Girl Force: Unscripted and Unstoppable

For 2019 the theme of the International Day of the Girl was “Girl Force: Unscripted and Unstoppable”. Khelo Rugby is working to play it’s part creating opportunities for our unstoppable female athletes.

by Paul Walsh

It was absolutely brilliant once again being part of our girls rugby tournament on October 11th. Rightly this has become a big part of the Khelo Rugby calendar with our girls looking forward to playing in and organising the day.

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Kolkata

With more than 500 girls playing across four locations and I’d think another 100 organising, the tournament is a great way to mobilise and encourage our girls to take action. Khelo Rugby has always operated with the attitude of “let’s make it happen” and this is a good example of this. When we first came up with the initiative to have a girls only rugby event, the only question was why we hadn’t done it earlier. Each year I can see more and more benefits from the tournament and making the focus of October on our girls.

The tournament itself has become a focal point for everyone in Khelo Rugby, setting a clear target and getting everyone working together towards a common goal. Coaches need to get their teams organised, bring out the next generation of girls to play, brothers encourage sisters, sisters encourage sisters, each community wants to play well.

2019 was the first time we co-ordinated four tournaments on the same day, and seeing the photos ping in was special. It seems almost everyone now gets to see social media so we tried to quickly share images from each location so the girls could feel a sense of unity even if they were 100s of miles apart.

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Bengaluru

More than 45% of children in Khelo Rugby are girls and this tournament has been a catalyst to achieve this. As a team we always need to be focussed on ensuring we keep levels of participation from our girls up. In this we absolutely need to keep taking what is the tougher path.

India’s female rugby players are an incredibly strong and resilient community and should be celebrated at every opportunity. It was really special to see three of India’s rugby stars being showcased at the recent “We the Women” event in Kolkata, specially since it included Jungle Crows star Sangita. Our Khelo Rugby girls can feel proud to be a part of this.

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Saraswatipur

I promised myself I would keep this article short so I won’t go over all the reasons why girls are perhaps the single most important part of our planets future. You’d have to be sleeping under a rock not to have seen the impact Greta Thunberg is having across the world. It’s hard to believe it was four years ago I wrote my blog “Who Wants to Change the World?” – the messages of how 600 million girls will bring change are still valid. Our girls play rugby, but this is more than just a game, like 11 October was more than just a tournament. The impact belief and empowerment can have are very real. It’s “More Than Just a Try.”

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Haripur

We’ve still much work to do and we’ll keep a special focus for the rest of October, but our efforts shouldn’t rest. This is a full time commitment. We’ll have charchas in communities for the rest of the month, taking time to discuss and think about what we’re doing, how we can do more, achieve more. The girls want to share more messages through posters and slogans, so we’ll showcase those to more children at our end of month KSL (Khelo Sporting League) get together.

We enjoyed 11 October as the #DayoftheGirl but for real change to come we need to support girls everyday.

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

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!

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

 

 

 

More Than Just A Try

The empowering change a game can have on a community.

by Ramona Sen, Author and Journalist

The girls from Saraswatipur are disappointed that they couldn’t participate in the Asian Games, the most high-profile tournament for the Indian rugby women’s team. Their hopes were soaring when the team was approved for the preparatory camp and cruelly dashed when the Indian Olympic Association decided to leave rugby out of the final Indian contingent.

“Some of our friends from the other states even left their jobs to come practise for this,” said Swapna Oraon, one of the first from her tiny tea-garden hometown in North Bengal to have taken to rugby.

Her disappointment is understandable. Swapna, Sandhya and many other young girls in Saraswatipur have been given a new lease of life after they discovered rugby. These are girls whose lives had been mapped out since they were tiny tots – scrape through class 10 and get married as soon as possible. Now, with the advent of rugby, marriage is no longer a matter of compulsion; they have the luxury of choice.

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Sandhya and Swapna: disappointed with the Asian Games decision but determined to keep playing

Rugby has put Saraswatipur on the map. “Our village is in the middle of the woods, no one knew it existed. But now we have out-station visitors and many people come to watch us play,” said Sandhya Rai, who attends George College in Sealdah, central Kolkata. She likes the big city, in spite of the serenity she has been used to. “Transport is available so easily in Kolkata. In Saraswatipur, we used to travel a long way to go anywhere and if we didn’t find transport, we would have to cancel plans.”

The game has made the village more cosmopolitan than it could have ever imagined being. Now its young girls wear shorts and dash about a field, like boys, driving the boys to the sidelines. Not that it was a smooth transition from playing doll to playing ball. “My uncle used to constantly tell my mother it was obscene of me to be seen with bare legs. But she’d always tell him to mind his own business,” said Sandhya. The censure isn’t limited only to the older generation, unused to seeing their womenfolk scampering about a sporting field. “Girls my age are married and raising children. They never took to rugby, or they tried and couldn’t play, and now they’re jealous and talk about us behind our backs,” said Sandhya, who is 17.

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Sandhya in action for West Bengal

Do the globe-trotting rugby girls, back from Paris and Singapore, assume that marriage and babies is not for them? Not at all. They like the idea of a boyfriend, preferably an athlete himself, someone who will understand equality. They face no discrimination on the field and don’t think they can ever settle for it in their inter-personal relationships. This, if anything, is the biggest change the game has brought about. For the first time, girls from Saraswatipur can dream of equality. “My husband should never be able to throw his money in my face and tell me I’m dependent on him forever,” articulates Sandhya, firmly. She understands the need to have the wherewithal to make her own life as well as inspire younger girls in the village to follow this not-so-beaten path.

Perhaps there really is something about sport that lends clarity of thought. The girls have learnt to be optimistic but practical about the life that lies before them. Though they’ve grasped an opportunity with all the doggedness of a forward, they see the struggles awaiting them – of having pinned their life’s ambitions on a game that might receive rejection from governing bodies, of making their peace with defeat at international tournaments “because the other team was bigger and stronger”. And through it all is the will to live a life that makes a difference.

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Swapna breaks through for West Bengal

Read more about what we do at: www.junglecrows.net

Little Humans of Saraswatipur

Originally published by Leher, as part of their #LittleHumans blog series here we profile five children from Saraswatipur – hear about them and their ambitions.

by Noah McDaniel

Saraswatipur, a cluster of picturesque villages situated around sprawling tea gardens in the north of West Bengal is about 30 kms away from Siliguri. Positioned on the banks of the Teesta River, on the edge of the jungle, one can’t miss the view of the Himalayas on a clear day. The predominant line of work is at the tea estate – picking and processing tea leaves. From a population of 2000 people, 1500 people are employed by the tea factory, passed down across generations.

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Today, this tucked away little village is being known for more than just its tea. News from the region boasts of the burgeoning young talent on the rugby field. In 2012, Father George Matthew was transferred to Saraswatipur to head a local parish. He noticed the athletic potential of the children and reached out to the Khelo Rugby team, to bring the program to the village. Within a few weeks, two coaches moved to the village and the program was set up within a month. Ever since, the program has seen unprecedented success with the children of Saraswatipur playing for the West Bengal state and national Indian rugby teams.

Khelo Rugby brings adventure, challenge and excitement to the lives of children. Present in Kolkata and parts of West Bengal, this program has also made its way to Afghanistan and Pakistan, reaching out to children from disadvantaged communities by incorporating sports as a social development tool. Managed by youngsters themselves, Khelo Rubgy is building this program with scholarships and a curriculum of social issues.

This week, we bring you stories of Little Humans from Saraswatipur for whom the rugby field is now second home.

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Eliyas is a very smart 8th grader, studying at the Rajaranga National Hindi High School. He excels in all of his classes, but Hindi is his favorite.

Yet, Eliyas’s passion is playing rugby. He has been playing for 4 years and never misses practice. His favourite positions are center back and flanker and he is always chosen to throw the ball in during line outs. He brags that he is the best passer on his team and can pass accurately to his left and his right.

When he finishes 12th grade, Eliyas wants to move to Kolkata. He has heard many stories of the city from friends and family who have been there.

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Sonali is 12 years old and is in the 8th grade at Katalguri Junior High School. She loves History because she wants to learn about how people lived a long time ago. Her mother says she is very dedicated to her studies, but waits eagerly each afternoon to play rugby.

Sonali joined Khelo Rugby in 2013. She was a little shy at first and would sit on the sidelines and watch the others play. But soon enough, she mustered the courage to play, dove right into the game and never looked back. For Sonali, although playing rugby is great fun, the most important aspect of her practice is fitness. When she turns 18, Sonali wants to join the Air Force and she knows that being physically fit is a critical component of this. She admires those who have volunteered to serve their country and wants to follow in their footsteps.

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Debaraj lives in a small hut with his parents right on the edge of the tea fields where both of his parents work. Debaraj has big plans for his future. His favorite subject in school is English and when he grows up he wants to become an English teacher.

He knows he has to study hard to achieve this goal and studies English for hours every day. But, it’s hard to find the time to study. The power goes out frequently at his house in the evenings and often elephants wander through the village looking for food and destroying the thatched huts in which people live. Debaraj recalls one night when an elephant came to his neighbour’s home and began ripping off chunks of the roof to try and get the rice he smelled inside.

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John Paul has swag, both on and off the field. In the mornings, he takes a bike to school along with the older Saraswatipur children. Most students take 30 minutes to get to school, but John Paul brags cheekily that he can make it in 20.

Both his parents pick leaves at the tea garden, but when he grows up, John wants to be a forest ranger like his uncle. Saraswatipur has weekly run-ins with wild elephants that can be quite dangerous. John’s uncle plays a crucial role in protecting the elephants and their habitat while also keeping them from hurting people in their search for food. John wishes to grow up and help protect his family and friends from the elephants and ensure that the elephants can still safely live in the jungle.

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Rehan is a shy, young, 10 year old boy who lives in the tea garden village of Saraswatipur. His day starts at 5 am every day when he gets up to do his chores and help his mother sweep, clean, and feed their livestock. After he finishes, this 5th grader packs his bag and heads to school. Rehan’s favorite subject is Bangla because he loves reading novels. Once school gets over at 3 pm in the afternoon, Rehan walks home and sits down to do his homework. Once he finishes, he rewards himself by watching Hindi serials on TV.

Although Rehan is a reserved person, he’s quite the opposite on the rugby field. He was introduced to Khelo rugby by a friend 3 years ago and has been playing rugby ever since. Speed is essential in rugby and Rehan is fast enough to play every position on his team.

When he graduates from school, Rehan dreams of following in his sister’s footsteps and moving to the big city. A few years ago, Rehan’s sister was offered a position working for Decathlon in Kolkata and Rehan hopes to work with her when he grows older.

-Thanks to Leher for agreeing to let us publish these stories on our blog – learn more about Leher from their websitefacebook or twitter!

Rugby Tackles Gender Inequality

Khelo Rugby’s new Project Manager writes about her experiences in organising our Day of the Girl Tournament and how gender inclusion is an important part of combatting gender inequality. 

by Nidhi Ghelani

When I see the girls from across our Khelo communities’ play and lead training sessions I realise that the only thing holding young girls back is the lack of opportunity and a platform to showcase their talents. A young girl encouraging her team to play better during an inter-community match got me thinking whether the most pressing issue to be addressed today is “gender equality” or “gender inclusion”. Our minds are so trained to think of gender roles in a stereotypical manner that we forget the very essence of equality.

Here, at Khelo Rugby we believe that sports is an excellent medium to accelerate gender inclusion and foster gender equality among both girls and boys. Rugby as a sport has a place for everyone on the team. Hence, rugby teaches us that irrespective of size, weight and height what is important is the zeal to play and the passion to excel.

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Character traits like passion, competence, sportsmanship, discipline are essential in every athlete and have no gender bias. They are not gendered or stereotyped. This is the beauty of sport, it does not discriminate based on gender, race, religion, or caste.  The only limitations are the ones we introduce when we say “rugby is a men’s sport” or “girls should not play contact sports like rugby”.

We often feel that educating girls will empower them.  Or just by making them aware of their rights and responsibilities, we can promote a more gender neutral society. However this is only half the picture. What needs to be addressed simultaneously is to sensitize the boys and men around us, which will help us nurture the sapling of equality we plant in the mind and heart of each individual.

The International Day of the Girl is to mark the plight and gather support for young girls across the globe who are subjected to gender based discrimination and violence. We at Khelo have joined hands in this initiative to make a more gender fair society by helping and supporting young girls to break down barriers and emerge as heroes. We undertook the mammoth challenge of organising an U-14 Tag Tournament, where 240 young, motivated, and extremely talented girls from over 20 Indian communities were out on the field enjoying rugby. Our team of 4 coaches and over 45 Young leaders spent their days training girls from various communities and delivering the theme of gender equality through fun games and open discussions. These lessons are one of the tenants from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which we have adopted in Khelo.

Socially enforced gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture that  discrimination has become normalized and accepted. Young girls from underprivileged communities have often seen their mothers, sisters and other women of the family being subjected to gender based discrimination which they have accepted in their very own lives. It was enthralling to see so many girls out on the field, free from any stereotypical bias making their presence felt and voice heard.

When we talk about gender equality we must also talk about gender inclusion which means that both girls and boys get the opportunity to participate equally. The tournament was planned, organised and executed by the girl young leaders. It was an opportunity given to them to showcase their skills and also a learning opportunity to prepare themselves to deal with bigger challenges life will eventually throw at them.

What life has to offer and what we make of these offers is what shapes our personality. There are times when life throws a curve-ball at us, we either duck or face it with determination and smash a home run. Well, the society today under the facade of liberty and liberalization still breeds gender based discrimination which trickles into the life of these young girls impacting their personality. Sports on the other hand can free them from this cage giving them a more bias free platform to showcase their skills and nurture their passion. It is motivating to see girls who have been a part of Khelo Rugby participate in various state and national level tournaments, making their family, community, organization and nation proud. That what we mean by ‘Growing Up With Rugby.’

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When sport does not discriminate why should we? Sports impacts the lives of players deeper than we can imagine. Hence, for girls who hardly get to see or explore the avenues which lead to self-growth and development this exposure adds a brick to their ever growing palace of dreams and ambitions.

To play a full contact sport like rugby is a barrier many girls have to overcome.  From wearing shorts, to playing in front of an audience, the cultural taboos on women are many. A very important lesson we learn from rugby is to get back up after being knocked down. Many dreams and ambitions are laughed upon and ridiculed when these girls share them with their family and friends… nevertheless they learn to strike back with more determination and zeal. Girls across the globe are fighting various gender biases, and sports provides them a chance to not just free themselves from this but also train their mind and body to become stronger and sharper as they grow.

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Here in Khelo, girls are no less than boys. The roles and responsibilities are given not based on gender but capability and talent. It’s not easy to break free from the shackles of stereotypical thinking but as an organization working with disadvantaged and underprivileged children we try our best to instil among our children the concept of a gender fair society. We see girls and boys adopt the values of rugby in their daily lives leading better  and more fulfilling lives. I’m a strong believer that girls can bring about social change at every level. As daughters, sisters, and mothers… women are god gifted with the task of passing on values and building strong value systems. Khelo through various theme based activities and fun games tries to address these issues in a manner which the children enjoy and learn from as well.

‘Women are genetically stronger” says science. “Women are entrusted the responsibility of being primary caregivers and nurturing a new life” says the society. If women are considered so powerful both through mind and body, why hold them back with stereotyped gender roles and biases? This paradox is prevalent everywhere. Khelo makes active efforts to free young talented girls, giving them opportunities and the right exposure to broaden their horizons.

To build something new the old must sometimes be brought down. To create a more gender fair society we must work together towards including more and more girls and women in every part of community life. What we need today is not projects for them but projects by them. The solution to gender inequality is gender inclusion. Here at Khelo we train girls and boys to grow up together, making each other stronger.

All India Women 2017

Jungle Crows and Maharastra Women’s Team after their Bronze Medal Match, All India Oct 2017