THE VALLEY ADVOCATE, March 21, 1988
What can one well-meaning gringo do against the weight of all history? How is the concerned North American supposed to reconcile his nation 's not-so-secret complicity in centuries of colonial subjugation and genocide in Central America? Daniel J. Botkin, Hilltown dweller of New England, tells the tale of footbag diplomacy, how he found welcome among highland dwellers of Guatemala, and his passion for a footbag brigade for peace:
In January, 1986, I volunteered with New Haven's Sister City Carpentry Brigade repairing an old museum, digging latrines, and offering material aid to Leon, Nicaragua. When the project ended, I moved to Managua and volunteered with "Bikes Not Bombs," the Boston-based citizens' effort that imports and assembles donated bicycles from the states to Nicaragua. Later, I traveled to Guatemala and volunteered as a personal safety escort for Peace Brigades International, a non-violent, direct-action group which provides 24-hour intenationalist escorts for Guatemalans endangered by death squad violence. Under the current political circumstances, outside observers and escorts can reduce the day-to-day danger faced by targeted individuals.
But after two months, I fled the urban glut for the highlands to the west and north, where I hoped to see for myself the conditions in these areas still under military occupation. I found rural Guatemala an unrelaxed, unwelcoming place for me to be poking around. It was predictable that Indian people in remote villages should be suspicious of my unannounced presence. Theirs is a legacy fully of strangers and invaders carrying trickery, suffering and death.
Almost accidentally, I found that I could justify and smooth my presence in these remote places by performing with the footbag, the popular new kicking sport known as "Hacky Sack." As a sewer of footbags and a serious player in the States, I did not have to fake the part. It was, however, with deep uncertainty that I plunged into a one-man promotional campaign. What right did I have to come uninvited to these stricken regions flaunting my identity and privilege? Hadnt we North Americans already perpetrated enough of our pet schemes, projects and toys upon the Central American people?
But the "futbolito" was an instant hit among the soccer-playing Guatemalans. Something about the combination of familiar foot movements incorporated in a new American sport made the futbolito a perfect vehicle for streetside cultural exchange. Indeed, sidewalk demonstrations became public spectacles with hundreds turning out in churchyards and plazas to watch and try out the supple kicking sacks. The explicitly apolitical nature of my medium allowed these public gatherings to occur openly and freely under the ubiquitous eye of the army.
Basically, I traveled from place to place as an athlete missionary offering daily informal workshops in footbag. After performing and playing and piquing the imagination of a mob of Indian athletes, I would sit down and teach a handful to sew the leather balls. I would end my presentation by cutting out and distributing cardboard templates while making a heartfelt little speech about the cooperative essence of el futbolito.
Now I would be the last to claim that footbag itself could have any sway on the political destiny of Central America. However, as a viable, positive means of waging direct-action citizen diplomacy, it could be the tip of an iceberg. Cooperative game-playing draws people together, relaxes prejudices and dissolves stereotypes. Like many New Games, the excitement of footbag comes from the shared objective (keeping the thing aloft). The circle tends to rally around this common goal, attempting, sometimes for hours, to achieve the proverbial "hack," the complete circuit. Since anyone can join the circle, and since all members are working toward the same end, there are no losers. Beginners and aficionados kick together, with the latter shepherding the former through the learning phase. When at last completed, the "hack" is a momentous symbol of group effort, cooperation and success.