When I decided to volunteer with Fundacion Uaguitupu and teach English to the Kuna children of Kuna Yala, I did not have much prior knowledge of the Kuna people nor their culture even though I have a Masters degree in Latin American Studies. Naturally, I was intrigued; partly out of curiosity to know more about the Kuna people and their culture and partly out of the desire to have an interesting and unique work experience that really meant something. I was not looking to just take vacation, I wanted to volunteer somewhere where my help was needed, and would be appreciated and make a difference. Fundacion Uaguitupu, a non profit NGO, dedicated to improving the lives of the Kuna people, seemed to fit these criteria.
I was selected to teach English to the Kuna children of the community of Achutupu in Kuna Yala for one month. I would be teaching grades 1-6. Before I left, I tried to do as much research as possible about Achutupu on the internet but to my disappointment, I really could not find sufficient information. For starters, there are a few different islands by the same name (including a small uninhabited island also known as Isla Perro), so this also created some confusion. The community of Achutupu where I volunteered is a populated island of about 2,000 inhabitants. I have traveled and lived abroad in Latin America previously, so I did not think culture shock would be an issue for me but I experienced a culture shock from the second I stepped off the plane onto the Achutupu airstrip.
The airport in Achutupu was not much of an airport at all. There was a landing strip, some wooden benches and small office. Customs consisted of an open faced shelter with a thatched roof. The first thing I noticed was the intense heat. I was told that it would be very hot (in the 90s), but it was much hotter than I had imagined. Unless you are used to living without air conditioning during the hot summer months, it can be a difficult adjustment.
There was no electricity so there was not much of an escape from the heat except for splashing yourself with some cold water to cool off. There was also no running water in the community, so showers consisted of using a small bucket or tortoise shell and a large barrel of water (filled with river or rain water). I was a little confused at first of how this whole process worked but then I learned that you simply scoop the clean water out of the large barrel with a small bucket and pour it on yourself. Sometimes I ended up taking two or three of these showers a day just to try and cool off. Due to the heat, you sweat a lot. In fact, I carried around a small towel like I would use at the gym because I was constantly dripping with sweat.
Another culture shock I experienced was the food (or lack there of). There were no restaurants or cafeterias in the community and the stores sold only very basic items. The stores were small thatched houses which many times doubled as people’s homes. The most I ever saw at the little stores in terms of food were crackers, canned sardines, and cookies, but I have heard that you can buy eggs there as well. The closest thing to a cafeteria was the “Comedor”, which was a small house next to the school which sold things such as tortilla, chicken, eggs, salchicha (hot dog) and plantains. Most of the food was fried and there was not much of a variety. It was also not the most reliable place to eat because they closed everyday at 5pm and one afternoon when I tried going for lunch and asked if they were open and they said yes; but they just didn’t have anything to eat or drink. I later found out that there was only one cook and she was on vacation.
Drinking water was another issue. Since the water is not safe to drink, I bought bottled water from the little stores or tiendas. Some of these tiendas even had refrigerators powered by generators so I was able to buy cold water. Each bottle of water was $1 so it can start to add up after awhile. Another option was boiling river or rain water, but to drink cold water on a very hot day, for me, was worth a little extra cash. I was also told that it is possible to order a shipment of bottled water in bulk and have it shipped by boat or plane which would save some money if you plan on being in the community or any extended period of time.
Another surprise I experienced was that there was not much in way of a beach on the island. There was sand and an ocean, after all we were on an island, but it was nothing like the pristine beach images I had seen in my travel books of other islands in the archipelago. The island did not have a trash disposal system so people would just throw their trash into the ocean, much of which would just wash back up onto the beach. The water was polluted from the trash, but also from human waste. Since most families did not have plumbing, the bathroom consisted of walk out to the ocean. Some families had an outhouse over the ocean. Needless to say, the beach in Achutupu was not the most inviting environment to take a swim. On the bright side, however, there were some nearby islands with very clean beaches that were just a cayuco ride away.
The school, Escuela Sahila Iguanisy was a culture shock in itself. I had never seen any other school like it. The tin roof was full of holes so when it rained, classes had to be cancelled because the classrooms would fill with water. Due to the lack of electricity and generators, there were no lights in the school and when it was cloudy or overcast outside, the classrooms were very dark. There was not a fan in the school for ventilation thus making it a very hot and uncomfortable environment to teach and learn. Trashcans were scarce so there was trash on the ground everywhere and students lacked the most basic school supplies. The classrooms had some old desks and a chalkboard but there was not much else and everything was in very poor condition. Due to the lack of resources, teachers had to draw everything by hand and with up to 40 students in each class, handouts were virtually impossible.nded period of time.
Perhaps the most shocking was that there was no bathroom at the school. When students needed to use the restroom they would say “Hey, permiso! Orinar! orinar!”(Hey, excuse me! Urinate! Urinate!) They would then proceed to run out to either the courtyard or the back of the school and just go about their business out in the open. There was a public outhouse a few houses down from the school but there was no sanitation, you have to bring your own toilet paper, soap and people rarely used it.
The school consisted of pre-kinder to 6th grade and over a period of a month, I taught grades1-6. The sixth grade was my largest class with 40 students and my smallest class was second grade which had 21 students. The day was divided into two sessions; the younger grades had class in the morning between 7:00am and 12:00pm and the older grades had class from 12:40-4:20pm. There were 1-2 short breaks or recreos included within each session. Each grade had two or three sections identified with the letters A-C. For example, for second grade there was 2A, 2B, and 2C. These groups also corresponded with the room numbers which changed from morning to afternoon. The classrooms were not labeled so it was a bit confusing at first, but when in doubt there was always someone around to ask. There was only one English teacher at the school who only taught grades 3-6 and he went on vacation shortly after I arrived so in his absence, I covered most of the classes. After he returned, I primarily taught the younger grades in the mornings.
One of the biggest challenges I faced with the children was the language barrier, especially with the younger grades because they had no previous English language instruction and spoke very little Spanish. The students were very shy when it came to participation but quite talkative amongst themselves. Each class was roughly 1.5-2 hours and I found this time passed rather quickly. Many times I would plan a very detailed lesson but would only be able to cover a small part of it. Without having the options of handouts, students had to copy most of the information, and I found that this took up a good amount of time. For example, it took the younger grades about 30 minutes to copy five phrases in English from the board. For this reason, rather than spending the majority of class having students copy down information, I tried to get students more involved by doing more fun and interactive activities in class. I once sat in on the other English teacher’s class and the entire class consisted of copying and repeating numbers 1-100. The class was very boring and did not appear to be very effective for the students either. My goal was to make learning English fun for the students rather than a boring laborious task.
I taught my students songs and had them draw pictures to illustrate new vocabulary and concepts. I used lots of visual aids such as picture flashcards to learn weather and animal vocabulary and photographs. In an effort to boost participation, I offered small rewards such as stickers and pencils for those who put forth the most effort. Since most of the children only spoke Kuna I would often bring in of pictures I had drawn myself as an example of the assignment. If one student picked up the idea first, I would often show their work as an example to the class, they seemed to like this quite a bit. I also found one or two students that spoke some Spanish in each class who I appointed as my class helpers and they often assisted by further explaining directions in Kuna if there was still any confusion. Once the students understood what they were supposed to do, they proceeded to work on assignments with great enthusiasm, often running up to show me their progress with a big smiles on their faces. They were very proud of their work..
In my free time, I really tried to take advantage of the resources around me. For the majority of my stay, I was the only volunteer on the island, but when two other volunteers came to the island that did not speak any Spanish; I acted as their interpreter and translator during seminars and Kuna church ceremonies. Since many people on the island only spoke Kuna, the church ceremonies would often be given in both Spanish and Kuna. Fortunately, there was another interpreter/translator on the island, Daniel, who also spoke Kuna. Between the two of us, we provided simultaneous interpretation to each volunteer.
When I was not acting as an interpreter or translator I tried to become involved in the Kuna community as much as possible. After I finished teaching, I would often read stories to the neighborhood kids or we would color together. As we read the stories, I taught them English and Spanish words by pointing to the different images on the pages and they would teach me Kuna words in exchange. Even when I was not in class, I discovered that I never stopped teaching. I also made friends with the adult members of the community. Many times, I was invited by different families to have lunch or a cup of hot chocolate. I would sit and talk with them for hours, learning about their culture and teaching them about my own. I always carried a notepad with me so I could jot down new names and words.
I tried to integrate myself into the community as much as possible and I even learned how to speak some Kuna. The going rate of a lobster dinner was $1 but some families would not charge me anything. In fact, when I tried to offer one family in particular some money, they refused to take it, saying that I was a friend and they did not charge friends to have dinner with them. This was a family that had five young children to feed and had very little.
Once people realized that I was not just another tourist there to photograph them, they really started to warm up and accept me. My students told their families about me and pretty soon everyone was greeting me by name. The people were very friendly and were appreciative of me being there. Some families even gave me gifts before I left such as handmade necklaces and photographs of themselves so I “would not forget them”. Of course, I would never forget them. The gifts were of enormous generosity because they had so little but yet they still gave. Many people on the island had never even seen a photograph, yet there was one family who gave Polaroid photos of their children. I tried to refuse the gift saying that they should keep the pictures but they insisted that I have them. The generosity and genuine kindness of the Kuna community was truly touching. What began as a difficult, almost impossible situation at first, turned into something positive and truly rewarding. In the beginning did not know if I could not last a single day, but I adapted rather quickly and I ended up really missing Achutupu and the dear friends I had made there. It was a truly memorable experience and I look forward to my next visit.