Reflections on Panama

Last week I traveled down to Panama with Calvin College’s chapter of Global Business Brigades. We spent a week in rural eastern Panama, specifically in the Piriati Embera community, providing microfinance consulting to families and microenterprises. My group and I focused on three individuals who were looking to improve their entrepreneurial experience.

Yaricell Cabrera is a young woman who currently sells cultural artisan crafts in Panama City. We worked with her to develop goals for the future based on her best experiences from the past. We left her with added knowledge of how to save her earnings in order to make her dreams a reality. Maribel Sarco is also a young woman who sells cultural artisan crafts. However she is currently working through high school by taking night classes. She focuses her selling to visiters to the community. She has a goal to open a larger storefront on the main road in order to sell more directly to visitors (probably gringos) who are driving by. We developed a savings plan, specifically tailored to her inconsistant income levels to help her make this dream come to fruition. Marcelo Sabugara is a middle aged man who is also a leader of the community. He is hoping to open a dry goods store in the next few months.  He was a pure joy to work with. He had specific questions ready for our group as soon as we arrived. Some of them were quite difficult to answer but it was clear he was a very smart man. He enjoyed his time with us so much he invited us to his house for lunch for one of the days. (The picture on the right is what he severed us!) We were able to connect with him at a much deeper level than our other clients. We began to talk about faith, the church community in Piriati, and how we could pray for each other. It was a beautiful moment and probably the highlight of the trip for me.

-Technology-

One of the most interesting and thought provoking moments of our trip was on the last day. We had some time to share cultures with the families and individuals we had been spending time with over the week. We preformed a dance for them. The Cupid Shuffle, classic gringos. One interesting insight into the structure of their community is the integration of technology. They have electricity for only about 3 days a week, but most of the families have electric stoves and washing machines. But everybody has cell phones. In fact their is a cell phone tower in the middle of their community. Anyway, as we began to start presenting our dance, one of the women whipped out her cell phone and started to video record our dance. It was an interesting change in roles. Typically it is us, the visitors from the north, who video record their dances. But today she was recording us. I’m not sure what to think of it yet but it is interesting to think about the integration of technology into indigenous rural communities all over the world.

-Time-

One of my take aways of the week is paradoxical. It has to do with the constraint of time. We were only their for a week. To short to make any real difference from a development perspective. Time was the largest constraint on our experience. It never seemed like we had enough time to get to know the situation of our clients. And in reality, we probably didn’t. However at the end of the week, I was struck with the social connection we had made with our clients. In fact it seems wrong to call them clients at this point. I could call them friends. During our time of goodbyes (actually not goodbyes, in Central and South America it is adios no, hasta luego si.) our whole group was somewhat taken aback with how hard it was to say goodbye. Time was a constraint with the physical objective work we were doing but also not a constraint with the subjective social relationships.

-Spirit-

One of the surprises of the trip was an unplanned blessing. Global Brigades is not a religious organization by any means. They work with secular universities and are able to have a much larger impact because of this. However, as students from Calvin College, we are all primarily motivated by our faith. It is interesting to have conversations with other students during the week, who are motivated by other things. Some noble and some selfish. Our group from Calvin participated in devotions every night. It was interesting to see our project coordinator ponder our discipline during the week. The interpretor for my small group for the week was also not a Christian, admittedly he was Buddhist. It was amazing to have a conversation with Marcelo, through our interpreter about faith and about how we were going to pray for each other.  I pray that we made a difference and that the Spirit moved through us and in all the interactions and conversations we had.

-Magic-

I was able to preform magic tricks with the kids of the Piriati Embera community.  It was an amazing opportunity to bond with the kids and see their look of amazement on their faces. The girl on the right in the picture here, took a particular liking to my magic tricks and followed me around all week with new items to do a trick with. It was awesome!

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