The Guna language (“Dulegayya”) is not difficult for westerners to learn because of any irregular conjugations, nor because of subject-verb agreement issues, nor any of the things we all spent countless hours memorizing with wonky mnemonics when we learned Spanish or French in high school. Once you learn the verbs and nouns and master the pronunciation, conversing in Dulegaya seems to pose a challenge in its extended use of metaphors. One of the extended metaphors that reoccurs in my many meetings about community projects and economic development is the oft-used metaphor of the house. “Knocking on the door,” is often used to signify solicitation or approaching someone with a proposal. When infrastructure changes or community-wide development projects are undertaken, the chiefs talk about fixing the roof or the window (the first time this came up, I craned my neck to look for the hole in the roof before being lectured like a child about the use of metaphors). In fact, the community-powered way in which the entire town of Armila functions is apparent in the way they build their homes.
When a couple is ready to start their family, the town will build them their first house. Preparation starts months in advance. The heads of the two men’s cooperatives, large working groups that together include all able-bodied men in the community, will serve as foremen for the project. Each man will be assigned a specific number of materials that they are will have to collect before the date of construction. For instance, Jaime might be assigned to collect 200 “pencas” (palm fronds) and 50 canes of “caña flecha” (a sturdy, bamboo-like chute).
On the day of construction, “neggwebur watchirbaggebag onakwed yaba arbae--” (I think this is how you say “everyone wakes up to work at four in the morning;” still learning).
First the postholes are dug and the bases of the main posts, made of the trunks of trees from the mountain, are secured by several large stones before being buried. Then the large cross-beams are cut with a machete so that they fit onto the main posts and are lashed into place with rope made from soaked roots and vines from the forest. By the time the sun has peeked over the edge of the mountains to the southeast, the main frame of the house is in place.
Several lengthwise roofing beams, made of long poles of the bamboo-like material, are lashed into place from bottom to top along the long roof by lines of people. Once all these are in place, we begin to make the roof. People inside the house use their hands at first, and later long fork-like poles, to pass up palm fronds three at a time to people on the roof. These are arranged and tied into place along the lateral roofing beams. Since the roof takes the most time to put together, the men stop for lunch at around 1:00PM.
The women of the town have also come together to prepare a giant feast, organized by the family for whom the house is being built. The men sit down on long benches together and are served by the women. They eat as a community and pass around a large communal gourd full of juice from which every one takes a long gulp. They go immediately back to work and finish the roof by about 4:00PM. Then the walls, made from lines of caña flecha, are put in and lashed together before sunset.
By the end of the day, this community of fewer than 300 adults has come together to make two full houses. They are approximately 80 x 20 feet, with the highest point of the roof at around 20 feet. Flip through the slideshow at the top to see photos from the construction of a house in Armila.
Watching the way the residents of Armila build their impressive homes, and knowing that the extended metaphor of “the house” is constantly used to refer to community development, it makes me hopeful that Armilans might approach the sustainable development of their community and conservation projects with the same spirit of collaboration they employ in building their homes.
But after the first few weeks of my research here, it’s apparent that many of the intra-community feuds and jealousy arise from situations in which individuals that have made their own investments are doing very well for themselves. This is particularly evident in the growing sector of the population involved in eco-tourism. “That guy hosts all the tourists and never shares anything with the community, he keeps it all for himself!” The intra-community competition, rather than being embraced as a requisite for economic growth as it is in western society, is more often considered by many to be a strain on the traditional way the community has always functioned. It will be interesting to explore this theme during the coming year and to see if there is any way these two ways of thinking about the local economy can be reconciled.