Colón, Panama – Colón: city of misery and violence

Colón is an island. An island made from poverty and misery, hopelessness and decay. Colón is eight by 16 streets large. Eight by 16 streets unworthiness and dirt, crime and violence. It isn’t a slum in a city, the city IS a slum. The island is surrounded by outrageous wealth, which doesn’t allow any drop to seep through the guarded fences. First, there is the Panama Canal that washes riches worth billions into the pockets of the already rich ones. Altogether four harbours belong to the big goods turnover sites on this planet. And the free zone lures businessmen and profiteers from all over the world. Only few of Colón’s 65,000 inhabitants have the opportunity to get a poorly paid job in one of these economic areas. The other employees come from better areas around Colón or commute from Panama City. The unemployment rate in Colón is estimated at 60 %, which inevitably leads to prostitution, drug problems, and crime of violence.

The population is mainly black, mixed with some Indians and inhabitants of Chinese origin. For the railway and later the canal construction Afro-Caribs were hired as cheap workers who had hoped for making some money to return to their home countries as made men. Therefore they didn’t integrate culturally and most of them didn’t even learn Spanish. Later the same fate overtook Chinese guest workers. After they weren’t needed any more they were left to their own devices. Without money to return to their homes, without education and income, they stranded in Colón. The government, which colour it might have, shoes few interest in changing the city’s highly explosive situation. To be fair one must admit that this is valid for most inhabitants as well. They don’t take efforts to improve their situation. Resignation spreads through generations, and school, education and improvement of the personal prospects stand in the end of their list of priorities.

Today we arrive in Colón by train. There is one passenger train in the morning from Panama to the north and another to return in the evening. Commuters use it as tourists do. The single ticket is 22 $ pp. Expensive though, but those views aren’t available from the road: Several times we get close to the Panama Canal and the shipping, we go right through the green jungle, and we cross Lake Gatun on a dam. After one hour we reach Colón.

There’s a ray of hope in the spiral of misery: the Sisters of Mercy. We immediately recognize them as they pick us up form the train station with their car, despite they don’t wear nun’s habit. A practical jeans skirt, a simple polo shirt and open-toed sandals replace the warm and impractical uniform. There is no headgear. Sister Barbara and Sister Dina are the only nuns that care for the house called MUCEC, founded by Barb, how she calls herself. Both of them dedicated their life to children and women, to the poor and the poorest of Colón. Who now imagines sanctimonious church types who kindly and graciously distribute alms, is completely mistaken. They are sympathetic, and generous with their love. Otherwise Barb and Dina are a resolute, well coordinated manager team in their daily fight for financing the project.

The social organisation wasn’t always located in such a big modern house. The new one exists only for ten years. Principal concern of the Sisters of Mercy is the promotion of neglected, abandoned or undernourished infants in early childhood who otherwise might end up on the street. So some small geniuses are discovered, and retarded girls and boys can be specifically treated. The kindergarten looks after different age groups. If the joy of learning is aroused, there is a good chance that the kids finish their school education, and maybe even visit a university later on. The complete education system in Panama is free, in case of need the facility supports with school uniforms.

The sisters look for neglected children in town, follow hints and try to convince the mothers to leave their offspring in the home’s care during the day. Mothers who bring their kids on their own accord are never refused. When the children go to school later they may still come for homework tutoring. Whether kindergarten moppet or student, the Sisters of Mercy make the distribution of food their main job. Each kid gets two meals per day, and often enough these are the only two meals of the day.

Panamanian structure of society causes that fathers – except upper class – rarely feel responsible for their offspring. Even most married men have one or more mistresses with whom they also father children. Without mistress a man isn’t a terrific bloke. The divorce rate is high. So the majority of Panamanian children just have one, the female parent. The problem of Colón’s mothers is that they grow up without education and self-esteem. To nourish their kids is their daily challenge. And so MUCEC also attend to the mothers, tries to convey self-confidence, to be able to learn something and to use it later on. They teach the women sewing, knitting and other craftwork that they can sell if they want. A lecture every Friday is about themes that could interest the mothers: health and hygiene, education, yoga and other fitness training, or it might be a Christian topic as well.

After we visited all care centre groups we go outside. Sister Barbara shows us “her” world. There are three Kuna women sitting in front of the door, sewing and selling molas, knitted pictures with geometrical forms. The Caribbean Indians proudly wear their coloured traditional costume: a blouse that’s decorated with molas, a short tight skirt that’s just a cloth wrapped around, as well as uncounted rows of thin bead chains at their underarms and calves. Their short uniform haircut is a bit requiring getting used to, sometimes they throw on a headscarf as sun protection.

Only few metres further the entire misery of this city opens. Half collapsed houses are still inhabited, even if the floor already shows a dangerous hole. There is nearly no house in a better state. Each flat consists of one tiny room where the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps. Partially simplest wood sheds were built that fulfil the same purpose. They don’t have bathrooms. For each 50 to 60 inhabitants there are two or three common loos and the same amount of showers, which don’t work. People here never learnt what a flush is good for. Running water is an occasion. Immediately bathrooms are stormed to wash kids and clothes. Despite of all the dirt the people wear astonishingly clean clothes.

Sister Barbara introduces us to the people of Colón as family members. Not to protect us, that isn’t necessary in her company. But thus we receive more respect, we may take some photos, and one or the other door opens to have a glimpse. Who can afford it puts a bunk bed into the room; the others sleep on the floor. There is little furniture only, at best some mats and a gas cooker. The people might not have money for food, but who can make it possible buys or pinches a television, plus there’s a satellite dish. Electricity that’s very expensive in Panama, is scrounged somewhere illegally. Most inhabitants don’t pay rent.

Barbara speaks to a very young woman. She has two children and prostitutes herself. “What shall I do”, she says, “how shall I feed my babies?” “Very simple”, says Barb, “don’t get babies.” This came from a Catholic nun! An elderly woman sits smoking on a plastic chair on the sidewalk. Exactly this woman begged from Barbara some clothes a couple of days ago, she couldn’t afford them. The Sisters run a thrift shop in their house where they sell donated clothes for a symbolic price. But they never give it; the chance of exploitation would be too high. Those who can’t even pay 25 cents clean the stairs or wipe the floor. Barbara conceals her indignation and talks to the old woman whom it is obviously embarrassed to be caught smoking. To spend money for luxury items instead of buying essential fool happens frequently. Another woman known as destitute crosses our way. Red coloured braids peep from her headscarf. There is honestly earned money as well. A man sells produce for very low price. A woman rented a ground floor room, cooks soup, and sells it for 50 cents the plate. A family breeds chicken. They are slaughtering the cock that was run over by a car.

Sister Barbara came as young nun first in 1964 from Brooklyn to Panama. In 1971 she went to Chiriqui. The Indians that live there asked her to teach them reading. Consequently they realized that benefits for overtime or Sunday working as pickers that they are lawfully entitled to get were not paid out to them. Their foreman withheld the bonuses. The big landowner held Barb responsible for the resulting riots and complained to the bishop. She didn’t make really friends there, but she didn’t consider returning to the United States. The chance she got was 1985 in violent Colón. Appalled by the misery of an entire city – that became worse after the withdrawal of the Americans – she began immediately setting up the MUCEC project, her life’s work. Still today she puts all her energy into the daily fight for financing and hence survival of the home. Sister Dina is a child of Colón. The psychologist joined Barbara many years ago. Both of her parents volunteer in the project as many other socially committed citizens do.

Who wants to contribute something to support these two incredible women and their work, even if it is very little, finds our e-mail address on our website. We will forward the centre’s email address with pleasure.

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