An Open Door to the San Blas Islands
THE twin-engined plane circled over the tiny landing strip along the beach. The pilot announced that the runway was flooded and it would not be safe to land. But making another approach, he decided to bring the plane down. As the plane hit the ground, it bounced along on the gravel strip, sending a spray of water high into the air. When it finally came to a stop, we breathed a sigh of relief. Our anxiety turned into joy when we spotted our friends waiting for us.
They had come from the island of Ustupu, about a mile off the coast. It is one of the San Blas Islands, a chain of some 350 islets dotting the northeastern coastline of Panama as far as the Colombian border. These islands are inhabited by about 50,000 native Indians of the Kuna tribe. We had come with a mission.
An Audience With the Sahilas
San Blas is a comarca, or territorial division, of the Republic of Panama. Each island is governed by its own Sahilas, a sort of local council made up of older male members of the community. Representatives from the Sahilas make up a body called Caciques, which rules over the entire comarca.
Since 1969, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been preaching the good news of the Kingdom in San Blas, and about 50 people now attend our meetings. (Matthew 24:14) However, local authorities have denied us permission to preach on some of the islands. Recently, the Sahilas of Ustupu, the second-most-populated island in the group, requested an interview with Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to decide whether to grant us official recognition or not. It appears that Jehovah is ‘opening the door’ for us.—1 Corinthians 16:9.
At a preliminary meeting, the main concern of the local authorities became clear. They pointed out that there were already four religions in the community—Catholic, Baptist, Church of God, and Mormon. Each of these has a large church building, some of which are in a state of abandonment. With land being so scarce on the island, the officials would have to be cautious about letting in another religious group.
By means of an interpreter, we explained that in over 200 lands around the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses have contributed to the welfare of the community by the high moral standards they maintain. We assured the officials that meetings would now be held in the homes of the local Witnesses, and if it should become necessary to build a special meeting place, it would not fall into disuse, for our meetings are well attended.
After about an hour’s discussion, the officials decided to present the matter at the next Sahilas meeting, held later in the week. We would have to wait for the answer.
A Visit to Dog Island
Rather than just wait, we decided to visit Achutupu, or Dog Island, with the Kingdom message. Our boat, named La Torre del Vigia (The Watchtower), is brightly painted in red and blue and is fitted with an outboard motor. The boat stands out in sharp contrast with the many other cayucos, or dugout canoes, tied up at the wharf. A 45-minute ride through rather choppy seas brought us to Achutupu.
Achutupu is a typical small tropical island, with swaying palm trees and sandy beaches. But with a population of about 2,000, it seemed rather crowded. Rows of native huts were everywhere, separated only by narrow, unpaved alleyways. The huts all looked alike. Walls, made of rattan canes latched to a frame of slim tree branches, stood only about five feet [1.5 m] high and were topped by a tall, thick roof of palm fronds. Inside, there was just one open space for the whole family. There were no windows, but the spaces between the canes allowed enough light and air to filter through.
Before visiting the homes with our Bible message, we decided to follow the local custom of calling on the village chiefs to obtain their permission. So we headed for the community hall, a large building in the center of town.
It was dark inside the hall, but when our eyes became adjusted, we could see rows of wooden benches set around an open space in the center. Pictures of important Sahilas of the past were everywhere. Because of the darkness, the pictures, and the silence, the place was like the inside of a church. In the center of all of this were five men, some reclining in hammocks, others sitting on benches. Apparently, they were the village chiefs.
Speaking in the local language, Bolivar, one of the Witnesses who had come with us from Ustupu, explained the purpose of our visit. Right away, we were given a friendly reception and permission was granted for us to call on the villagers.
Hut to Hut in Achutupu
The Kuna Indians are a happy, friendly people. As we walked through the streets, the children ran up to us, calling out “Mergui! Mergui!” meaning “foreigners.” They wanted to shake our hands. There were few men around, and we were told that most of them were away tending their small plots of ground on the mainland.
We were invited inside at every home. The housewife would seat us in heavy, hand-carved wooden chairs, and the rest of the family would gather around to listen attentively. Before leaving, we would be offered a drink made of cocoa, coffee, or local fruits. This was followed by a glass of water for rinsing our mouth. According to local custom, it was quite in order to spit the water on the floor. We soon learned to take just a little sip each time, remembering that there were many homes to call on.
At one hut, we saw about 50 carved wooden images of different sizes lined up alongside the entrance. Bolivar explained that these were for warding off evil spirits. When the woman came to the door and told us that her husband was not well, we understood why the images were there, for sickness is often attributed to demons.
After we were invited inside, we saw the husband lying in a hammock. Suspended from a cord above him were dozens of miniature bows strung with red-tipped arrows aimed at the sick man. These were supposed to frighten the evil spirits. On the floor were several round gourds containing small images, tobacco pipes, and smoldering cocoa beans. These were supposed to appease the spirits. Bolivar tried to comfort the family by telling them about God’s promise to wipe away all sickness, and they accepted some Bible literature. Once again, there were the traditional drink and glass of water.
Colorful Kuna Costumes
Unusual sights on the islands are the colorful costumes of the Kuna Indians. Although the men usually wear Western-style clothes today, the women still prefer their traditional dress consisting of a red shawl, a short-sleeved blouse, and a knee-length skirt. The upper part of the blouse is usually brightly colored. The mid-section is known as a mola, which tourists often buy and use as a wall decoration. It is a patchwork of colorful cloth in traditional designs of birds, fish, and animals. The skirt is simply a rectangular piece of dark cloth with bright patterns, wrapped around the body and tucked in at the waist. Most Kuna women wear their hair short, although some of the younger unmarried girls let their hair grow longer.
The women seem to enjoy wearing many ornaments. Gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and nose rings are very popular. Often all the assets of the family, which may amount to thousands of dollars, are worn by the women in this manner. Distinctive, too, are their leg and arm bands. These are made of tiny beads of orange, yellow, and other colors and may be anywhere from two to six inches [5 to 15 cm] wide. The women string the beads on a long thread and then wind it tightly on their limbs. Clever designs are achieved by alternating the color of the beads on the thread. The bands are tied on tightly so that they can be worn for months at a time without being removed even for bathing. To complement their finery, a vertical black line is painted or tattooed down the center of the forehead and nose, ending at the upper lip.
Our interesting visit to Achutupu had to be cut short, as we had to return to Ustupu in time for the meeting with the Sahilas. At the wharf, many people were waiting to get some Bible literature from us. We were happy to leave what we had with them.
Back in Ustupu, the community hall was crowded with hundreds of people eager to find out whether Jehovah’s Witnesses would be officially recognized or not. So were we. As the proceedings moved along, the chairman presented the motion to authorize Jehovah’s Witnesses to operate as a religion on the island. When he invited the audience to express their views, our heartbeat quickened. Only two persons opposed; the majority were favorable.
Finally, the congress voted to grant official permission for us to hold meetings and preach from door to door and to have the decision written in their records. Thus, Jehovah’s Witnesses became the first religion on the island to have written authorization to function. All the others have only verbal agreements. How happy and grateful we were for this victory!
It is hoped that this decision will open the door for the good news of the Kingdom to be preached in all the islands of San Blas. There is every reason to feel as did the psalmist when he said: “Jehovah himself has become king! Let the earth be joyful. Let the many islands rejoice.”—Psalm 97:1.
[Map on page 28]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
San Blas Islands
Gulf of Panama