Panamanian MB leader Alina Itucama practices the ancient Wounaan craft of weaving rainforest baskets from threads of the black palm tree native to Panama’s richly biodiverse Darién forest. Starting as a knot at the base, the pattern is woven upside down. The basket pictured took three years to complete and has a US$15,000 price tag.
Itucama creates beauty not only with her hands, but also her mind. She is director of a Bible institute in Panama, a leader in the national MB conference, elected to the board of CAMCA (Consulta Anabautista Menonita de Centro América) after July’s Mennonite World Conference, and participant in the Latin American Women Theologians group. In November, she received a scholarship from Mennonite Women USA to further her studies. The teaching certification she will receive, in addition to her experience running a small indigenous art company, and her knowledge of Wounaan language and culture, will equip Itucama to be a valuable resource to her people.
“These scholarships provide spiritual dividends well beyond the size of the gift,” says Rhoda Keener, Mennonite Women USA executive director.
The first contact between Mennonite Brethren missionaries and Itucama’s people, known as Choco Indians, was in the late 1940s. An indigenous church sprang up among the Emberá and Wounaan language groups, officially organized into Iglesia Evangélica Unida Hermanos Menonitas de Panamá (United Evangelical Church: MB) in 1971. Today there are 13 congregations with some 600 members, mostly in the politically volatile border region, where disputed indigenous collective land ownership and loss of vocation and biodiversity through deforestation are pressing issues for Choco Indians.