History of Kuna Nation and our efforts to serve
The Trailblazers Medical Mission team of Charleston, South Carolina travel annually to meet the needs of the indigenous tribe of Indians who reside in a remote island community of Panama. The Kuna Indians are a nation of more than seventy thousand people who inhabit approximately fifty villages in a three hundred mile stretch of islands and communities along the shore of the northeastern coast. The access to medical care is meager so our team encounters overwhelming medical and fundamental needs that we are not always equipped to handle.
This team has made annual efforts to administer medical care to three different villages per year for the last 13 years. We are able to take supplies and medications that are procured via several companies that dispense medications to non-profit organizations for this purpose. We provide treatment for the more common ailments but we are limited in our supply since we attempt to reach upwards of one thousand patients per visit. We have found the most economic way to transport these supplies is checking two bags per traveler, which equates to one hundred pounds of medications/supplies. The clinic and pharmacy is set up in whatever space is provided by the natives, since we seldom find an operating clinic. We have used schoolrooms to simple overhead shelters for providing services. Our team usually consists of two medical providers, two to three pharmacy staff and two people serving in a triage role. The native language is Kuna so we also require three-way translation for our services. We have also provided eyeglasses for the natives over the last five years. Eye charts were ditched after the first year when the women tried to simply thread their needles to see if the glasses were appropriate.
We were made aware of the needs of this people-group several years ago through a Panamanian pastor from the capital city. We have since learned a great deal about its history. The highest governing body in each island community is know as Kuna National Congress and the appointed governor is called a Saila. This territory became autonomous in 1935 but there was significant conflict behind their independence. The Indians were at war with the Spanish for decades. They settled in this area in the 1920's and sought for political independence via an armed revolt against Panama. This was due in part to issues with protection of their culture. The native dress of the women of these tribes is quite distinctive and it appears that the Panamanian government was attempting to require changes concerning the wearing of 'molas'. Molas are a colorful hand-sewn design that is a part of the native dress and for what the Kuna Indians are most well known. The sales of these original designs are the largest part of their economic trade and are primarily made by the females in each community. The living conditions consist of homes with bamboo walls, dirt floors and thatch roofs with hammocks for beds. There is usually one school constructed in each community with a single well-used basketball court.
Although the landscape is quite beautiful in this part of the world and the primitive surroundings are captivating, it does not take long for one to perceive the dire needs in this region. People in this area suffer from severe conditions of the skin due to the tropical climate and living conditions. Simple fungal infections tend to be very complicated due to lack of treatment. Scabies and lice infestations are rampant and secondary bacterial infections of the skin are common and at times quite serious. There are also many who suffer from breathing problems and in our observation, is most likely from the way they prepare their meals. There are fires within the huts with no ventilation so the exposure to the smoke causes several adults and children to be afflicted with lung problems. Chronic pain conditions are left untreated, as even a simple aspirin is unattainable. The most fundamental need that these indigenous people lack is a clean water source and sanitation. We observed the source of water in one village as holes were dug within the huts and the discolored water that appeared was the family's drinking water. The sanitation consists of a restroom built over the water's edge and all waste going directly into the sea. Our team has witnessed on several occasions as children swim and even fish just feet away from these 'facilities'. Needless to say, parasitic infestations are also a significant part of the treatment we attempt to administer. Other infectious diseases include diarrhea, tuberculosis, and HIV. There is a critical need for dental and vision care. We address dental infections with antibiotics but are unable to perform extractions since we have not had a dental professional on any of our missions. Another major medical issue is skin cancer that, given the level of sun exposure and lack of skin protection, is prevalent. A very interesting demographic of Kuna Yala is the prevalence of Albinism. One percent of the entire population is albino and this is more than anywhere else in the world. Skin cancers in these individuals goes beyond what is humane.
The access to medical care for these individuals is limited but it is improving. There is oversight from the Ministry of Health in Panama and a director of health appointed for Kuna Yala. The structure of the medical facilities consists of two regular hospitals, six larger clinics, six smaller clinics and five outreach clinics. There is limited access to these facilities by the locals and the physician coverage is sparse. The access to medications is sporadic and any major cases are deferred to Panama City, which is a very costly journey for the patients. Overall, the health and well being of these Panamanians is derelict as the support from the government is limited.
The source of food tends to be what is gathered on the land and obtained from the sea. Colombian merchant boats make their way through the villages selling clothing and supplies where coconut trade seems to be a source of commerce for the natives. Daily life involves tending to the basic needs of the family and attempts at economic gain through the production and export of their handmade crafts. They are left to cope with their malnutrition, overwhelming medical needs, and mere existence in an impoverished state. Our team has been a beginning for providing needs but we believe our focus is to communicate the needs of this group of people to the world. There is more to accomplish that we are able to do on our own.
Despite what we have described, the people of this nation are not without hope. The children perform a native dance using wooden whistles and maracas, volleyball and soccer skills are abundant, and their exuberant worship would not compare to the majority of church services we attend back home. They are very thankful for what we provide even though it is typically a meager contribution compared to the overall need.
Our hope is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many who would listen. We have one final station in our clinic. Pastor Stafford has sufficient knowledge of the Spanish language to passionately present the message of Christ. It is then translated into the Kuna language by one of the volunteers from Pastor Navas’s group. Some natives say they are hearing this message for the first time or the first time in their native tongue. It is such a privilege to be a part of a team that brings this hope to these beautiful people. We added this station into our clinic in 2013 and since then we have counted 300-500 decisions for Christ each year. Pastor Navas has a lot of work to follow up and support the pastors and leaders of these villages who have just more than doubled their congregation. In 2018, a cry for pastors came from many natives. The first young man we prayed for said, “We are sheep without a shepherd. Please pray for shepherds because it is hard to live for God in this place.” He was praying for his village of Carti Sugdup (#18 on map). Later that same week, a Saila from a neighboring village traveled to where the team was working and asked for a pastor and a church for his village. God revealed a prophecy for pastoral training to begin and Pastors Navas and Diaz accepted the call and have already planned training in February and May of 2019. The work is a tremendous task but we realize that we are not in this alone. God is organizing groups, leaders, and we know eventually, funding, so we stand in faith that His work will be completed.
All volunteers raise their own funds for personal costs as well as holding fundraisers for medical cost and transport. For many years, our congregation at International Church has made generous donations to support the bulk of the cost of the supplies. The Kuna Indians support themselves by the sale of handmade textile art called molas. These beautiful designs are matchless in their detail and are a form of art passed through the generations. We began purchasing these molas several years ago and have for the first time made them available through this site. They are truly one of a kind works of art that would culturally enrich any wall they find themselves suspended. One hundred percent of all proceeds from the sales go directly into the purchase of medications, supplies and transportation for future missions to this region and a portion of your purchase is tax deductible