Smiling in the Kabul Sun

by Zaffar Khan

Ramadan is one of the most important holy months in the Afghan calendar and at times a tough one for all of us who are still getting out and playing rugby. The children seem to have no problem and are full of energy and stamina as they brave out the days in the heat, running and leaping around. With no food or water for more than sixteen hours it’s taken a lot more than being brave for me, and I always seem to be the Coach seeking out some shade.  Sikandar, aged twelve on the other hand well he’s very excited about coming out on the field during Ramadan saying, “playing is tough but I am working on my six pack so it will help me” he winks with a big smile, as I retreat from the sun, again!

Khanjer with his Khelo Rugby Children

Khanjer with some of his Khelo Rugby Children

Our community head coach Khanjer is presently working with eight communities in Kabul teaching and guiding them in Khelo. We are planning our first Khelo tournament after Ramadan and every one is super excited about it.  We’ll likely have more than 100 children for the tournament. Khanjer says, “rugby is getting bigger and better, it will be great for rugby in Afghanistan. May be one day these children will play in the national team in the future… but we are being realistic it’s a long and hard goal and we are being patient with it. Khelo has also shown us that rugby is about so much more, the children learning together, supporting each other and playing.  We want to make these children’s experience very good so they want their friends and one day their children to play.”

In Khelo Rugby we talk about ‘Growing up with Rugby’ and this is really blossoming in an exciting way in Kabul today.

Finally I must mention that some of the Afghan rugby boys and friends from Kabul have been very kind to invite me to dinners in this month and so I wanted to share some of the pics as it looks and of course tastes WONDERFUL!

Glorious Afghan Feast!

Glorious Afghan Feast!

 

Khelo Khelo Pakistan!

Khelo’s Journey into the Cholistan Desert

by Zaffar Khan

Pakistan is a journey we’ve been working on for some time now, to take our rugby passion to a whole new set of young people.  To children who are so close to us in India (and me at the moment in Afghanistan) yet at the same time a long way away.

We’ve been lucky that making this latest Khelo Rugby journey possible has been terrific guide and mentor Muzammal Khan Wazeeri who has brought us to the Cholistan Desert of Pakistan. Where the temperature can rise beyond 50 degrees centigrade, but Wazeeri and his gang of rugby loving ruggers are never phased by that.

Wazeeri has been such a inspiration with his work…with the desert heat and the grueling holy month of Ramadan he made sure what he promised the children happened.  80 children were bought from different parts of his community some up to 40 km away. They all came together and participated in a Khelo Rugby tournament, what he described as a “very small tournament”, we say “great great effort”. Eight schools from his community are now participating in Khelo and his current mission is to get the girls to play – which he says is his dream and challenge.

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Khelo….Khelo….Khelo…

Here I talked with Wazeeri and asked him a few questions about his involvement and journey so far with the Khelo Rugby Family.

Q: Tell us something about Rugby in your community?

Wazeeri : Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim (In the name of Allah, the most Beneficent, the most Merciful), Alhamdulillah things have been very good in Cholistan and we are doing our best to promote rugby here with the help of Pakistan Rugby.  And now with the involvement of Khelo Rugby it has given us the perfect platform for grass roots rugby.  I come from the Pakistan State of Punjab and the town of Fort Abbas and that’s where I formed my Desert Camel team years back now.  Masha’Allah we have older boys in our club but we always missed not having a youth or a junior team, some years back I did start a team but due to lack of planning and guidance it did not really work out.  Then one day I came across Khelo Rugby on Facebook  and since I knew Zaffar I asked if we could start a project in my community to see how it could help with the children and especially I liked the idea of the small children playing rugby.

ImageQ: How do you think Khelo Will help grow Rugby and the Community in Cholistan?

This is something very important happened to me and my club Desert Camels.  We have always had a team were big boys would come and join and never a opportunity for smaller children to come learn or play. Since Khelo has started to support us we have had such a impact on the participation level and also on the audience level. Parents do not see rugby now as a violent game after the introduction of tag rugby with the children. We have had a change of view from many of the families in the area.

Q:  Do you think that is a big change?

Yes of course it has been such a huge change, I believe that Khelo make such a difference to these children’s life….I will explain. We have children who are 12, 13, 14 younger and above….who literally do not have anything to do as far as organised fun or sport and Khelo now brings that into their life and into communities that I have been trying to reach.  It’s simple but really effective for me and the children.

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Q: I know it’s very early but how do you think the project can be helpful to the community in the near future?

Yes it’s early to say what and how the community will benefit from it on a long term, I mean on a short terms yes we can see the results – lots of children playing and really enjoying. But I think Khelo is a very powerful tool to work with, it cannot be just seen as a sport but what we can do with it is something I am excited about.  My area and the areas around have lot of cultural and social issues involving children and Khelo creates a great platform to speak and discuss with them and also elder boys and how these can be resolved or at least bought into context. Like for example recently we did a very simple session with the children on how we can keep our grounds clean, and we decided once training was over, each child who came to the session was asked to pick up at least four plastic bags of the ground before leaving, we had 20 kids so that meant a lot of bags were cleared.  People just dump things on the ground because there is no fencing to it…so we are trying to work on little things…and see where we can go with it.

Q: Do you personally feel that the change you want to bring will be possible?

Hmmmmm… it won’t be easy…you are talking about peoples habits and social nature, which has been here for years now and it cannot be changed immediately.  But what Khelo does again is bring children together and it can create a platform where they can learn and talk about things.  And to be good at their sport they need to be healthy and well – just that is very important.  And there you go you have a young, I mean very young generation in front of you, who are all eager to learn and hear, the rest is up to us to guide and support them. I know support is very important in rugby and in life growing up.

Q: Last question… and it’s a tough and very big question…do you think this could be a catalyst between our two nations for a bit of peace?

Well the government is trying…but I think we also have the responsibility to make an effort.  With Khelo the children have something very simple yet powerful in common, I know the children from Pakistan and India can be a way ahead, friendship between the children from both the nations will always bring better understanding.  I hope we can one day come to India to play the Khelo India children, but they won’t be India or Pakistan children they’ll be Khelo children, Rugby children. I am sure it will be great.

Thanks Wazeeri bhai for your time…I hope together we all get where you dream of…Inshallah.

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Wazeeri (far right) and the Khelo Rugby Pakistan Children

Rugby Brews Up in the Jungle

My Saraswatipur Khelo Rugby Adventure

By Hari Singh 

16 Hours by bus was how my journey began, but at least it was air-conditioned. But not for one minute did my excitement at heading for Saraswatipur village in North Bengal leave my mind.  This was going to be very much a first for me – coaching children brand new to rugby and that too in a remote jungle. When I got off the bus at Siliguri, the sun was glorious and right above my head and there was a tremendous hustle bustle at the bus stop with jeeps and cars heading all over North Bengal and further afield to Sikkim and Assam.  As guided before leaving Kolkata, I jumped aboard a bicycle rickshaw to reach Salesian College where I met Father George Matthew who would in turn get me going on my further journey to the village.

Father Matthew warmly welcomed me and after only a couple of minutes we headed towards the college canteen for lunch of steaming warm momos. I stayed in a college guest room that day which was comfortable and a great relief from the bus journey. The next morning, Father Matthew drove me towards the tribal village “Saraswatipur” in the Baikuntpur forest. The journey was 20KM away from Siliguri and it was not less than a jungle safari. I was overwhelmed with the kaccha roads surrounded by forest cover on either side. While on the way father gave me a small brief about the tribal families, the children and their lifestyle. He also told me to be careful after dark and not to go anywhere as wild elephants were a big threat to people living in the village.

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Bicycle Tour through the Village (I’ve got a passenger!)

As I reached the village, I was amazed by the lush green beauty of the nature. The whole area of the village is surrounded by tea plantations cut into the forrest. There was an ancient tea factory as well, which I would later visit and marvel at how tea is made. I was greeted by a few village children and my fellow rugby coach from Kolkata – Amirul, who had been in Saraswatipur for five days already. Myself and Amirul were delegated with the responsibility of coaching tag rugby to the village children and preparing them for the “Saraswatipur Cup”. Our fooding and lodging for the upcoming days were arranged by Father Matthew. We stayed in a room attached to a newly built church and our daily meals were prepared by a local village family.

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Visiting the Tea Factory

The much awaited time had come for me to begin with the training of the young kids who never saw a rugby ball and never heard about the game in their entire life. Infact, nobody in the village had ever heard of anything called rugby. This was the major advantage for us to attract kids towards the playground as every kid wanted to grab the unusual oval shaped ball and learn the game which was totally new to them. We started off quite well with almost 130 kids coming for training everyday and it went up to 200 in the next week. We had a systematic and planned approach to our training. We divided all the children into few groups and had time table set for each groups.  Saraswatipur is really a group of villages and very soon we had children from all over the area playing – this is now one rugby mad place!

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Practice – children were great and now rugby crazy!

From third week onwards we started with morning and evening training sessions. The children’s responded in a very positive manner and they took the training sessions very seriously. We also started with English classes in the evening for the kids. We would begin English classes at 7pm inside the church because that was the only place where we had electricity all the time. Very soon we became firm favourites with the children who loved the new game and were enthusiastic to learn new things and we shared an emotional bond with each child in the village.  Soon we were helping them with all their homework, helping to revise for exams and moving around the village like locals.

Apart from training rugby and our classes for the kids, we were also able to have some fun.  Even though I couldn’t swim I jumped in the river along with everyone else and was swept along by the current to a shallow sand bank.  Time after time the children went and so did I! We also got to go fishing and hunting in the jungle, something that was taken seriously every Sunday as the boys headed off with bows and arrows to catch something different for dinner.

Finally, before we knew it a month had passed and the RAF Spitfires were in town. On their arrival to Saraswatipur, the village people welcomed them with flower’s and also conducted a local cultural program with dances and singing to welcome their guests. Most of the village people are from tribal or Adivasi background and their songs and dancing is very important and kept alive throughout the generations.

And though the spitfires couldn’t understand much about what was happening the welcome was very warm and everyone was well entertained.  After the program, all the village children with the RAF team went to the playground for a small training session. It was really wonderful to watch the kids enjoying their time with the Spitfires and seeing also how much the Spitfires enjoyed.  The Spitfires really didn’t want to leave at the end of their first day and wanted to stay back in the village, but arrangements had been made in Siliguri and it was important to get through the jungle before dark, before the elephants came out.

And so we came to the Saraswatipur Cup.  Me and Amirul had made 8 teams of 5 girls and 5 boys on each team of 10.  Each team had one Coach from the Jungle Crows team, a group of who had also travelled up, and one from the Spitfires.  And what a great day it was – better than me explaining were the photos which summed up the spirit and joy of the day for the children and all the visitors.

The Crows Foundation is now planning to place a permanent Coach in Siliguri to keep the Saraswatipur rugby going and introduce the sport to more children in the city and across the region – I hope soon Siliguri and Saraswatipur will be known not only for good tea but also for good rugby!

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Action from Saraswatipur Cup