From Africa to Panama

One of the largest Indigenous South African tribes is known as the Xhosa, pronounced “Core-sha”. The name comes from the name of a legendary tribal leader and literally means “fierce” or “angry” Xhosa is Africa’s second most common home language. Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu, and Winnie Mandela all come from the Xhosa tribe.

The Xhosa have elaborate and lengthy rituals, initiations, and feasts many of which happen around June which is the beginning of the Xhosa year. One of the most important rituals is circumcision for boys age 13 to 19, and marks their “coming out” and being accepted as no longer boys, but men. The Xhosa circumcision ritual has come under a great deal of criticism because in the past the same ceremonial knife was used on all boys without being cleansed or sterilized and transmitted the HIV/Aids virus. Because of the crude way in which it was done, the job was sometimes botched. It took a young Xhosa man by the name of Thando Mggolozana, on whom the job was horribly botched, to break the silence and write a book about his experience entitled “A MAN WHO IS NOT A MAN”. Today in the Xhosa community I visited a “white man” [presumably a nurse-practitioner] performs the operation with a sterile scalpel.

Princess offered a tour to a demonstration Xhosa village called Khaya La Bantu Cultural Village which is dedicated to preserving the Xhosa culture and sharing it with tourists. At the end of apartheid a Canadian group, determined to preserve cultures that might be lost, purchased a tract of land and invited local Xhosa villagers to create a program to share their culture. The matriarch of this program is a 95-year-old ball of energy called “Mama Tofu”. Guests are treated to a delicious lunch of Xhosa food prepared in the traditional way, music and dancing. The women go one way, to learn about “women’s things” with Mama Tofu, and the men go to the traditional koral where only the male elders would meet to discuss village affairs, escape their wives, smoke, and drink brandy and home made beer. After a sip of brandy being offered to the village elders, who are buried at the edge of the circle, we all had a drink, before sampling the home made beer. Interesting, but Heineken doesn’t have to worry.


We then walked down away from the village to the isolated little hut to discuss “men’s things” and the circumcision ritual. There were no volunteers. We did get a walk-through demonstration … but without anyone getting cut.  There is a whole tradition of supporting the guys after the circumcision, giving them time to recover before they “come out” as men of the tribe.


It was a wonderful introduction to a different culture by a group of happy, inspired folks [Mama Tofu is actually a Methodist] who are determined to keep their culture alive. For our guests it was a unique and special experience which many described as “the best shore excursion ever.”

I love these kind of tours where you meet real people and touch their lives and cultures. And it reminded me of being home in Panama, and of all the times I’ve taken shore excursion groups to visit my Embera friends at Embera Puru in the midst of the Chagres jungle.

By now you all should have heard the story of how we got to Panama. I met some Embera Indians on a Canal cruise, now 13 years ago. Amazingly, without a common language we started talking and drinking beer and became friends. One of the Indians by the name of Auselio gave me the gift of some beads, and I ended up giving him my T-shirt and gym bag, and he almost got my 24 Hour Fitness shorts, but I figured if I ended up going back on the ship wearing nothing but a red loin cloth that I might not get invited back. Well my new friends invited me to visit their village deep in the jungle. I went back to California and tried searching the Internet to find out about the Embera and in the process discovered all the advantages of moving to Panama. And here I am, eight years later, really all because of Auselio and his brothers. Auselio is no longer a scrawny kid, but a guy who looks like he just got out of the US Marines, has a family, and is a leader in his village. His brother Erito and his family have become great friends and visit with us in our home, and we visit with them in the Embera village. And since both villages, world’s apart, are dedicated to preserving their indigenous cultures and sharing their lives and love with visitors, and Beads for Auseliosince it all started with some beads . . . I figured that I would bring some traditional Xhosa beads from Africa back home to Panama as a gift for Auselio. Mama Tofu thought the idea was wonderful, and sends her love and blessings from Africa to Panama along with the beads.

Back in Panama . . . here’s Auselio today and his family at home in the Embera Puru in Chagres.  It took a while but I was finally able to get the beads to Auselio and explain their significance and voyage.


Whether it is visiting the Embera Puru village [the “authentic” Embera Village tour] or the Xhosa village in Africa, these are wonderful cross-cultural experiences that help preserve traditional lifestyles and provide income for the villages.  Many of the younger people who call the Xhosa village home were orphans who lost both parents to the scourge of AIDS.  One of my favorite pictures is this haunting picture of one of the Xhosa guys.


Here we’ve had a few beers and are just playing around …