Sports  Not all fun and games

Building meaningful community relationships through sport

Last year, I lived in Argentina for six months while completing a study abroad semester in Buenos Aires. Several months before arriving in the country, a friend of mine introduced me to the cacique (leader) of a Q’om community, an Indigenous group, located two hours outside the capital city. We sent correspondence back and forth during the weeks leading up to my arrival. He told me about how the community came to be formed through land grants and lucha (struggle) throughout the years. We discussed similarities of the lived experiences of urban Indigenous peoples in our countries, and decided that we had a lot in common.

With my Dalai Lama Fellowship in hand, we set out to devise a project that would be beneficial for everyone involved. I spent many weeks getting to know the rappers, the soccer players, the mothers, and the toddlers. I made it clear from the beginning that I was not there to do a project, but rather to build relationships. Whatever decisions came out of our meetings would be directed by the community and for the community.

In a period of six months, we developed a sport based on a traditional Q’om hand game called Payana. Originally, Payana used small stones or peach pits to engage in a complex set of skill-testing dexterity challenges. There is a structure of ten steps that are attached to a point system. Whoever reaches a 1,000 points first wins the game. When converting the game into a sport, the kids opted to form groups of five instead of playing individually. It was clear that the objective of transforming Payana into a sport was not strictly for the physical benefits of play. There were many youth in the community who were strong in other fields, such as music, rap, drawing, crafts, etcetera.

With this in mind, we spent many days discussing possible avenues that Payana could take. The children went back to their homes and asked their parents about animals and food found in their territory. One girl came up with the idea of using the Wipala (a multi-coloured checkered flag used to represent and unite Indigenous peoples across South America) as the flag for the event. Rappers thought about songs that they had composed that would tie into the themes being brought forward on social inequities in their community and their traditional territory in Chaco, Argentina. Others talked about how this event could be a way for artisans (who constitute the majority of the community) to sell their work to the masses that would come to observe.

This holistic approach of the myriad of opportunities associated with sporting events created excitement in the community and inspired people to think outside the box regarding how individuals could work together toward a common goal. Whether or not they follow through with the execution of the event is up to them, but the sentiment that arose from this kind of creative collaboration of people formed intergenerational bonds that were tenuous before at best. For many of the older youth, it was the first time that they took leadership within their community as role models, and the outcomes were substantial and positive.

As part of our discussions around the sport, we spoke about the environmental hazards and health inequities that existed in the community. In response, we opted to make our equipment from recycled material we collected from the streets, instead of buying stuff from the store. We modeled our construction of the ball made out of plastic bags following a YouTube video we had found of a boy in Kenya who was making them. As Payana was a game appropriated by the Argentine gaming industry in the 1990s and 2000s, reclaiming and reinventing the game into a sport was an act of resistance by the youth.

One day, a professor of mine at the university approached me and asked if I could set up a meeting with the community in Derqui, so she could bring a group of tourists to visit. My face flushed and I froze. It wasn’t I that I was nervous how to articulate what I wanted to say grammatically, but I struggled with how to communicate my thoughts from a different worldview. How was I supposed to tell her that it wasn’t my territory to invite people to? Why did she think her request was acceptable? What did she mean by tourism and an ‘authentic experience’ amongst the Q’om? These questions circled in my head and left me feeling numb for the rest of the week.

When I made my way back to the community several days later, I sat with Loli, the cacique’s daughter, and told her what my professor had asked me. I delved into the questions that I had been asking myself, and was relieved to hear that she agreed. With a terere (a tea similar to mate but with cold water rather than hot) in hand, we watched as the children ran by. She explained to me that earlier that day, a group of anthropologists from the city had come to work with the youth at the community centre, filming them as they selected one picture over another. The children I had grown to know and love over these past few months were essentially reduced to lab rats, in an attempt to confirm a theory set by the anthropologist’s objectives.

The academy often talks about ethical research amongst Indigenous peoples, but what does being ethical really mean if the standards are coming from a Western perspective and a Western mandate or agenda? Indigenous communities across Canada have been mobilizing their own community ethics boards to set in place objectives and regulations for what kind of research they want conducted in their communities, but this is not the case everywhere. The colonial history of many countries around the world has been characterized by experiments that treated those involved more as subjects of analysis than humans. This type of research continues today. It occurs every time an academic or government official gets a ‘good idea,’ and goes looking for the ‘right’ group who will ‘demonstrate’ their desired outcome.

It is because of this history that I have always promoted relationship-building and grassroots involvement in community-led initiatives. Despite what many believe, the only community experts in a given situation are the members of the community themselves. This was the attitude I brought to the table each and every time I met with my friends in the community. This is the recipe for how meaningful discussions and innovative solutions happen. At the end of my time there, we still had not ‘finished’ the ‘project,’ although that was never the intention. If you plan on going into a community with the goal of a limited time interaction, perhaps you should revaluate why being there really matters to you.

As mentioned above, there are many times when community work can be intrusive and demeaning due to their roots in racial stereotypes and colonial histories.In this case, sports acted as the method of bringing a community together and when spaces are created by people coming from similar contexts, however, the results can be exponentially beautiful.