Growing up in the United States, I am blessed to know that I am more or less endowed with almost the same opportunity to live and learn to same degree as a male. Still, this inherent privilege I possess wasn’t truly realized until I stepped foot onto Panamanian soil, seeing natives interact, and interacting with locals myself. I was honestly culture shocked at the abundance of machismo culture that exists in Panama, but not only in the city prospects. The differences in culture highlight distinct gender roles present in the country’s limits. Even though these distinctions may not be absolutely evident in Panama City, our experience with the Embera tribe clearly shows the clear divisions made between genders within the village in order to allow the community to work harmoniously.
Our travels began driving through the thick rainforest, and then into a canoe maneuvering the strong current on the Chagres River. At times, the tribesmen had to vacate the boat to pull the canoe through shallow waters. Within the context of our entire experience with the tribe, I was most hesitant during our canoe ride because I was unaware of the inherent gender roles that restricted me from helping the tribesmen move the boat along the shallow river. For many males, this is a thought that never crosses their minds or burdens their life experiences. But as a female in unchartered territory, I remained where I was, watching the strongmen take charge of pushing the boat. In the United States, no single norm would have prevented me from jumping out of the boat and doing my share of the work to move the canoe along the current, but out of respect and assumption of traditional gender roles in this community, I refrained from intervening. Similar to my experience in the canoe, I observed traditional roles within the village that gave responsibilities to different groups of people in order divide labor and tasks. The women were responsible for cooking; the men hunted and caught the fish in order to be prepared and cooked by the women. The men were responsible for the carving arts; the women weaved baskets and designed the cloths skirts. Even though these roles were inevitably present in any native community, I was surprised how open-minded the tribe was to women running for chief, and welcoming foreigners into their home.
Our intercultural interaction with the Embera tribe gave me a new sense of the word “community” and “family” and how that functions within the context of roles established within those communities. These roles do not necessarily inhibit a gender, but cultivate a sense of duty and purpose within the village. It is my hope one day that I can find my niche as did the men and women of the Embera tribe. They are a true inspiration of how a little work by each person can go a long way to benefit everyone. It is that sense of welcome that I was able to experience life in a way I have only seen in movies and have read in story books, but can take back home with me and make my world seem a little more whole.