By Lee Davis
Local football fans may well remember Charlie Higgenbotham in his playing days as a standout linebacker for Mountain Brook High School, the University of Alabama and, finally, the University of South Alabama.
But unlike some former college football players, Higgenbotham didn’t go on to play in the National Football League. Instead, he worked to make the world a better place.
Higgenbotham just returned from a two-year stint in Panama, where he worked as a member of the Peace Corps to teach sustainable agroforestry practices to farmers in one of the country’s most remote regions.
So how did Higgenbotham go from the creature comforts of Mountain Brook to a place where basic modern conveniences were non-existent? It was simply a calling.
After graduation from college, Higgenbotham went to work for a high-tech firm in California. After a short while, he decided it wasn’t for him.
“I decided I never wanted to sit in front of a computer screen again,” he said.
Soon Higgenbotham was back in Mountain Brook, working at a small book store. But his future path was coming into focus.
“I had a vision,” he recalled. “I wanted to live abroad, learn a foreign language, help others and serve. That led to the Peace Corps.”
The Peace Corps, created by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, is a volunteer organization operated by the United States government created to offer technical, economic, social and agricultural assistance to countries around the world. It provided the exact outlet that Higgenbotham was seeking.
“Some people think the Peace Corps is just a bunch of hippies sitting around and doing nothing,” Higgenbotham said, laughing. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Higgenbotham went through an intense process of interviews and applications before being invited to serve as a sustainable agriculture systems extension agent in Panama in June 2014.
Then his training began in earnest. Higgenbotham spent 10 weeks studying subjects such as the Spanish language, tropical agriculture and the history, economics and culture of Panama. He also learned about medical and safety techniques and administrative issues.
By August, Higgenbotham was ready. He was assigned to Daypuru, a small indigenous community located in the Darien province near the Columbian border. Upon arriving in Panama City, Higgenbotham followed the only trek to Daypuru that exists: a five-hour bus ride, a three-hour boat trip, followed by a two-hour hike.
“We only use public transportation, so there were no cars,” he said. “Panama City is just like any other large city, but once you get away from that area, even basic electricity is rare.”
Daypuru was inhabited by fewer than 200 residents who were members of the Embera tribe and lived by planting crops such as rice, corn and coffee. Higgenbotham and his fellow volunteers worked to help improve the productivity of the farming operations by teaching modern agroforestry methods.
“The people were generally friendly,” Higgenbotham said. “Imagine if you’d been doing something one way for a long time and someone from another country came in and said to do it another way. Some will take that better than others. But overall, most of the people were friendly and were glad we were there.”
Not all of Higgenbotham’s work was related to agriculture. He also was involved in health education and building infrastructure. One project close to his heart was the construction of a full-length basketball court. Higgenbotham’s father, Jay, was a basketball star at Mountain Brook and at Birmingham-Southern College in the 1970s.
In addition to providing tangible help, part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to share American culture and to bring foreign culture back to the United States. Sometimes the stereotypes and misconceptions can run both ways.
“They thought everyone in the United States was tall, white, had blue eyes and blonde hair and looked like movie stars,” Higgenbotham said. “It took them a while to realize that wasn’t the case.”
On the other hand, Panama also has one of the most diverse populations in Central America.
“There are Chinese, Far East Indians, and every nationality you can think of,” he explained. “Many of them are descendants of people who came to build the Panama Canal early in the 20th Century.”
The conditions in which the people live might be considered primitive by American standards – with no refrigeration, air conditioning or internet – but Higgenbotham said they have life’s necessities.
“Remember that there’s no television, just a lot of transistor radios,” he said. “All of the villages are near the river, so most of the houses are on stilts because it rains frequently. But the people are very clean. Most of them bathe in the river three or four times a day. One of the first phrases I learned in Spanish was, ‘I’m going to bathe in the river.’”
Last July, Jay Higgenbotham came to Panama to see what his son had been experiencing. His highlight was to teach basketball to a group of Daypuru residents who didn’t know the game.
“They didn’t shoot very well, but they picked up dribbling pretty quickly,” the elder Higgenbotham said. “What was most impressive was that they were good at passing and moving without the ball. That may have come from their experience with soccer.”
Higgenbotham came away with a new appreciation of what his son was accomplishing.
“I was very proud of Charlie before he went,” he said. “I was even prouder after I’d seen what he had done.”
Charlie Higgenbotham returned home earlier this month and said the two-year odyssey deeply changed him.
“The two years in Panama made me appreciate the small things,” he said. “Conveniences we take for granted every day aren’t common in many places in the world. The experience also taught me to slow down and take a deep breath and to remember how fortunate we are to live in the United States.”
Higgenbotham is considering a position in the Peace Corps Response Program – which is open to former Peace Corps participants.
Whatever path he takes from here, Charlie Higgenbotham’s trek from the football fields of Alabama to the most remote areas of Panama was the challenge of a lifetime.