Claudia's Special Day

Day 7- August 13, 2015

Standard Emberá morning: 6am, rice and chicken for breakfast, doing laundry in the river by 8am. My “little sister” 15-year-old Miliana, 13-year-old Celideth, and 19-year-old Melis, joined me and we quickly got sidetracked storytelling and teasing each other.

After hanging out the laundry to dry, changing, and having another cup of coffee in the hammock, I heard a motor on the river so I set off down the bank to see if Ben had arrived. Halfway there, I heard Misael calling my name, “Djabawera! Who are you looking for?”

I looked up and saw him sitting in Yesmelida’s house with Ben, each working his way through a plate of rice, beans, and fried plantains. Laughing, I ran up to join them and was handed my own bucket to sit on and plate of food. Misael retold us his version of the story of his house collapse from the week prior while we played with the puppies and toddlers in the house. When we were quite full but started to suspect that Yesmelida might cook again, we made our excuses and left.

Our next stop was to pay a visit to Claudia.

Claudia was born around 1980 in the jungle of Colombia. She didn’t know her father and her mother died when she was very young. Her grandmother raised her in a small village until she was 13. From there she was sent to a small city to live with her aunt and work. She married at age 15 and moved with her husband Olbidio, then about 20, back to a small Emberá village. Their son was born in 1996. All of this took place amidst the Colombian civil conflict between the government, FARC, and various narco trafficking cartels.

In 2003 she was among a group of 35 Emberá who decided to flee the violence. In the middle of the night, they filled 7 wooden canoes with themselves, a little food, and a few material possessions. They paddled downriver, day and night, for 9 days until they reached the Panamanian border. They spent a few days at the checkpoint, getting refugee papers. They had to sell all of their boats and nearly everything they had brought with them in order to pay the entrance tax allowing them to live in Panama as refugees. From there they walked, the group swelling to hundreds. Sometimes she tells me it was a few hours, sometimes she tells me it was a few days. I’m not sure she remembers anymore.

The group arrived to the first Emberá community on the North end of the reservation, Canaán. A dozen tribal leaders representing different communities were there, and each selected a number of families to adopt into their village. Playona, then just a village of 100, all very poor subsistence farmers, adopted 16 families. They crowded the families into the canoes and brought them downriver to the village where the community donated homes, food, and firewood. The families were given their own plots of land to farm and the children were enrolled in the school.

Yet it wasn’t a neat and tidy transition for anyone in the community. Government and international agencies donated aid projects for the refugees, but the Panamanian Emberá took them for themselves. The Panamanians, already poor, felt threatened by the Colombians, afraid they would steal their resources and bring the drug violence into their community. 

I arrived in Playona eight years later. By the time I got there, the community had driven out all but 5 Colombian families. Some had saved enough money to move farther into Panama, others had decided to go back to Colombia, despite the continued violence. At my first women’s meeting, without my knowledge, the Panamanian women refused to let the Colombian women attend. Whenever there was a crime in the region, it was blamed on the Colombians. Some people even told me I shouldn’t go visit the Colombian corner because I would get kidnapped.

Despite all of this, Claudia and Olbidio managed to open a successful store in town. It was the only one with refrigerated items, consistently stocked, and open all the time. Their son completed his education through middle school and started working. Olbidio attended a local community college and finished his degree in community development. Meanwhile, Claudia ran the store, dawn to dusk, every day of the week. She learned how to make the traditional woven plates and baskets, so between customers, she made some of the best quality crafts in town. This year, the tenth anniversary of their arrival in Panamá, her and her family received Panamanian citizenship.

Claudia was my best friend in Playona. She wouldn’t let me buy things from her store unless I asked for them in Emberá. She loved to tell me about Colombia- the good and the bad. Every time we talked she reminded me how lucky I was for my life, but not in a self-pitying or jealous way. She wasn’t bitter about the way her life had turned out, I think she prefers her quiet homely life, but I could tell she also loves to live vicariously through me.

Upon arrival, I gave Claudia my presents from my trip to Colombia- a rosary from Bogotá, postcards of the country, and a piece of Colombian candy. She was so happy she almost cried. Claudia ushered us upstairs to her kitchen to feed us big bowls of plantain chicken stew with rice and cold soda. She was babysitting a 4-year-old girl and 10-month-old boy for her neighbor who was off harvesting plantains. The tiny humans spent the afternoon jumping, squealing, laughing, and climbing all over us while I taught Claudia to make cacao brownies.

By the time the brownies came out, Ben was asleep in the hammock with the toddlers passed out drooling on the floor underneath him. Claudia and I laughed at the scene as we scooped ourselves generous portions of chocolate goo. (Her stove didn’t heat properly so even after 2 hours the mix never really set up.)

We reminisced about my time in Playona and Claudia almost choked on her brownie laughing when she remembered the time my mom came to visit and was afraid of the rooster. The conversation lulled for a minute and we each stared off across the treetops, lost in our own thoughts. Then Claudia said,

"Amber, I'm alone here in my house most days, running the store. But today, with you two here visiting and cooking with me, was a grand day. Today has been very special for me, and I’ll never forget it. Thank you, djabawera."

Don’t worry Claudia; I'll never forget it either.

From there Ben and I went to the middle of town where we took turns playing volleyball and chatting with the spectators. The kids told me, "We want you on our team, even though you're not very good." I'll take that as a compliment. At dusk we played- I mean, bathed- in the river then hung out at Yuli's with the boys (my other host brothers were there since my host mom was gone). I made everyone cacao drink and we ate it with bread for dinner. At bedtime, the boys marveled at our fancy hammocks and were terrified of how we sleep in the air. They happily curled up on mattresses on the floor below.

Today I'm grateful for this amazing lady!


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