A Day in the Life of an Embera Katio* in Medellín

A Day in the Life of an Embera Katio* in Medellín

Who are the Embera

The Embera people are indigenous people of Colombia and Panama.  Historically they have lived in rural areas and lived off of the land.  Due to internal conflict in Colombia, many of these Embera people have been forced out of their homes and flee to the cities in an attempt to establish a new life.  Many of them don’t speak Spanish and have never lived in an urban environment.  Some have never worn shoes.  They come to Medellín hoping to find a way to sustain themselves and their family away from the dangers of the internal conflict in Colombia.


Typical Day-to-Day Life:

Embera Katios typically begin their day in an "inkilinato". This structure is a specialized residential building comprising individual rooms, with dimensions typically ranging from 10 to 15 feet. One inkilinato could house anywhere from 5 to 25 such rooms. Despite the limited space, it's not uncommon for 5 to 10 family members to reside in a single room, relying on slender mattresses laid on the ground for sleep. These rooms might accommodate various generations, from children and parents to grandparents, all sharing this confined space. Shared facilities include common bathrooms and kitchens, which often suffer from lack of regular maintenance. Rent for these spaces, payable daily, ranges from $5 to $7 — a substantial portion of the Embera's income.

For their morning meal, the Embera Katio may consume eggs and rice or whatever leftovers are available. The absence of refrigeration means their diet largely comprises dried foods or those not requiring cooling. They often consume Munia or Po, a traditional beverage crafted from a blend of flour and water. This drink, enhanced with hot peppers and salt, is frequently their main nutritional source for the day.

Inside of the inkilinatos with the Embera

As the morning progresses, family members diverge on their daily pursuits. Children, typically aged 5-12, and considered autonomous in Embera customs, venture out on their own. Despite prevalent risks like drug-related activities and criminal threats in the vicinity of the inkilinatos, these children either proceed to school unaccompanied or wander the streets. Many of these children are not formally registered in schools. As a result, they only receive food if there are spare lunches or snacks. Post-school, many children join the Casa Embera after-school initiative, benefiting from a nourishing meal, often their sole substantial meal for the day. This program also imparts basic hygiene skills, such as tooth brushing — a practice often overlooked at home due to financial constraints. Children not attending school usually wander without significant supervision.

Concurrently, Embera women, especially those with young children, travel to the city center. Their endeavors include begging or vending handcrafted jewelry.  Women and the elderly predominantly station themselves in tourist-frequented areas, either soliciting alms with their infants alongside or vending their artisanal products. Statistically, women, especially those with infants, tend to receive more charitable donations than men. Their workdays are often extensive, initiating in the early morning and extending into late afternoon or evening. This extended outdoor duration means they lack easy access to public amenities like restrooms, washing facilities, or seating. Typically, a blanket spread on the ground provides some relief.

In parallel, Embera men undertake childcare responsibilities for children too young for school or focus on creating jewelry, primarily bracelets, which women then sell. Although some men manage to secure employment, the absence of formal education and practical experience poses formidable challenges. The cultural dynamics within the Embera society are heavily skewed towards male dominance. Men frequently represent their families, and significant family decisions are often their prerogative. It's worth noting that alcohol abuse is not a rarity, leading to instances where money acquired through begging or sales is squandered on alcohol instead of essential nourishment.

Main meals usually comprise plantains, an enduring favorite that doesn't deteriorate without refrigeration. Meat is a luxury, savored only on occasions of financial abundance. The Embera maintain a close-knit community ethos, willingly sharing whatever little they possess. Due to prevalent hunger, children often resort to begging for money, using their meager collections to purchase jello packets, soda, or junk food due to their affordability. It's a common sight to witness children directly consuming kool aid packets handed to them by their parents. This indicates a dire nutritional situation, especially for children aged three and above. For younger children, breastfeeding, where possible, continues up to the age of two. However, for those unable to breastfeed, alternatives like powdered milk become prohibitively expensive. Some parents resort to feeding their infants substitutes like coke or sugarcane water, leading to prevalent malnutrition among babies and children.


Casa Embera's Assistance Initiatives:

  1. Children's Program:

Casa Embera seeks to create transformative impacts through its diversified programs. Foremost among these is its commitment to establishing a secure environment for Embera children, coupling it with educational assistance. Many Embera children lag behind in their scholastic achievements. For instance, a child attending the 5th grade might only possess the academic capabilities of a 1st grader. Casa Embera's after-school programs aim to bridge this glaring educational disparity. While under Casa Embera's care, these children benefit from balanced nutrition, overseen by a dedicated in-house nurse. Furthermore, Casa Embera is proactively researching strategies to mitigate malnutrition impacts using dietary supplements and nutrients. The protective environment provided by Casa Embera allows these children to thrive.

  1. Mothers' Program:

Embera cultural norms permit girls as young as twelve to enter marital unions with older men, leading to a considerable number of young mothers. Casa Embera's specialized program for mothers aids these young women in navigating the intricacies of infant care. This initiative, supported by the in-house nursing staff, emphasizes monitoring both maternal and infant nutrition to ensure wholesome growth.

  1. Adult Development Program:

Transitioning from rural habitats to bustling urban settings introduces myriad challenges for the Embera, especially in aspects like sanitation and urban hygiene. Casa Embera's adult program educates participants about these challenges and equips them with the requisite tools to adapt. Furthermore, the program emphasizes follow-up house visits to ensure lessons are effectively integrated into daily routines. 

  1. Jewelry Workshops:

Financial stability is a persistent challenge for the Embera community. Casa Embera's jewelry workshops empower Embera artisans to leverage their innate bead-making talents to secure a fair and consistent income. This workshop's holistic approach seeks to transition artisans from a daily survival mentality to a more stable financial footing. Initially, artisans receive daily payments, which are gradually transitioned to weekly payments, complemented by financial planning sessions.


For ways to get more involved in helping Casa Embera either through donations, purchases or hosting a jewelry party, visit here.


* Embera Katia from Alto Andagueda

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