Justine* looked puzzled when she picked up the plastic disc. How were you supposed to play sports with this hard, flat thing? It didn’t look anything like a ball. After a few moments of hesitation, she and the other women at the youth center in Gisenyi, Rwanda had figured it out. They forgot all about the conflict at the border nearby as they giggled and threw the Frisbee to one another.

Using sports for peacebuilding and development projects isn’t a new idea, but using games of Ultimate Frisbee to encourage cooperation and dialogue is. Because many people aren’t familiar with the sport, it is actually ideal for community-building activities like the one that Justine and the other 16 Rwandan women participated in. No one has the advantage of previous skills, players enjoy figuring out how it works, and everyone can laugh at their mistakes. To top things off, minimal equipment is required. All the players need is an open space and a disc.

In Gisenyi, the court was filled with women of all ages representing a wide range of trade cooperatives as part of our Trading for Peace program. All of the players in the Ultimate Frisbee game were small-scale traders who cross back and forth to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) regularly to buy and sell items ranging from used clothing to fruit and goats. Trading across this border can be hectic. The social and political issues between the DRC and Rwanda often affect the traders, both personally and professionally. Their lives are complicated by the ever-changing landscape of the border, which sometimes erupts into violent conflict. It in this context that Trading for Peace increases understanding between traders from both sides of the border, as well as with border officials. We work with these actors to establish mutually beneficial relationships based on trust. This project recognizes that conflict in the Great Lakes area of Africa is both regional and domestic. By working with traders and merchants who regularly cross borders, we are tapping into a population that has the power to promote peace both within their own countries and in the countries where they work.

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The recent  game of Frisbee showed the power that a simple game has to build trust amongst the  traders, a step toward opening channels of communication that can help prevent conflict.

For Justine and the others, the consensus was clear: the game gave them a chance to get to know one another and get away from their daily worries. They’re hoping to try it again soon with petty traders from Goma, the town on the DRC side of the border. We’re making plans to help them do just that. We are organizing a larger-scale community-building event centered around Ultimate Frisbee to take place later this summer.

This initial event in Gisenyi made it clear that there is willingness in these communities to build better relationships in the face of potential conflict, and Ultimate Frisbee may be one tool that can help.

*All names have been changed for the purposes of this blog post.

Originally posted in Common Ground Blog here.