Tuesday, October 21, 2014


            As we always do with our usual trips from the biological stations, we file into our buses and head to a community that we're not all that familiar with. Sure, we learn about the people, the culture, the ethnobiology of it all, but there's always a divide that separates "us" from "them," no matter how much we actually interact with them. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just naturally how it feels – and I'm sure the community members feel it, too. It's one of the reasons I give anthropologists so much credit for integrating themselves into communities where they may not feel completely at ease. We get off the bus at the EBAIS clinic of La Casona, an indigenous community of the Ngöbe people. Their way of dress, especially the traditional dresses of the women; their dark skin, and the visibly sedentary culture of the women immediately sets us apart from them – all aspects of their culture that I notice immediately after stepping off the bus. They watch us as we walk in, and even though we were invited to visit with them and learn about La Casona medicine, something about it still feels a little off. I want to learn more about the medicine of the indigenous, and how their culture plays into their healthcare, but am I intruding? I temporarily brush off the underlying unsettling feeling of disparity, and follow the group to talk to one of the EBAIS clinic healthcare providers.
            We all stood around this woman who clearly knows a lot about both how the EBAIS clinics there function, and about the prevalent health issues circulating in the Ngöbe community, especially in La Casona. As I was practicing translating my question into Spanish in my head, I jot down her answers to other students' questions, namely the ones about the health concerns at La Casona, as I speculate that they would be most relevant to know. They turned out to be relevant in a way I didn't quite expect, however. After I ask my question, "Tiene algunas metas o planes para el futuro de esta clínica?", or "Do you have any goals or plans for the future of this clinic?," I realize that her answer sounded awfully familiar. She spoke of the issues of adolescent pregnancy in the community, and how awareness and health programs are being enacted to alleviate those issues. While there's not a large population of adolescent mothers in my hometown, it's not like it's a foreign issue to me; I've actually gone through health classes that are probably similar in their efforts to reduce adolescent pregnancy. In fact, none of her answers really surprised me all that much, and not because they're what I expected from this community. The Ngöbe people's health issues of domestic violence, adolescent pregnancy, respiratory problems, diabetes, and especially obesity as a result of sedentary lifestyles and processed foods, aren't unlike from what we see in the United States. I can name at least one person in my life who has experienced each of those issues, so why am I scribbling them down and thinking about them as if they're completely foreign? Is it just because "foreign" is pressed into my mind as something that I am constantly experiencing here? Maybe that isn't the case.
            Some may say these similarities are a result of the non-indigenous influence that this woman spoke of, and maybe that does play into it. But either way, this visit provided me with more than just an insider's perspective on healthcare in the Ngöbe community. It made me realize that although the differences of our cultures can seem stark and obvious, the underlying similarities may be more universal and significant in reality. While the health concerns of my culture back in the U.S. and those of La Casona aren't completely the same, noticing that there exist coinciding problems provided me with a more open-minded perspective of our "differences." So maybe next time the group visits a community different from our own – or whenever I encounter a group of people different than myself in the future – I'll at least understand that while cultural distinctions clearly are present, we may in fact be going through the same issues. And there's nothing wrong with a little empathy.
Rachel Brown

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