It’s about rugby, but it’s more about opportunity

The Jungle Crows are building a Youth Centre in the village of Saraswatipur where they have been playing rugby for five years now. While the rugby is really important to the Crows and all the 100s of children who play in the villages, education is more important.

by Thomas Pothet

The Jungle Crows Foundation promotes education through rugby in Kolkata but also in diverse places in West Bengal like Saraswastipur where there is a rugby ground surrounded by tea gardens and forest. On this field, rugby training and tournaments are organised under the management of Coach Roshan and the older players, Khelo Rugby’s Young Leaders.

In contrast to Kolkata where children do have access to some facilities, the children living in Baikunthapur Forest do not have much of an opportunity at all. No safe place to meet up or study other than clearings in the forest. Development is coming but it is slow.

In Kolkata the Jungle Crows have partnered with the American Centre for English and development training as a part of the ACCESS project, they can go and use the library. In the Crows HQ there is a small hostel where scholarship students can stay, the gym is well equipped and meeting rooms make this a focal centre for so many activities. The Crows also host a ‘Speak Fit’ centre which trains up young men and women keen to get into the fitness industry. During my time in Kolkata I enjoyed meeting and interacting with so many different groups of youngsters, all of them just like me, looking to continue their education, planning how to start a career, passionate about their sport, wanting to learn.

Such opportunities just don’t exist in Baikunthapur, where the forest and the Saraswatipur tea garden dominates life. The tea gardens look beautiful with views to Kangchenjunga, manicured tea bushes stretching as far as the eye can see and neatly surrounded by the amazing Sal trees of the Baikunthapur Forest. But there is poverty and danger as well, I was drawn recently to this description of life in the tea gardens by National Geographic explorer Paul Salopek, where he describes the gardens, “like strolling into a deer park” but one kept going on “poverty wages.”

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Kangchenjunga viewed from the Baikunthapur Forest

While rugby is at the heart and a fundamental part of what the Jungle Crows do while I was with them I could observe that their true DNA is about opportunity and a big part of that is education. And this is a struggle for young people growing up in Saraswatipur, where the draw of working in the tea garden is strong, where going to school can be harder work.

This is where the community centre is intended to make a difference. Construction is in full swing and is being well supported by the village and specially by the children who are excited to see it going up and looking forward to the change it can bring to their lives.

The construction of the centre is necessary for the Jungle Crows to pursue their mission within Baikunthapur Forest and to deliver the dreams and ambitions of the children. With such a centre, players will have access to a gym, proper toilets, rest rooms, and of course class rooms.

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Centre construction in full swing

All the children in the Jungle Crows learn about the values of the game – integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect. It is key to be able to translate these values into the children’s everyday lives. The centre in Saraswatipur will be a focus for this. Taking what is learnt on the field to support learning in the class room. I was lucky to see first hand the incredible passion the children have for their rugby. They have learned about how important it is to be passionate about something, about how discipline can win the game, commitment and hard work are keys for success. It is now time for them to use those principles outside the rugby field, for educational purposes and to develop the seeds that Jungle Crows planted in them through rugby.

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Passionate about their rugby

Besides their rugby one of the main issues in the villages is that the children don’t have any other activities available to them. They end up giving up on school and going to work in the tea gardens at a very young age. There is no support for education and even the transport provided by the tea gardens is stopped from class 8 when a child needs support most. In these circumstances youngsters often see taking up a job on less than two euros a day as a better option.

The Crows finance scholarships and provide cycles to make it easier for the kids to reach their schools and reach educational targets. It is important children don’t give up. The centre will be another part of this, an attempt to break the cycle that keeps swathes of the village in poor circumstances. The children themselves know that they want to have a different purpose in life, different from the one their parents had and to avoid the same social disadvantages. The aim is to enlighten their daily life and future.

The centre is still in construction but soon these passionate kids will be able to be diligent in their class rooms to improve themselves and work hard for their future.

Give them the right tools and the amazing children of Saraswatipur will move mountains.

You can support the building of the Saraswatipur Youth Centre by making a donation here!

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www.junglecrows.net

Tiger v Leopards – the Spirit of Rugby

Under dark monsoon skies in Kolkata the India Women’s rugby team demonstrate incredible sporting spirit.

By Paul Walsh

India’s rugby community has a pounding heart in Kolkata where senior Men’s and Women’s teams play for the Calcutta Cup, hundreds of children fly around the Maidan and the monsoon especially means rugby season. Sticky muddy fields may not be ideal for the game but it does mean cricket is off the agenda for a short time at least. 

As a sport rugby is said to have a unique spirit. Most players know there are a set of values by which rugby is played and governed. It is not always easy to separate one sport from another in terms of what can be a hard to define spirit. Most sports participants try their best, follow the rules, at the highest levels finding a winning angle can cross the boundaries of fair play but most players don’t look for this. 

And then an event comes along that makes you realise that whether it is rugby or any sport there is a terrific sporting spirit in the heart of every athlete. 

The context of my own interest in the Spirit of Rugby is through the social development programme of the Jungle Crows, the rugby club I helped found 15 years ago in Kolkata. For 3 years now our Khelo Rugby has been a part of World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby programme. The Spirit of Rugby recognises a select number of projects around the world and supports them from World Rugby HQ in Dublin. Khelo Rugby is so far the only project representing Asia and we’re proud to have been shown such faith.

One of Kolkata’s showcase rugby tournaments is the “Georgiadi Rugby 7s” hosted each year by the prestigious Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC). Rugby has been played in Kolkata since 1872 and the Football in CCFC actually refers to the oval shaped ball rather than the round ball.

The Georgiadi Cup is named after a Greek of the same name who was the custodian of the CCFC grounds for many years, a stalwart of the club from another generation honoured with the Cup being named after him. This year saw 20 Men’s teams and 8 Women’s teams entered into the competition, which kicked off at 9am on a bright Saturday morning in July.

Rugby 7s is an abbreviated form of the full 15 player game, played over two halves of 7 minutes with only 7 players on a full size pitch. Lots of space, this is a game for speedsters, while retaining the full contact nature of the game it suits strong fast players with plenty of stamina. A team may play 3 or 4 games in a day so a quick recovery is needed to maintain the pace and keep up a winning streak.

This year the tournament was excited to welcome the senior India Men’s and Women’s teams. They had been in a camp in Bhubaneswar preparing for the upcoming Asia 7s to be played in Jakarta. The Georgiadi would provide the ideal match conditions to test the two squads. The South Africa Coaches in charge of the India teams were excited for the games ahead.

Both the Men’s and Women’s India teams got away to winning starts, pretty much as you’d expect, cantering through the opposition on day one. Day two saw all the teams re-ranked based on their performances on day one. This meant the two Men’s teams entered, India A and B, would face each other in a semi final. As a courtesy to the teams and to prevent their two teams going at each other the coaches decided to withdraw the India Men’s teams leaving the field clear for a local club to take the title. The final would be contested between two local Kolkata clubs, our own Jungle Crows and hosts CCFC. In the lead up to the final the monsoon skies turned dark and what had been a light Kolkata monsoon for one afternoon at least turned into a flood. The rugby carried on, the ground cut up, players turned muddy and the advantage of small flighty players became less as the wrestling contest in the mud increased in importance. In the Men’s final the Jungle Crows ran out 17-0 winners, a close fought contest with both teams muddy, bruised and congratulating each other at the end.

The Women’s final was scheduled as the last match of the day, this would see the India team take on a team made up of young players from a group of villages near Siliguri in the North of West Bengal, part of our Khelo Rugby programme. It was great to see them in the final. The team was named after their village and the most common big cat, the Saraswatipur Leopards.  What was about to happen stunned the crowd and eventually saw a show of sporting spirit most found hard to describe. 

The final kicked off under lights, the field was muddy but the rain had stopped. The India team was made up from the best players in the country, from Maharastra, Delhi and Odisha, even a Leopard was in the squad. Saraswatipur were immediately on the attack and the opening minutes saw a break in the India defence, the Leopards Swapna sprinted 70 meters to score the first try under the posts which she also converted, 7-0 to the Leopards. The crowd went a little crazy, those not paying too much attention to the game were suddenly fully focussed. Was the most incredible upset on the cards?

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Half time team talk for the Leopards

Half time and the Leopards led 7-0. The pair of South African Coaches looked calm but they must have been thinking what the consequences would be of the national team losing to what on the face of it were a bunch of kids from a village. Albeit the rugby crazy village of Saraswatipur, these were girls who had played a lot of rugby, won tournaments, led by the their canny coach Roshan.

The second half saw the India team intensify the pressure, they kept the ball well and started to attack using their superior size on the smaller Saraswatipur team. The India Tigers were showing their class. With just minutes left the Tigers scored in the corner, with no conversion the score was 7-5, the Leopards still ahead of the Tigers.

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India star Neha attacks

With time almost up, India had the ball in the Saraswatipur corner, could the girls from the tea estate hold on? A long blast from the referees whistle, some of the supporters thought it was over but this was a penalty for India. Time was up, but the penalty would be taken. India piled in, the corner was dark under the lights, the players muddy but no doubting the next signal and whistle from the referee – try to India. A crushing 10-7 loss for the Leopards who trooped back to their Coach crestfallen, they’d held out for almost the entire game, but a famous win wasn’t to be. Applause rang out for both teams, and nobody doubted the commitment either team of Women had shown.

The biggest sporting gesture was yet to come. The India team were called up to take their winning medals and receive the trophy. India Captain Vahbiz had different ideas, took over the microphone and proceedings. Grabbing a handful of medals she started to distribute them to the India players while at the same time calling up the Leopards. This was a medal ceremony the like of which none of the crowd gathered under the dark monsoon sky had ever seen. Each of the India players took their medal, and hung it around the neck of a Leopard. With a big hug and a smile each player in turn recognised their opponent. 

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All smiles – Tigers & Leopards

Time for the trophy and Vahbiz wasn’t interested in lifting it for the plaudits, this was for the Leopards. The girls lined up together all smiles, the three coaches joined them – two from South Africa and one from India. This was something very special. A terrifically competitive game had ended in a final play win, that had been exciting, but the actions of the India team lifted the drama to a different level. This was a great sporting moment, not between highly paid superstars but amongst hardworking committed rugby players, who’s passion for their game see them sacrifice and sweat just to get the chance to play. Two remarkable teams of Women had shown that rugby really is a beautiful game and demonstrated what the spirit of the game is all about.

Find out more from our website!

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Khelo Rugby Family: Crows & Leopards

Rugby Friends in the Forest

“Rugby is the story of a ball with friends around and when there is no ball, friends remain”.

Kichad Rugby 2019 brought together 100s of children from villages local to the Tea Gardens of Saraswatipur and welcomed teams from Kolkata and Jharkhand. 

by Thomas Pothet

If anyone told you about a rugby tournament occurring in the middle of a forest, in India’s West Bengal, would you believe it?

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At first, you would probably ask yourself, who could have such a weird idea of organising a rugby tournament in a forest? Do they even play rugby there?

Well….. it did happen, and I am about to tell you it’s story, the Kichad Rugby story.

Within the Baikhuntapur Forest near the banks of the Teesta River about 25 km from the heaving city of Siliguri, among elephants, goats and cows… is a rugby field in Saraswastipur village where regularly children and teenagers come for rugby practice. This is the place where everything occurred, where about 500 children from different horizons (Saraswastipur, neighbouring villages, Kolkata & Jharkhand) gave their best while playing rugby and enjoyed this special moment to its fullest.

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This was a two day tournament with all the children getting to play lots of games, staying healthy and hydrated under the intense sun, having their breakfast and lunch – all organised by the older players under the steady direction of their Coach Roshan.

These young leaders had many tasks. Not only did they have to manage hundreds of kids as coaches and referees, but they also had to handle everything food related (supply, cooking, distribution…), the clean-up of the area and finally manage a way back home for the kids living outside Saraswastipur.

As well as all the organisation they showed great leadership skills while coaching the U11 and U14 teams.

They oversaw the discipline among their teams, were motivating them and trying to guide them to victory. While the euphoria could have led to a loss of discipline, the tournament was successfully managed without a glitch.

As I was witnessing this incredible event, I was overflowed by the strong values that Jungle Crows is teaching through its mission. Those values were flowing out of the children while playing, out of the young organisers as they were taking their role very seriously and trying hard to succeed.

What I felt was an indescribable mix of emotions to see such passionate youngsters about rugby, so committed to their teammates and coaches, and doing their best to win.

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Passion for rugby was flowing out of them through their pores. They did not only come to win, first and foremost, they came to play rugby, to enjoy it and to improve themselves.

During the tournament I have not seen any player expressing sadness or deception after losing a game. Even in their loss, they gained something as they had the opportunity to play rugby with others, to be part of something bigger than just themselves, to be part of a team.

It was not about which team won or lost, it was about enjoying this moment and learning from each other.

“Rugby is the story of a ball with friends around and when there is no ball, friends remain”.

As I am used to watching my 16-year-old brothers rugby games in France, I was truly surprised not to witness any nagging songs or mockeries from the winning team toward the losing team as it is a common thing in French rugby and can sometime lead to conflict.

The values expressed by Jungle Crows children, both players and young leaders, were about passion, discipline, commitment and humility. Jungle Crows teachings and the youngster’s dedication are what made Kichad tournament a successful and a memorable event.

The emotions and values representing Kichad tournament are engraved forever in hundreds of people’s mind, including mine.

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Learn more about Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crows here!

Playing for Gender Equality

First published on LinkedIn Thomas Pothet, Paris based MBA student and volunteer with the Jungle Crows shares some early impressions from Kolkata and how rugby is shaping young lives.

by Thomas Pothet

At first sight, rugby could be seen as a very masculine sport, but the Jungle Crows story in Kolkata, India, is the proof that rugby is not exclusively for boys, that it can be a vector of women’s empowerment giving them the chance to break their social chains.

Jungle crows aims to promote education through rugby to both boys and girls but, as they face many social barriers when it comes to girls, they must enhance their efforts to educate young girls and to empower them. Parents are reluctant to let their girls play rugby as they fear injures or because they consider it as a boy sport or saying that girls should help their mother as part of their “household duties”.

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When it comes to girls, Jungle Crows is trying to both change their social conditions as slum kids but also their woman’s condition. As they grow up and live in an environment where gender inequalities are rooted in every part of their communities, Jungle Crows gives them an opportunity to break the chains that bound them from reaching their full potential. To do so, several strings are pulled, such as rugby training, social projects (planting trees…), educational projects (scholarships, English classes…) and leadership activities.

Jungle Crows is perpetually pushing those girls to empower themselves in many ways.

Through rugby and social projects, Jungle Crows is teaching values such as passion, solidarity, discipline, integrity, commitment, hard work, trust and team work. Those values and skills learned from various projects are transforming those girls into proactive leaders with a collective mindset. Their leadership skills enable them to lead educational/social projects in their own communities. When they come back home, they teach and spread those values within their communities as young leaders.

Even though rugby plays a big part, Jungle Crows DNA remains education which has the capacity to empower women. Therefore, they have developed several educational projects such as scholarships financing, English lessons at the American Center and leadership training. Many girls playing rugby for Jungle Crows are going to school or college as result of Jungle Crows efforts to finance their tuition fees but also to talk to them and their family about education, about how much it brings to someone’s life and in which way it is a key for empowerment.

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Jungle Crows is not only giving the opportunity to those girls to do the same activities as boys but to do it with them, to completely being set as their equal which truly improve their self-confidence.

Girls and boys are training together, playing together and learning together.

Allowing girls and boys to play together is a practical way to teach young boys that boys and girls are equals and can do the same things! When it comes to reduce gender inequalities, empowering girls is important, but it is equally important to educate boys about respecting girls and gender equality.b

Currently, several girls playing rugby for Jungle Crows are also playing rugby at international level representing India in the U18 Indian women’s rugby team. Moreover, many girls gained access to education (middle school, high school, university…) thanks to Jungle Crows scholarship programs and can empower themselves by being educated. Not only did those girls empower themselves, but they turned out to be role models within their communities.

Through its projects, Jungle Crows is planting seeds in Kolkata’s communities to change women’s conditions.

Learn more about the Jungle Crows: www.junglecrows.org

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Right to Play – Jharkhand

It’s been 3 months since we started Khelo Rugby in Jharkhand full-time. We’ve 100s of children playing, have held a super tournament and are working with the children to consider their own lives and futures.

Contributions from Chotu, Shivanshu & Paul

On 6 April 2019 we held our second rugby tournament in the rural Jharkhand block of Jarmundi about 100km north of the city of Asansol. This is a flat landscape dotted with small hills rising out of the red earth. Life is clearly tough in the small villages that dot the countryside, for many access to electricity is at best patchy and for most water needs to be drawn each day from wells.

We were invited to Jharkhand by Terres Des Hommes the international NGO who have been working in this area for many years delivering rights based projects along with the locally based NGO Sarita. After working with TDH in Kolkata they selected the Jungle Crows and our Khelo Rugby project as a good fit to support their work in Jharkhand.

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Following a short trial at the end of 2018 where we tested out the children’s appetite for rugby, by January we we had the green light to begin full-time. We packed the car full of rugby gear, crammed in several coaches and with a lot of laughter and nearly ten hours on the road the set up team was in Jharkhand and the odd shaped ball was flying.

Once everyone’s initial excitement was over a small team of Chotu, Kishan and Karan stayed on and were soon busy zipping around on their cycles running practice for 100s of children. We’re been based in the small village of Haripur, just off the main highway and though electric is not always available and the well is deep the boys soon developed a routine. Reports of coaching in Jamatad, Simra, Daldali and Jeevan Joti were soon cluttering up the whatsapp.

The tournament was electric with special guests from Kolkata and a small audience of curious and enthusiastic villagers. Over 200 children were crammed into small school buses to reach the venue and for most this was the first time they’d played with children from neighbouring villages and in teams containing both boys and girls. The standard of rugby was a credit to the coaching team, with the standout performances coming from the under 10 boys and girls. It was interesting to note these weren’t children who spun into whirling easy celebrations, they remained reserved even when they’d played tremendously and won silverware. Winning, losing and playing in such an organised way with a team of friends was perhaps something they’d not experienced too much.

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Our project with TDH is about the right to play and we have taken a steady approach in our work with the children in Jarmundi. Like Khelo Rugby everywhere it is important to develop a trusting relationship with the children and their communities. We best do this with regular practice and giving children the chance to play in a safe and controlled environment. With a light touch we want to understand the children and encourage them to talk about their lives.

Following the tournament Chotu set up a small training programme for some of the older children where they were given the chance to work on skills around team work and leadership. A gentle introduction, just small steps in these children’s journey to become leaders and role models themselves. Much more about instilling confidence in these super young people.

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Khelo Rugby is all about equipping young people with skills and experience, with rugby as a motivating catalyst to achieve this. Having seen the smiles and enthusiasm of tournament day the entire team is excited by the journey that is just beginning.

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On Tour – Rugby, Trekking and More Rugby in India

By Rupert Melville-Ross

Having heard so much about the Jungle Crows and Khelo Rugby and after spending some months planning our trip we finally arrived in Kolkata on 7 December where we were met by the indomitable Nanda who delivered us to our hotel through the smog and late afternoon chaos of Kolkata.

After checking in at the hotel we were glad to get back amongst the atmosphere of the streets in the nearby New Market area and the next morning to Crow Field on the maidan for the Saturday rugby academy.  We were greeted at Crow Field by hordes of enthusiastic kids and shook hands with each and every one of them.  Ollo then handed out the rugby kit which Culford school had kindly donated to the charity and which the lads proudly wore for the rest of their training session.

We were then invited to play a game of touch rugby with some of the older girls who proceeded to teach us a rugby lesson.  They had some great skills and were too good for an old bloke like me who hadn’t played rugby for years.  It was great fun and wonderful to see all the kids playing with huge smiles on their faces.  It was also a surprise to see the older boys wearing rugby boots and playing full contact rugby to a good standard with scrums and line outs.

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Lots of children…Crow Field, Kolkata

From Crow Field it was a scramble back to the hotel and then to the airport for our flight up to Siliguri with Nanda and Suku.  At Siliguri we met up with the remainder of our trekking gang, Roshan, Kisan and Nipen and were driven up the long and winding road up the side of the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling.  After a brief stay in Darjeeling we drove further into the hills through strange pine forests to the head of the Sandakphu trail at Maneybhanjan.

After dealing with various formalities in Maneybhanjan we set off up the road to the gompa at Chitrey and then on foot for the first day of trekking along the border with Nepal.  It was a fairly gentle introduction wandering in the sun through parched meadows and rhododendron woods where the Indian lads saw snow for the first time which meant a fair bit of messing about while it was flung about and stuffed down the back of people’s shirts.  By lunchtime it had clouded over and after rice and dhal served to us by a grumpy old crone (the sister of a friend of a friend as it happens, not that she seemed remotely interested) and where some poor chap in another group was bitten on the leg by her dog, we wandered through the mist up to our first lodge at Tumling.

The time before dusk was filled by a stretching session in the gloom led by the pink Nanda (so named on account of his pink earmuffs and rucksack) followed by flinging a mini rugby ball around which regularly disappeared down into the ravine on the India side of the trail.  As night fell we retreated to our dormitory on the top floor of the lodge.  It was extremely cold by our standards but I pitied the poor Indian boys who would never have experienced cold like it and hid in their beds each evening in the unheated dormitories, emerging only for food.  Poor Nipen in particular was stunned into silence; Atty’s coat came into its own, however.  The only slightly warm place at Tumling was a room which a monk used as his shrine where Ollo and I sat contemplating life with the monk and his several dozen candles.  Otherwise, we cowered in our beds only emerging to carry out our evening ablutions under the stars on the crenellations alongside the nearby track.

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A Pink Nanda

It was still very cold the following morning (ice on the inside of the windows) but the cloud had stayed away so we awoke after not much sleep to stunning views of the sunrise over Kanchenjunga and the surrounding mountains.  After staring at that for a while and taking far too many photos we had a rudimentary breakfast then packed up and headed off for the next day’s trekking.  It was a longer and harder walk than on the first day, especially as we had to descend through the bamboo and rhododendron forest into a deep valley and up the other side.  Kanchenjunga was our companion for much of the day and after a couple of hours we caught our first sight of Everest flanked by Lhotse and Makalu in the distance.  The lads were much more vocal once they had warmed up in the sun and their superior fitness (to mine at any rate) began to show.  I was glad that Nanda the pink guy seemed in no rush and was permanent back marker throughout the trek, often with me.

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View of Kanchenjunga

During the trek we began to hear some of the lads’ stories which were deeply humbling and gave us a sense of how successful the foundation has been in transforming young people’s lives and of how it is constantly renewing itself with young talent coming through from the most unpromising of beginnings.  It was a privilege to spend time in their company and to learn how far they had travelled, both literally and metaphorically.  It made all of us English guys in the party reflect on our good fortune.

We spent another uncomfortable night at Kalipokhri, this time in a cold tin hut.  We did have supper and breakfast (rice pudding) in an adjoining wooden hut with a friendly family who did their best to make us feel comfortable.  The only fire in evidence was the one they used for cooking in the corner of the hut, I have no idea how these people survive the bitter winter temperatures at an altitude of well over 3,000 metres without a proper fire and insulation (they seem to prefer to leave their doors and windows open at night).  Theirs is a hard life.

We were greeted by another fine dawn on our final day of trekking up to Sandakphu.  The views again made the effort more than worthwhile.  It was a hard steep slog in the thinning air up to the top and Atty became the first (and only) person to lose his breakfast on the way.  Everyone seemed to get stronger as the trek went on though which meant that by lunchtime we were all up at Sandakphu, a strange place perched on a hill at about 3,700 metres, but the views were fabulous.  After some lunch most of the team rested up while Jim, Crofter and I continued on (without heavy bags, what joy) for an afternoon stroll with more incredible views along the ridge towards Phalut and back again.

The first two nights of the trek might have been cold but Sandakphu was beyond freezing.  Layering up with every single item of clothing in the bag plus two blankets and two heavy duvets failed to work, I was frozen to the bone.  Thankfully it was worth it as the dawn views of the Himalayas from Jomolhari in Bhutan in the east across to Kanchenjunga and then the Everest range in the west were out of this world.  The Crows flag was duly unfurled in celebration before we retreated back down to the lodge for hot chai and eggy bread.

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Makalu at Dawn

The journey in Land Rovers back down from Sandakphu was a bit of a nail biter, two hours of being flung round precipitous corners hanging over deep mountain valleys was not good for those with a moderate constitution.  It was good preparation for being driven by Suku in Kolkata, however, and we all made it down in one piece and after a lunch in someone’s house which had been miraculously rustled up (the lunch, not the house) we headed off back down the mountain through the tea plantations and on to traffic choked Siliguri and then to Saraswatipur where we arrived in the dark.  After dumping our kit in the village church we headed off down the lane to Aunty’s house where Roshan also lives with his rugby trophies for some welcome beer and food around the fire.  It turned out that Aunty’s parrot was called Rupoo, no prizes for guessing my new name for the rest of the trip…

That night we all bedded down on mats on the church floor and slept the sleep of the righteous.  The church doubles up as a school so we were greeted in the morning by hordes of cheeky kids in the playground outside.  Jim led a morning stretching session with the kids which caused much hilarity.  After an Aunty special for breakfast we then embarked on a walk across the river plain and then through the jungle with rugby balls and a gang of teenage kids who were keen to show us round.  This took up most of the morning and ended up on the village rugby ground which is flanked by the jungle and tea plantations on two sides and the village on the other two sides.  An impromptu cricket match followed with stumps and bats rustled up from somewhere; a feature of the game was people crossing the pitch carrying firewood collected from the neighbouring jungle.

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Jim’s Morning Exercises

Late afternoon was Crows rugby with the guys and girls who had accompanied us in the jungle plus dozens more.  Again the standard was good, especially among the girls, some of whom had superb handling skills and were a match for the boys.  It was also great to see Kisan and Nipen come alive in a warm place with a rugby ball in their hands.  Once again we joined in, this time on a full sized pitch which was a real challenge for me.  The best thing about the whole thing was the way all of the kids embraced the game, playing with real verve and with beaming smiles on their faces.  It was also terrific to see so many girls taking part, I suspect that the idea of girls doing anything other than being at home and raising a family will have been anathema to the older generations in the village.  Instead they have the opportunity to take part and play in rugby tournaments across India, something they would not have dreamed of only a few years ago.

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Jungle Rugby

Kisan kindly invited us all to eat with him and his family in the next village that evening.  As we sat round the table by the light of the fire scooping up our food with our hands I reflected on the kindness and generosity of all of our hosts at Saraswatipur, they all welcomed us into their homes with open arms and seemed genuinely pleased that we were there.  We were sad not to be able to spend longer at Saraswatipur, we all loved it there and it was a wrench to leave.

Much of the next day was spent returning to Kolkata where we arrived in time for the annual children’s party hosted by the governor of West Bengal at the spectacular Raj Bhawan, formerly the viceroy’s residence.  It was again great to see so many kids from orphanages and deprived areas of the city enjoying themselves, even just for one afternoon.  It was also good to see all the young leaders from the Jungle Crows taking on the responsibility for looking after the children and making the event run smoothly.  They were all a credit to Paul Sir.

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Governor of West Bengal with the Jungle Crows

Our final day together as a group was spent back at Crow Field for more academy rugby, a bit of culture and then a visit to one of the slum areas near the docks for some impromptu rugby with a bunch of scrappy but enthusiastic kids who again embraced the game and the opportunity to play.  They then insisted on giving us all a tour and proudly showed off their homes and very surprised families, in particular their poor mothers who were not expecting us and had to rustle up tea for us all.

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Hyde Road 

We had an awesome time in India, thanks in the main to all of our Indian hosts who went out of their way to look after us, especially the wonderful Nanda.  Yes Nanda and Antara, if that invitation to come to your wedding in 2020 still stands we will all be there.  Careful what you wish for…

We were all moved by the great things that the foundation does and the opportunities it has given to so many people, it is a wonderful thing.  You can count on our continued support and we will spread the word.  Khelo Rugby!

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On Tour – The Team!

www.junglecrows.net

 

 

 

Our Girls Day: from Try to Triumph

By Rwitoban Deb, Journalist and Sports Enthusiast

My search for the Kolkata Port Trust field in Taratala last Sunday ended with spotting a bunch of young women armed with caps, whistles, pens and clipboards strutting about with carefree confidence, commanding military-like discipline from a few hundred younger girls.

No, these weren’t seasoned teachers out on a school picnic. This was the under-14 Khelo Rugby tournament – of, by and for girls – to celebrate the UN International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.

The second edition of the tournament saw more than 250 girls from 16 deprived communities congregate from all corners of Kolkata to put the scorching sun to shame with infectious spirit and unwavering enthusiasm.

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“The best thing about this tournament is that it’s been organised by the older girls for the younger ones. The seniors are now coaching the young ones, managing people, making sure the teams follow the rules… these are all valuable life lessons,” said Bruce Bucknell, British Deputy High Commissioner. The British Deputy High Commission was one of the supporters of the event and has been working towards girl empowerment across India.

A group of 50+ young women ranging from the age of 16 to 19, who have now graduated to community leaders, were tasked with organising the tournament. They had meetings before the tournament to divide up the responsibilities, from setting up the tent to organising food for all the players. This really was “A Skilled Girl Force” the 2018 theme of International Girls Day live and in action.

“Jungle Crows started off as a fascination for a few chubby, middle-aged guys but it’s amazing to see how many young women have got involved, it’s really the Spirit of Rugby live and in action!” exclaimed Shaun Kenworthy, chef and Jungle Crows supporter.

Artist and fashion leader Pinky couldn’t recall seeing this many girls play a sport in the city together. “It’s a spectacular sight watching so many girls enjoying themselves and cheering each other on. They all come from underprivileged backgrounds and many don’t even have shoes, but that’s not dampening their spirits one bit!”

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The 16 teams were divided into four groups with the winners of each going on to play for the Cup, the second-placed teams for the Plate and the third-placed teams for the Bowl. The contest ended with Hide Road beating KPT Colony 12-7 in the Cup final, while Jainkunj won the Plate and Sukanta Nagar lifted the Bowl.

Winners and losers though, were only restricted to the scoreboard. There wasn’t a single glum face or any sense of disappointment because most of these girls have fought and won a bigger battle within their family, their neighbourhood and their society, just so that they could even be on the field. The pure rush of adrenaline, the raw emotion and unadulterated joy of playing a sport had been alien to them.

“Only boys were allowed to play and girls weren’t even allowed to talk to them in my neighbourhood,” complained Kanika Mondal, one of the leaders of Salt Lake Dhapa, which was echoed by many around her. And now? “Most boys are terrified of them! Boys leave the field for them or play together with the girls,” laughed Sukumar Hembrom, a senior Jungle Crows men’s player, as he looked on from the sideline.

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The conversation was brought to an abrupt pause as a 10-year-old limped into the tent with a cut on her leg requiring medical assistance. Although visibly in pain and discomfort, she kept calm. While it might have seen many a grown man shed a tear or grimace in pain, this little girl just put on a band-aid and dashed back to the field in seconds. In case one missed the ‘#GirlPower’ on the back of their jerseys, this was it.

Rugby hasn’t just made these girls physically strong, but also mentally tougher. They are now vocal, assertive and unwilling to let patriarchy dictate the Do and Don’t of life.

“I’ve become more confident ever since I started playing rugby. A few years ago, I wasn’t even allowed to leave the house but now I take my own decisions at home. I convinced my parents to let me study commerce in school,” said Siya Shaw, one of the organisers-in-chief.

Ishma Taj too had to grapple with her family before she could do the same to her opponents. “I loved playing everything from badminton to hockey, before Zaffar (Khan of Jungle Crows) introduced me to rugby. But my relatives didn’t like me playing and my parents soon barred me from going out. It took a lot of effort to convince them that since boys and girls come from the same place there’s no reason to treat them differently,” said Ishma, 19, who now coaches 50 girls in Brooklyn, Garden Reach and wants to play rugby for India.

“When we started working in these communities, the biggest deterrent was the families of the girls. Through years of communication, we’ve finally managed to gain their trust. Now, with the senior girls taking up active responsibility of mobilising and training younger girls it’s become slightly easier but there are still plenty of other challenges we need to overcome,” said Harinder Singh, Jungle Crows manager and one of the few men seen motivating the girls from the sidelines.

Till only the other day, they were made to believe that their sole purpose of existence was to get married and raise children. Now, rugby has given these girls a sense of identity, a dare to dream. They’ve seen their seniors play for India and conquer the world. They’ve realised the world is much bigger than they ever imagined it to be, or were allowed to.  They will not settle for nothing. They’ve been in the shadows for far too long. This is their time to shine.

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