But, depending on the brand, if it’s easy to perpetuate harm like unfair wages through drinking a cup of coffee, then the reverse also true. As Rebecca Scott says in this TED talk, you can become a superhero just by drinking a cup of coffee.
Wala - Meeting with the Chiefs
The most interesting story I had to bring home with me from Panama was that of meeting with the chiefs in Wala. It’s not uncommon to see the stories of folks who travel overseas to encounter the smiling faces of foreign children and poverty like they’ve never seen before – but this felt like something straight from the fantastic tales I read as a child. Some moments in life gain a bit of excitement and adventure as we look forward to their coming or as we look back with nostalgia. This moment, however, welled up with these feelings in the present. This felt like an adventure.
Our clan of four (Rachael, Ben, Teo, and I) made our way into the center of the village, and entered a wooden hut that was similar to the houses all around us, but perhaps twofold in square footage. Inside, there were wooden benches all around the perimeter parallel to the walls. These benches surrounded the focal point, which was the chiefs. Previously I asked Rachael if it would be rude to take pictures during this meeting – she likened it to strangers walking in on a board meeting and snapping photos. So with this analogy in my head, I expected the village chiefs to be seated across from us, perhaps even behind some kind of desks or tables. But instead, the seven chiefs laid back in seven hammocks in the middle of the room. They were tied about ten feet above our heads, but dipped down to only a couple feet above the ground in front of us. We sat on a wooden bench at their feet, which we were told was a place of honor.
These men were a sight to behold. Each had a black fedora holding a variety of feathers upon their heads, which was clearly a sign of status. They all wore button-up shirts, and some even had neck ties. And all the men were barefoot. Many other men from the village sat in the benches around the perimeter, and kids would stop for a few moments as they walked by the doorways to gaze in curiously. And so we waited somewhat quietly, staring at the bottoms of bare feet propped up in their hammocks.
Eventually the meeting began (as I learned, Latin America promptness is not nearly as uptight as American promptness). Ben introduced us in Spanish, which Teo then translated to Kuna. Then the chief would respond in Kuna, which Teo would translate to Spanish, which Ben would translate to English. It took very little time for this process to become wearying, and thus it demanded that I intentionally focused on looking alert. Although, much to our amusement, many of the chiefs did not attempt to put up such an appearance. As the dialogue continued, some chiefs got up to have side conversations or work on something while they listened. Others simply fell asleep. Most of the conversation was led by their second-in-command, as their head chief was temporarily in another village.
While the triple translating did drag on, it was also clear how grateful the chiefs were to have clean water systems offered to them. They understood (as many around the world do not) that the water from their river makes them sick. One problem, however, came up at a disappointing frequency: groups had come in the past, they said, and they never followed through to see their project completed. Providing people access to clean water is one of my wife’s biggest passions, and this problem aggravates her to a degree I’ve seen little else do – foreign aid does not mean flying in, dropping off gifts, and flying away. Rather, if we are to implement systems that are effective and actually helpful, there must be follow through and it must come with education. I am not the voice to speak well into these matters, but it was clear that this was a community burned by poorly planned charity on multiple occasions.
So, as Rachael worked through clean water plans with these chiefs, they asked us several times for our word that we would finish what we started. Rachael assured them that we were committed to seeing the job done, and it didn’t take long to see in their faces that they believed us. The interim head chief even gave us a kind and unexpected promise – that if we were true to our word, we would have our picture taken and hung up in that meeting place (which looked as though it would be the first piece of decoration apart from the hammocks).
After many handshakes and head nods and hours on wooden benches (I learned sor nun maket is Kuna for “my rear hurts”) and words I didn’t understand, we made our way out of the building having made the promise to see the mission of Solea Water done in Wala. It was an experience that breathed life into me – getting the process started to provide water to a community that had come so close several times already. So pray with me, friends, as we move forward, that we wouldn’t just be another group that makes empty promises or gets caught up in the moment without any follow-up, but that Solea Water would finally be able to bring clean water to the beautiful village of Wala.
Wala & Village Rights International
After 12 hours of travel, we landed with fatigue and excitement in Panama City. The language barrier established itself pretty quickly for me as we made our way through customs. Previously, my furthest venture outside the US had been to the far-off land of Toronto, Canada. On top of this, you could find the entirety of my known Spanish vocabulary on the drive-thru menu at Taco Bell. So, you might say I felt a little lost in this new place so far from my comfortable couch. However, it was here I learned that there are common threads between members of the human race everywhere, pulling us together and making exotic lands feel not-so-far-away after all.
As we exited the terminal in Panama City, we were met by Ben and Teo. Ben had been in contact with Rachael leading up to our trip, and we would spend almost the entirety of our time with him. Ben founded the non-profit Village Rights International, a foundation seeking to aid indigenous groups in Panama in all things legal. Armed with his degree from the University of Florida, Ben was a man set to use his God-given gifts to help these people who were not equipped to help themselves in this arena. See, Ben’s parents were missionaries in the indigenous village of Morti, so he spent his childhood with these people. And as we learned, Teo was from Morti, so their relationship was deep. Teo was going to be our “in” at the village of Walla, a community neighboring Morti, and who spoke a language called Kuna in which only Teo was fluent. I wonder still if we would have been able to reach Wala in the same way had Teo not been a part of our team.
We spent our first evening in a small hostel in Chepo and departed for Wala early the next morning. Ben told us that the logging industry was huge in Panama, which resulted in many open areas. Those that had been freshly cut were still covered in a layer of light ash and littered with blackened trunks. But Ben told us we would notice the stark contrast at the Wala border. He was correct. The fields of thin grass became abrupt thick forest at the border where the logging companies were not allowed to go. Sitting at the border were a couple of men – a border patrol if you will – who spoke briefly with Teo and moved the log gate to grant us entry. Ahead of us was an hour and a half journey through the forest over constant bumps and hills that shook our poor rental car the whole way. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the occasional giant koiba trees – they stood nearly twice as tall as any other trees. According to Ben, the wood is essentially useless, and so they stood as lonely giants in the middle of even the logged areas. After a somewhat exhausting hour and a half of bouncing around, we saw the village of Wala across a river up on a hill.
I got my camera ready as we parked our car on the rocky beach of the river that separated us from Walla. The river was full of activity – it was, as we learned later, the center of life at Walla. Kids laughed and splashed around; fathers played catch with their sons; many women washed clothes at the opposite bank. A man named Alex, our first friend in Walla, pulled a hand-dug canoe over the water. Ben told Rachael and me to get in and Alex would tow us across. Children giggled as we warily hobbled our way into the canoe, and we were escorted across the river by smiling Alex. We clumsily exited the boat on the other side and turned to watch Ben and Teo (much more comfortably) follow suit. We took our backpacks and jugs of water and climbed the steep dirt hill into the village.
Walla felt very foreign to my American sense of comfort. We weaved our way through homes of wooden walls and thatch roofs, which huddled closely together in a seemingly random pattern. Groups of small, shirtless children watched us curiously, only to turn and run at eye contact, a cluster of giggling bellies. Almost every wooden home held up a bright red satellite dish – most likely a gift, Ben told us, from a politician in exchange for votes. So many homes had colorful clothes hanging to dry everywhere, safely above the dirt floors, with a small flat screen TV playing something quietly from the dish. We stopped and left our things at Alex’s home, where we met his family and waited for a bit on wooden benches and hammocks.
We then had the chance to explore for a bit: we were scheduled to meet with the village chiefs a few hours later. On our tour, we saw the village school (where there was a rain water catchment system in place!), the homes we’d be staying in, and some incredible scenery. Rachael did some water testing at each of the water access points in the community and also took down some GPS coordinates of the water sources, key points in the community, and other existing structures of previously uncompleted projects. It is very common to see parts of water systems, such as the massive water tower at the highest point in the community of Wala and other pieces of piping. Unfortunately, many projects sit unfinished due to a lack of funding.
I will, though, always remember the meeting with the chiefs and elders – which you can read about in Part II (coming soon!)