As small business owners my wife Jennifer and I operate much like any other business, keeping up with accounting, making runs to the UPS store, managing our warehouse, but unlike other small businesses, we are placed into a privileged relationship with another culture a great distance from our home. Since our children are still preschoolers I have taken many of the the trips down to Panama to meet with the Wounaan weavers.
I have never seen this role as a simple one involving a business transaction, but more a connection we are making with shared risks. They have placed faith in us to entrust us with the very finest pieces from their master weavers and it is our responsibility to help them find their way to the right collectors. I have traveled remote villages to develop a personal relationship with the weavers to help maintain the trust that they have placed in us.
As parents of young children, our kids are obviously the biggest investment in our time and efforts outside of our work. Observations and discussions about raising children come easily with our friends and family, and as I travel to meet with the Wounaan it is no different. There are, however, some stark contrasts in raising children in the USA versus in the Darien Rainforest.
One of the beautiful elements of life in the village is how Wounaan babies feed into the natural continuity of the community. Young mothers travel around with their babies on their hips, feeding them and caring for them in such a graceful and natural way. When we were expecting we were deluged with books advising us on what to do, we took classes, we watched videos, and in the end we came home with these babies to a house loaded with instruction manuals, plastic gadgets to make things easier, and we just had no clue what to do and very few people around to help. In contrast, the Wounaan girls in the village watch mothers care for babies as a regular element of life. There is a calm and politeness to children in the village that stands in stark contrast to the children’s birthday parties I have been to involving flying leaps, screaming parents and lots of ‘time outs’.
Of course there is another side to motherhood in the Wounaan community. Prenatal care is handled through remote health clinics and childbirth is predominantly handled in the home. Home birth in the USA is also widely practiced. The difference is that if something goes wrong here in the USA, we have birthing coaches, doula’s and midwives that can easily get a mother and baby to the hospital.
During my last trip, after meeting with the weavers over the course of a day, I learned that two of the weavers were in labor that evening. It was a shock to hear this news, but those telling me seemed quite at ease. Once again, there is a natural peace of birthing and babies that can appear so foreign to us gringos. After dinner I asked how the mothers were doing and they said that both babies were born healthy, but one of the mothers had a difficult delivery. Surrounded by her family I am sure she was being well taken care of in a loving way, but nothing like the level of data and medical information we have come to expect.
We were planning to head home the next morning, so I was eager to get to bed since the 6 hour boat ride can be a little hard to get through, especially if the seas are choppy. As I was turning in, I was told to expect another person on the boat the next morning for our 6am departure. Brisaidita Mejia, who is one of the very gifted master weavers, was joining us since her little baby was sick. He was not eating well and having difficulty breathing. Once again, drawing a parallel to our lives back home and countless calls in the nurse’s hotline, rushing the babies in to the pediatrician and internet searches, we were so frantic to figure out why our babies were sick for the most benign illnesses.
The next morning we set out for the boat launch and there was Brisaidita and her little baby. I thought back to my concerns about the boat ride for my own discomfort and here she was loading in to the floor of the boat, wrapping up the little baby to keep her warm and dry for the ride. The closest hospital for her to get to is in Chepo, which is another 45 min car ride from the port after the 6 hour boat ride. From there, she would need to wait for 3 to 4 hours to see a doctor. I couldn’t stop thinking about our expectations for medical care back home and how much a long boat ride and 4 hour wait is so far beyond what we would tolerate.
I relay this story to show the dichotomy of motherhood in the Wounaan culture. On one hand, I was so envious of the strength of character and grace that these mothers have and the way that babies bring families and communities together as opposed to isolation and confusion. On the other hand there is also the challenge for medical services which are so difficult to get and require such resources like outboard motors, gas and long uncomfortable travel.
The role that the basket economy plays in these challenges is very real. We are paying the weavers directly, in a competitive market to acquire the finest baskets. We have committed to send a percentage of our profits from May sales to those weavers with the most need. Last year we were able to send donations to 7 Wounaan in need, for help with general expenses, sick babies, sick family members, and glasses. This year we are committed to the same, and hopefully for many years to come.