Saturday, November 8, 2014

Language and La Casona

Upon arrival to the La Casona Ngöbe indigenous territory, I couldn’t help but notice the seemingly strange writing printed on most of the signs lining the dusty dirt road. As I have previously taken three years of Spanish classes, I immediately recognized it as belonging to a language much different than either Spanish or English. The seemingly peculiar combination of letters and symbols correlated with a unique syntax which I have never seen before fully captivated my attention. Although I knew based on what I have previously heard that this unique language was Ngäbere, an indigenous language spoken by the Ngöbe-Bugle people, I was nevertheless fascinated to see it written and spoken in real life. I immediately felt that such exposure to an indigenous Central American language, itself evolved separately from all Western languages for thousands of years, was truly a unique experience. However, as our primary goal on this trip was to learn about healthcare in the La Casona community, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Ngöbe language affects the healthcare of these people as well as obscures our understanding of their perception of health.
Soon after arriving at La Casona, my classmates and I toured the local EBAIS to learn about how the Costa Rican healthcare system serves this local Ngöbe community. In this environment, it felt as if we were almost immediately immersed in Ngöbe culture, surrounded by the sights of women wearing their vividly colorful traditional dresses as well as the ever-captivating sounds of spoken Ngäbere, the likes of which none of us have ever heard before. I found myself listening closely to this fascinating indigenous language, focusing on the different syllables being produced as well as the overall flow of its strangely unique linguistic sound. As we visited an EBAIS room in which Ngöbe traditional healers see patients, I continued to focus on what phrases of spoken Ngäbere I could tune in on. While we sat on the floor shoulder to shoulder, the traditional healers discussed with us healthcare via traditional healing. They answered our many questions regarding specific diseases that they treat and general healthcare that they provide as well as their specific opinions on the matter. For the majority of this discussion, they spoke solely in Ngäbere that was translated to Spanish and then English by our teachers. However, I began to question what impact such translation would have on the message conveyed. Was any of the meaning of what the traditional healers were conveying in Ngäbere being lost in translation? Was anything being implied through translation that was not actually intended by the Ngöbe healers?
This linguistic topic immensely fascinated me. I thought it might be quite possible that certain words pertaining to healthcare have unique meanings and implications in Ngäbere that may not be translated directly to a language that we can understand. As we continued our tour and made our way to a nearby Ngöbe classroom and cultural center, I continued to ponder this topic. I became imbued with the idea that such a linguistic incongruity may very well lead to non-Ngöbe speakers such as myself obtaining a skewed view of the traditional healer’s perceptive of health and healthcare due, essentially, to a loss in translation. Is the traditional Ngöbe perception of health truly something that we can never fully understand due to such linguistic barriers?
By exposing me to such interesting topics and posing such questions, the trip to the La Casona indigenous community was a truly eye-opening experience. I feel as if I became aware of what a crucial role language may play in healthcare, especially in indigenous populations. I truly believe that what I have learned there is an incredibly crucial aspect of indigenous healthcare that should be addressed much more commonly in communities like La Casona.​

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