Ngawbe - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Despite almost five hundred years of Christian—mainly Catholic—influence, the Ngawbe still retain certain traditional religious beliefs, which are manifest in their oral traditions and in certain rituals. Included are beliefs in a protector god, a god of lightning, various spirits of good and evil, and a number of culture heroes to whom the Ngawbe attribute godlike qualities. Wooden crosses placed on rooftops and on trails at the entrances to hamlets ward off evil spirits when someone is ill. The use of such crosses appears to be non-Christian in origin.

In 1961 a nativistic religious movement, known as the religion of Mama Chi (Little Mother) emerged among the Ngawbe as a result of the visionary experience of a young Ngawbe woman. This movement, at once transformative, revitalistic, and innovative, discouraged all contact with the outside world, prohibited the consumption of alcohol and the principal Ngawbe rituals at which alcohol is consumed ( balser'ías and chicherías ), instituted periodic prayer meetings, and prophesied doom and destruction if the Ngawbe did not comply with the tenets of the new religion and great good fortune at the end of five years if they did. Throughout the 1960s, the Mama Chi religion had a profound social impact on Ngawbe culture. Today it has only a small following.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional religious practitioners are called sukias. They make predictions, interpret dreams, and effect cures for certain types of illness through communication with the deities and the spirits. Sukias were also included among the priests of the Mama Chi religion, and many remain among its adherents today.

Ceremonies. The major Ngawbe ritual is called krun in Ngawbére, "balser'ía" in Spanish. Prohibited for a time during the heyday of the Mama Chi religion, it is once again being practiced. Krun rituals are grand events, with attendance numbering in the hundreds, and sometimes in the thousands. A man who serves as the host of a krun ritual achieves the pinnacle of renown and prestige in his region. Central to this ritual is the etdabali, the ritual-sibling relationship that exists between the host and his principal guest, who must also be a man of renown in his region. The ritual lasts for four days, with the central event, the throwing of l.e-meter-long balsa sticks at opponents, taking place on the third day. Stick-throwing contests occur between teams from the host's and the guest's side, as well as between individuals. Only males participate in the stick throwing. Sponsorship of a krun ceremony requires provision of enormous quantities of food and drink, so a man must be able to call in obligations from a large number of kin. "Chichería" is the Spanish term for several different Ngawbe rituals of lesser scale than the krun, all of which involve consumption of large quantities of chicha (maize beer), as well as singing, dancing, and music. The etdabali relationship is also central to these rituals.


Arts. Several rituals involve stylized singing and dancing and the music of flutes, rattles, and conch shells. The songs or chants are not sung in Ngawbére, but in what is reported to be a dialect of Murire. Face painting, usually featuring geometric designs in black, red, white, or a combination thereof, is seen most often at rituals, although the more traditional Ngawbe say that they paint their faces whenever they are happy. Of the plastic arts, beaded collars and finely made, colorfully decorated net bags are most notable. Some collars and bags are now made expressly for sale.


Medicine. Traditional curers (commonly referred to by the Spanish term curandero ) have extensive knowledge of plant medicines and can cure illnesses that are not deemed to be the result of supernatural causes. Both men and women may be curers. Sukias are often curanderos as well. Most adults have some minimal knowledge of plant medicines. Nowadays, individuals with serious illnesses are often taken to clinics in Panamanian towns for treatment, especially if treatment by a curandero or sukia has proved ineffective.


Death and Afterlife. When death occurs in a house, the dwelling must be abandoned. For this reason, an individual on the verge of death will be moved to a temporary shelter near the house, if possible. An initial period of mourning begins immediately after death. Some personal belongings are buried with the deceased, some of her or his clothing is placed on top of the grave, and the head of the grave is marked by the planting of wild ginger and sometimes a small wooden cross. Dietary restrictions are imposed upon the close relatives of the deceased and are strictly observed. Both salt and meat are prohibited. Another ceremony is held at the end of about one month, at which time the eating restrictions are removed, all guests are given a meal that includes meat, and the day is spent in reminiscing about the deceased. It is not known whether any aspects of belief in an afterlife are non-Christian in origin.

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