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Turning to Indigenous Knowledge to Boost Health in the Ngäbe Bugle Comarca 

By Nati Garcia (Maya Mam/ CS Staff)

From David City, Panama, it takes four hours of travel in the jungle to reach the Ngäbe Bugle Comarca region in the province of Bocas del Toro. By foot is the common mode of transport for Ngäbe people as they trek for days into the jungle surrounded by harmonizing sounds of nature. COVID-19 startled Indigenous Peoples in the Comarca due to a lack of readily available information. However, this is not the first time the Ngäbe people have faced an invasive virus or illness. It is an unfortunate occurrence for many Indigenous Peoples who have withstood and overcame epidemics introduced by colonizers since first contact. Building resilience and immunity in situations of adversity have been an ongoing challenge. Indigenous Peoples have been navigating many layers of adverse conditions of colonization historically by overcoming epidemics and finding ways to harvest self-autonomy and boost immunity. 

Photo by Jonathan Gonzalez Quiel.

In March 2020 Paublo Jimenez (Ngäbe) was one of the first 100 people in Panama to be infected with COVID-19 and the first in his community of Filo Verde, Comarca Ngäbe Bugle. Accurate information about the virus had not yet fully reached the Comarca Ngäbe Bugle region and many people were uneasy about or skeptical of the virus. However, for Jimenez, it was very real. He was sick for over 15 days in bed fighting the virus, as national news reported daily the stark numbers of deaths. Jimenez did not know what to think, he wondered if he would be one of the statistics as he continuously heard the media communicating alarming data and imagery of the impacts of the coronavirus. 

Jimenez is a farmer, a father of nine children, and grew up most of his life in the jungle of the comarca. When the test came back positive for COVID-19, it was concerning, as little information was given to him about the virus. Everyone abandoned him due to worry and unfamiliarity with the virus. His wife, however, kept by his bedside attending to his health while caring for her family during this difficult time. 
Being the first in his community to be infected but surviving paved the way for inspiration and hope for his community. As community members witnessed the progression of Jimenez’s recuperation, many sought out traditional medicine practices and immediately took preventative actions. Everyone knew that this would not be the first and only case.

As more community members became infected and experienced symptoms of COVID-19, medicine keepers were called upon to treat and provide healing remedies to soothe symptoms and provide spiritual guidance for mental wellness. The community took collective action in healing and strengthening their traditional medicine knowledge.  Celestino, 54, born and raised in Filo Verde, in the Comarca Ngäbe Bugle region, in the province of  Bocas del Toro, shared, “Those who got sick tried to help themselves organically with botanical medicine because the fear was to go to the hospital and return in a coffin.”