Hiden Face of the Kuna World : Wuala, a little village of the Comarca Wargandi, Panama

Gaelle Sevenier

23 Avril 2004

We can still find isolated almost undiscovered villages among the Indian Kuna tribes of Panama. These villages exist in the jungle of the mainland, between Panama City and Colombia. Wuala is an example of such a small community, intact traditional village with an exceptional authenticity.

The Kuna Indians are one of the few indigenous of Central America who have consistently fought against their government and gained external help in their quest for autonomy. During the revolution of 1925, they obtained a semi autonomous status to control their territories. They now live in 49 communities spread in three Comarcas, or autonomous reserves of Panama. The Comarca Kuna Yala of the archipelagos of San Blas, on the Caribbean coast of the country, is the most populated and visited by tourists. In the interior there are two other comarcas Kunas unknown by a majority of people, Madou Gandi and Wargandi.

Around the Comarca Wargandi, the smallest comarca of Panama, the landscape is devastated by illegal deforestation. It is possible from a distance to see the demarcation of the Comarca. The jungle of immense trees contrasts with the sad vision of massacred land all along the Panamerican road. The colons of the area, latinos of mixed origins lacking in resources themselves, illegally come to cut and harvest century old trees of the Comarca. To guard against this, the Kunas post day and night armed guards at their entrance of the only road leading to Wuala.

After a few hours of chaotic driving on a mud road through the jungle, we arrive at a dream like spectacle. Thousands of children dressed in very colourful costumes come, attracted by the jeep. Behind them, people cross the Rio Chucunaque in small barks. The village of 950 inhabitants is located on a little hill behind the river. The climate of constant mist makes the atmosphere even more magical. Hundreds of palm houses are spread through-out the muddy little streets. In the crowd, we can see a few albino children. According to the statistics, there would be among the Kunas one albino per 145 people. This surprising number has inspired many scientists. Some thought in the twenties that this would be the result of a theoretical Viking invasion, whenever it is proven today to be genetic.

At the entrance of the village, the children approach the foreign visitors to look at them with curiosity. Very few white people have ever visited their territory, which explains why, when we walk through the streets, the women hide. They wear very colourful dresses, with gold rings in their ears and noses as well as bracelets called winnis covering their arms and legs. Unlike other Kuna communities, most women walk top less around the village.

Sometimes, a truck will come into their territory to sell very cheap clothes and trinkets in exchange for some wood. When a vehicle comes to the village, everyone rushes for it. Hundreds of men and children grab the vehicle and climb above the roof, wanting to "go for a drive" to the frontier of the comarca. There, they will wait until another truck comes in the other direction and returns them to the village. The Kunas of Wuala are prohibited from leaving the Comarca. They have to pay a tax in order to leave the it, which is difficult for an inhabitant that hardly ever has the occasion to sell anything. This is why the only extraordinary attraction of the village is a perilous trip on top of a truck. Many times young children have fallen off and badly hurt themselves, but the drivers receive stones and insults if they refuse to bring the Indians.

There is no school in Wuala. The Sahilas, respected elders leading the congress of the village, have forbidden it. Michel Puech, a French guide who discovered this village a year ago, explains that "the Sahilas do not want the children to have more knowledge than them, and then once older question their authority and the hierarchical structure of the village." No one speaks Spanish in Wuala, no one knows anything from the outside world. Nothing, apart from the fact that the country was running elections last week. Every house is still covered by a flag of the different candidates. The political parties have stopped by. Even if once elected they will probably soon forget their promises, they needed the votes of the Kunas of Wargandi, who, added with the other ethnic groups of Panama, represent 9% of the population.

For more information on how to visit Kuna tribes, contact Michel Puech, www.panamaexoticsadventures.com

Author - Publications