drive anymore, and there were proper drainage ditches on the sides. It was only half way to Oma, a fraction of the way to Chami, but every bit helps. This is quite interesting tho: for years the government was saying they would fix the road and didn’t. They finally declared work suspended, that they were not fixing it. But they are. So the moral of the story is, if the government says it will do something, it probably won’t, that is not a surprise to anyone. But this is new, if they say they won’t do something….they will?