Arriving at Rio Oeste Arriba (West River Above) in Panama required walking 45 minutes down from the main road that runs through the province of Bocas del Toro. The community of Rio Oeste has 500 Ngobe indigenous people. Half of them lived in the center of the community, which was anchored by La Iglesia de Cristo (the Church of Christ). The other half chose to live farther out, close to the land they worked to produce root vegetables for consumption and plantains and cocoa for income. For the last seven months of my two-year service, I visited and worked regularly with 12 families in Rio Oeste, on projects ranging from business education to conservation.
Cata was the head of one of these families. She had 10 children and, like most Ngobe women, she was short and thick. She wore her long black hair pulled tightly into a braided ponytail. She had never cut her hair; doing so was considered bad luck. She had wise, sad eyes buried by a heavy, round face. Her unusually strong personality and sharp tongue was softened only slightly by her smile.
I visited Cata almost every Sunday, and we would talk and laugh as she completed one of her many household chores. The last Sunday I spent in Rio Oeste, Cata told me she wanted to show me parts of the river I had never seen. Dreading a long day of visitors and quiet good-byes, the walk sounded like a good escape.
We set out at 7 a.m.—Cata was always prompt—with her son Gadiel and his friend, both in their 20s, and her younger, 12 year-old-son, Iscar, who was more commonly known by his nickname, Mudo. When he was a baby, meningitis had left him deaf. Although he was capable of making sounds, Panamanians generally do not distinguish between the deaf and mute, so he was labeled with the nickname mudo, which means mute. I was guilty of playing favorites among the community kids, and I often paid Iscar special attention. I loved him for his expressiveness-loud in its silence and insistence. Whenever I walked through the village, he would suddenly materialize at my side. Smiling, he would tentatively grab my hand, squeeze it and let go—a release that always came too quickly for me. Hungry for praise, Iscar often appeared at my door to show me the grades in his school notebooks. Educating him was complex. Iscar was forever in elementary school because the second-grade teacher, a gentle woman who had taught in the community for over 20 years, was the only teacher in the school patient enough to find new ways to teach him. Although Iscar was practically crippled by meningitis as a baby, Cata had devised her own physical therapy routine, and he had grown remarkably strong. Often, I would see this boy who couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds scrambling down from the mountain, hauling on his back 50-pound sacks of plantains.
Toward the end of our walk by the river, Cata and I sat on a ledge of rocks overlooking the water. The boys stripped down to their shorts and dove in, and Cata began to talk. The conversation meandered until she suddenly settled on the real purpose of our walk.
She turned to face me. "Puedes llevar Mudo contigo?" she asked. (Can you take Mudo with you?)
I wasn’t wholly surprised by her question. I had noted that Iscar was dressed in his nicer clothes, and I had been asked half-seriously by more casual acquaintances to take their children and teach them English, to make them gringos. Still, I had not fully anticipated this request from Cata. Wary I might be translating in error, I asked her for clarification—would I, or could I?
"Los dos," she replied. (Both.)
"Technically," I said, weighing my words carefully, "it would be possible, but I would have to adopt him legally."
"Està bien." she said. (It’s okay.)
So, yes, I could do it. But would I? "Yo no se" I said slowly. (I don’t know.)
I was looking steadily at her, but I was thinking about the challenges I would face returning home after two years away. And, until I settled on a career plan, I would have little financial stability. Why couldn’t I just say no?
Eager to change the focus of our conversation, I smiled and asked if she wouldn’t miss him terribly if she sent him away with me.
"Sì, claro," she replied. (Of course.) "But I know he would be safe with you; I know how much you care for him. You know he is intelligent. If he stays here, he will be in our house forever. We can’t afford to send him to a special school, he will never learn more than what he knows now, and he will have no opportunities. The people here will only ever see him as Mudo."
I sat very still, quiet and pensive. With my knees to my chest, I looked at my feet. I could not take Iscar with me. Employing humor, a form of communication we were both comfortable with, I told Cata I wasn’t prepared to be responsible for a child fresh out of the jungle with special needs and besides, Iscar would not fit inside my backpack. Although we both laughed at the image, I felt only pain because I did not have the capacity to help this child.
I knew Iscar was intelligent and curious and with opportunity he would learn and perhaps flourish. I wanted to give him this opportunity, but I felt there were limits to what I could do, and I wasn’t sure that removing Iscar from his home, his family, and his culture was truly a solution. My experience in the Peace Corps had taught me that even some of the most straightforward challenges are, paradoxically, complex.
But I didn’t have to explain this to Cata. She reached out, touched my arm and asked why I wasn’t swimming. I stood and wiped away the tears that rimmed my eyes, shucked my black rubber swamp boots, peeled off my sweaty socks and dove into the water after Iscar. I signaled him to race me to the far side of the slow-moving river. He beat me by two full strokes and looked back grinning.
I have been home now for five months. Like Iscar letting go of my hand, the release from Panama came a little too quickly. I still feel overwhelmed with emotion when I look through the stacks of photos I have from Rio Oeste. I have told Iscar’s story more than once and inevitably, someone asks why I didn’t bring him home. The question frustrates me until I remember that I would have asked the same question before I served in the Peace Corps. It took me many months before I realized that my work in Panama wasn’t about directly creating change but rather motivating change in others.
When I left Rio Oeste, the pastor thanked me for caring for Iscar and the other children. He told me that of all the work I had done in the community, the most important was reminding them that their children are their best resource. I left hoping that I motivated change in perception, in treatment, in priorities. And I settled for taking Iscar, Cata, and Rio Oeste home only in my heart.
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