Panama’s Kuna Community Has a Special Place for Its Albinos, the ‘Children of the Moon’

Niños guna, incluido un niño albino. Foto en Flickr del usuario Ben Kucinski (CC BY 2.0).

Kuna boys, including an Albino boy. Photo on Flickr by user Ben Kucinski (CC BY 2.0).

The Kuna people, also known as Guna or Cuna, are an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. In the Kuna language, they call themselves Dule or Tule, meaning “person.” The distinctive feature of this ethnic group is the high rate of albinos among its members.

Social scientists say “there is one albino born for every 145 Kuna Indian births, a rate higher than in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where albinos also are numerous, and far above the global average of somewhere around one in 20,000 births.”

In Kuna mythology, sipus (albinos) were given a special place. They had the specific duty of defending the Moon against a dragon who tries to devour it during lunar eclipses. They were the only ones allowed to be out on nights of lunar eclipses.

They became known as “children of the Moon.” As their duty was to kill the dragon during lunar eclipses, they had to go out during these events armed with a bow and arrow, which they fired into the sky to prevent the dragon from devouring the satellite.

Albinismo is a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes due to a genetic mutation. It can also appear in animals and vegetables. It is a hereditary condition that is results from the combination of two parents carrying the gene.

In some countries, such as Tanzania, albinos are harassed and even murdered, as they are considered symbols of bad luck and sometimes sorcery. The Gunas, however, treat their albino children with special respect, though this wasn't always the case. The website Mundo Kuna shares how infanticide was once the local solution to “keeping the community healthy”:

[…] para la época de la colonia ya la existencia de los albinos entre los kunas era un hecho. Pero lo interesante de este primer hecho nos hace realizar la siguiente pregunta. ¿Por qué pocos kunas albinos en al [sic] inicio del pasado siglo (1900)? Es muy probable que entre 1681 y 1900, hubo un cambio en el pensamiento del kuna y se inicio la practica del infanticidio sobre los nacimientos de niños y niñas albinas.
Ya para la mitad del siglo pasado se nota un aumento sustancial en nacimientos de niños albinos a nivel de la comarca de Kuna Yala, no así en la comunidades ubicadas en el continente. Al parecer una forma nueva de pensamiento surge ante la practica del infanticidio.
[Con esa nueva manera de pensar se empieza a] ver de otra manera el nacimiento de un albino dentro del seno de una familia. Tener un albino significaba estar bendecido por Bab Dummat, luego la familia tambien era bendecida. Pero este nuevo ser, era una carga para la familia y por ende para la sociedad y la comunidad. Al nacer un albino la partera le decía a la familia que este debía ser muy bien cuidado y alimentado.

[…] by the time of the Colony, the existence of the albinos among the Kunas was a fact. But the interesting part of this first fact makes us wonder: Why so few albino Kunas in the early 20th century? It's very likely that between 1681 and 1900, there was a change in how the Kuna was seen and that's when the infanticide against albino boys and girls started.

By the mid-20th century, it's evident that a substantial rise occurred in the births of albino babies in the Kuna Yala village, unlike the communities located in the continent. Apparently, new thinking about albinos began with rethinking the practice of infanticide.

[With this began] a different way of viewing the birth of an albino within a family. If having an albino was a blessing, then the family was also blessed. But this new member was a burden for the family, and for society and the community. When an albino was born, the midwife would tell the family they should take special care of the child and feed it properly.

The tropical sun, where most Kunas live. albinos face particular threats:

They are highly susceptible to skin cancer and eye disorders caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

So it is perhaps a cruel twist of genetic fate that so many albinos dwell under a harsh tropical sun on these coral-ringed islands. “They start having skin problems at a very early age,” said Dr. Gioconda Gaudiano, a dermatologist in Panama City who travels frequently to the Kuna region to treat albinos, some of whom die at a young age. “By tradition, they don’t look for help.”

According to ViSión BeTa, these individuals enjoy a particular lifestyle:

Con una economía basada en la agricultura, la pesca, caza y el comercio, los Kuna llevan una vida sencilla en un paisaje agreste que se asemeja a nuestra idea de paraíso natural. Mientras en su mayoría viven en comunidades isleñas, se desplazan a tierra firme para trabajar sus cultivos trasladándose en [canoas llamadas] cayucos.

With an economy based in agriculture, fishing, hunting, and trade, the Kunas have a simple life surrounded by a paradise-like rural landscape. As they mostly live in island communities, they travel to dry land to work their lands using [canoes known as] cayucos.

Twitter users are fond of sharing images of the Kuna, including photos of the albino members who give this group its distinctive feature:

SPIEGELONLINE: The plights of the children of the Moon of Panama.

Twitter users also draw attention to some of the Kuna's handicrafts:

“The children of the Moon,” and international day for the albinism, and its influence due to endogamy among the Kuna Indians of Panama.

Acting on the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly proclaimed June 13 to be International Albinism Awareness Day, “as a response to the appeal by civil society organizations that advocate for consider individuals with albinism as a specific group with specific needs that require special attention.”

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