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 

We in the Jungle!

Originally published on his own blog “Off-Season”, Harry A Johnson is a Watson Fellow scouring the world for the most innovative uses of sports as a vehicle for social change. Here he writes about his experiences visiting Saraswatipur for our Kichad Rugby Festival.

By Harry A Johnson Jnr

Some may argue this point, but to my knowledge, the POLYTECH High School Boys Basketball team from 2009-2013 has to be the most dominant team of all time in the Henlopen conference. During my four years at POLYTECH, we did not lose a single game in our division –completing a streak of 65 straight games– and only lost two games in the conference over my three years as a starter (go ahead and correct me if I’m wrong). Our team’s mantra quickly became “We in the JUNGLE!!,” describing our high speed, in your face style of basketball that suffocated other teams. Less than one day after arriving in India, I was once again in the jungle. However, this time I was on a rugby field surrounded by trees standing 100 feet tall and the under constant threat of elephant attacks. More surprisingly, I felt right at home.

The first program that I am exploring here in Kolkata, India is Khelo Rugby. This sports-based social development initiative uses rugby as a vehicle to counter a number of social issues (ie. poverty, homelessness, lack of access to education) and works to ensure that Indian youth grow up with the best of opportunities (a more in-depth review of the program will come soon). The program works in over 45 communities throughout India. During my first 24 hours here I got to accompany the program on a trip to Saraswatipur, a group of villages in Siliguri — a small town in the jungle foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

About Khelo and Saraswatipur: 

Saraswatipur is a tea estate made up of a cluster of 4 villages. The lives of children growing-up in these villages are embedded in the larger context of life as a tea garden worker. This is because more than 90% of the people have Adivasi tribal backgrounds meaning they were brought in as indentured labourers to work in the tea gardens at the start of the century. The villagers live in basic conditions, make meager wages (85 rupees/day= $1.33/ day), have limited access to the outside world and a lack of employment opportunities beyond the tea garden. In addition, the village is plagued by rampant alcoholism, illiteracy, lack of schooling, poor sanitation practices, lack of safe drinking water, oppression by Tea Garden owners and the constant threat of wild animal attacks (e.g., elephants, leopards).

Damage from an elephant attack

Khelo Rugby began in Saraswatipur in March 2013. Since then, Khelo has trained more than 500 children in the sport of rugby. Along with rugby training, Khelo has conducted youth development camps, provided various sports-based opportunities (e.g. participating in Rugby tours and Rugby tournaments organized in India), secondary school scholarships, and work opportunities. The program has 26 children from Saraswatipur in the Khelo Scholarship program and 4 former players (2 girls; 2 boys) are currently working with Decathlon, an international sports brand.

Khelo took a unique approach to developing the program in Saraswatipur. When Khelo first arrived, the program purposefully introduced the sport of rugby as a “girls sport” so that parents would not exclude their daughters from participating. Four years later, it is evident that Khelo’s deception was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. The girls from this small practically unknown village have dominated girl’s rugby throughout the entire country of India. These are some of the Saraswatipur Leopards (Girls team) accolades:

  • U-18 All-India Nationals 2nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • September 2016 All India Senior Nationals 3rd Place (Plate Winners)

  • August 2016 All India Georgiadi International 7’s 1st Place (Winners)

  • August 2016 All India Senior National 7’s 3 rd Place (Plate Winners)

  • May 2016 U-18 All India National 7’s 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • 6th Place (Leopards Boys team)

  • January 2016 West Bengal State 7’s 1 st Place (Winners)

  • September 2015 Junior All India Nationals 1 st Place (Winners)

  • July 2015 All India National Rugby 7’s 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • June 2015 Calcutta Rugby Tournament 1st Place (Winners)

  • February 2015 National Games, Kerala Entire Bengal team comprised of Saraswatipur Leopards

  • November 2014 U-18 All India Nationals 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

This past summer 5 girls from Saraswatipur were selected to the U18 Indian national team which participated in the 2017 Paris World Games and another four girls were selected to the U20 Indian national team which played in the Asia U20 rugby tournament. More importantly 3 players have gone on to college and to the programs knowledge they are the first three in what may be centuries. Khelo’s work continues to expand as the program is currently fundraising to build a youth center in the village.

Above is a short documentary on one of the girls from Saraswatipur who played on the India national team

My Experience: Saraswatipur Rugby Festival

The focus of my trip to Saraswatipur was to help in the coordination and execution of a rugby tournament for kids aged 14 and under. The tournament was then followed by a cultural celebration in honor of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This quickly turned into a cultural exchange between the people of Saraswatipur and myself. As I walked around the town, I was met with unapologetic stares that did not seem to cease over my stay. Although I was taken aback by the attention, I slowly realized the stares were a sign of interest and curiosity. It was hard to communicate with many of the villagers because they have their own language which is a mixture of Bengali, Nepali, Hindi, Bihari. Anyone born outside this village will struggle to follow this mix. Fortunately, some of the villagers knew a small amount of English. (English is known throughout India because it is the language of government, law and medicine.) As I engaged with those around the town, it was evident that the beauty of the landscape was a reflection of the people of the land. I felt at home as I was welcomed into home after home, chased around by small children and shook well over 200 hands during my three day visit.

The tournament went on without a hitch. Over 335 children from Saraswatipur and neighboring tea estates participated in the tournament and both first and second place teams were honored with live chickens. Paul Walsh (Director of Khelo Rugby), Brian Wolf (Bard Graduate and former member of the Khelo Rugby team) and I were surprisingly honored as chief guest in the cultural festival following the tournament. The villagers packed a Shamiana (bamboo built structure to house the event) that the youth built the day before and we enjoyed a display of the cultural roots of Saraswatipur. Four days into my trip I was asked to speak in front of a crowd of over 300 villagers. Looking back, it is amazing that I wasn’t at a loss of words. I stood up and told the people they embodied the  foundation of the trip I had just barely begun. Their village was a prime example of the power of sports, and their ability to combat social ills with century-old roots, increase access to opportunity, and change both individual lives and the world at-large. To conclude the ceremony, the Chief minister of the region stood before us and thanked Paul Walsh and Khelo rugby for “Bringing opportunity to their village.” I looked over at Paul and chuckled thinking all of this came from a simple introduction to a “girls sport;” Rugby.

Our Madcap Winter Rugby Camps

How our Winter Rugby Camp has grown and grown over the years to include more children and support the development of more and more coaches and leaders.

By Paul Walsh

Christmas Day 2016 saw 1064 children playing on or around what we call Crow Field on the Calcutta Maidan. And even more exciting than the chance for these children to play and have fun on a winter’s morning was that most of the event was planned and delivered by 117 trained young coaches, all committed to their safe and fun enjoyment. This was the 12th year of our Jungle Crows Winter Rugby Camp and 2016 saw it bigger and better than ever. From day one – 24 December to day nine – 1 January the average morning attendance was 959 children and 109 coaches.calcutta7

1443 children from 26 different communities from across Calcutta played. All part of our Khelo Rugby project which takes sporting and other social development opportunities into places it doesn’t always reach. The planning and delivery of the camp is an integral part of the experience and our young Khelo Leaders drawn from across Kolkata did an inspiring job learning a huge amount in the process.

We were superbly assisted by Chef Shaun who managed to bring a little competitive spirit into who could deliver the top breakfast as well as win a tug of war versus a team of 12 year olds! Shaun was up every morning providing hot tea and orchestrating the breakfasts. Also calling in each day, inevitably on his way back from surgery was Jungle Crows Chairman Dr Hasan Iqbal to give cheery encouragement.

calcutta3And we’re indebted to those hotels and companies that supported the camp by delivering more than 15,000 bananas, 6000 boiled eggs and innumerable frooties, cakes and small gifts for the children. Turning up and playing with the children in the early morning after long hotel ‘party season’ shifts was great to see, take a bow; Indismart, Taj Bengal, Oberoi Grand, Decathlon, Balaram Mullick, Paris Café, Novotel, Kookie Jar, TIL, Swissotel, Bangalore Biere Club, Wow Momo, CDE, Hyatt, Savourites, Kutchina, Mio Amore, ITC Sonar and Hakuna Matata.

When our Winter Camp started 11 years ago there was no greater aim than to get a handful of children up and out and playing on a winter morning. And fundamentally this is still at the core of the camp. Giving children a motivation to play and enjoy our fantastic Calcutta winter mornings. But we can also now see how the camp has many more positive impacts. As a super way to engage with our Khelo Rugby children and teach them new things. As a practical hands on management training experience for the young coaches. As a great fun CSR project for a whole load of organisations. The Winter Camp provides a valuable focal point to all our work with children and communities.calcutta1

The growth of the camp has been phenomenal and now attracts volunteers, visitors and supporters from around the world. And it doesn’t just happen on the Calcutta Maidan. We’re now in our second year in Bangalore: five mornings with 150+ children each day, second year in Siliguri: five mornings with nearly 400 children each day and for the first year in Uluberia supporting Decathlon’s work there with three mornings of camp and over 150 children each day. That’s over 2000 children in the camps with 35% of them girls.

In 12 years living in Kolkata I have only been away from the Maidan on Christmas morning once, this makes me a little bit crazy for sure, but I wouldn’t have it any other way because I just love these madcap winter mornings.

Click here and you can watch a brilliant little film on the camp made by our mate Rohan!

And if you would like to read the full detailed report on the camp please be in touch and we’ll send you a copy.

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Girls Power On

Parents should encourage their daughters to play rugby!

by Peter Fernandes

I was in one of our Khelo Rugby communities in Kolkata recently and heard a parent remark, “I would not let my girl play sports and rugby is out of the question because it is one the most dangerous sports in the world”. Working as I do for the Jungle Crows and having lived in the rugby crazy nation of New Zealand where young 5-6 year old girls turn up for weekly rugby training these words spoken by a parent left me hurting. And wanting to set them right!

The words echoed in my head and gave me a much clearer insight into the real life discrimination young girls face on a daily basis. Gender inequality is very prevalent here in India so I know that the work we do at Khelo Rugby to get more girls playing is very important and makes a difference. We know that with a properly trained coach to conduct training sessions, teaching the right tackling techniques, using the proper equipment, playing on a good field, using a safe and convenient location, rugby can be enjoyed equally by both boys and girls. The physical nature of the sport does raise concerns in the minds of parents and guardians which is why we work diligently  to play safely.

Talking to the coaches of Khelo Rugby about how the sport has been taken up by girls, the replies by most are all inclined towards the belief I have – girls love sports and rugby is no exception. They love the fact that rugby is challenging, tough and sometimes of a full contact nature. In short, they love rugby!

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Some of the slogans from our #DayoftheGirl tournament

Working with these girls who have no issues playing, the onus now moves on to the parents. It can be a tough task no doubt, but we know that if we can make a young girl attend our programme she’ll like it, and will in turn create better awareness of the importance of sport in her family. She will also convince her other friends in her local community to play and participate and that is always rewarding.

India as a country has a history of physical full contact sports which are quite popular like Pehlwani or Kushti (wrestling), Kabaddi and lesser known sports like Inbuan (combat wrestling in Mizoram), Yubi Lakpi (Manipur form of rugby). What is ubiquitous in most of the full contact sports is the minimal presence of girls or women actively participating. If we want to empower and bring about a change in society we all need to do our part by actively involving girls in sports.

To further this active participation we organised our own #DayoftheGirl rugby tournament on 23 October for our Khelo Rugby girls. We also made October our month of gender equality. 237 girls in 20 teams took part in the tournament and it was incredible to see. The girls played tag which means good skills, running and evasion.

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#DayoftheGirl 23 October on Crow Field

It was also inspiring to see recently the first women’s 15-a-side rugby matches played in India during the annual All India rugby tournament. We were delighted that our Jungle Crows team was almost fully made up of Khelo Rugby graduates. At Khelo we wish to create a lifelong love for sport and rugby in every child that we work with.

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Jungle Crows and CCFC teams at All India

I love that there is a place for everyone in rugby – if you are solid and powerful, there is the front row position for you. If you are tall and strong, you’re a good fit for the lock position. If you are fast and tough, there is flanker’s position for you. If you are quick, resilient and have crazy endurance, we have the whole back line positions for you. Whether you are 4ft or 6ft tall, whether you weigh 50kgs or 100kgs, you can be a part of a rugby team.

For me I think the following seven reasons should convince parents and guardians why they should encourage their daughters to play rugby, I hope you’d agree and please do share your own ideas:

1. Our girls learn to be strong and that the body has immense power.

Rugby is physically tough, challenging and being a full contact sport takes a toll on the person’s body. I had read an anecdote that football is a sport where players pretend to be hurt for 90mins and Rugby is a sport where players pretend not to be hurt for 80mins. Playing Rugby will make a girl feel strong. If she loves the sport and wants to be part of a rugby club like the Jungle Crows, she will have to put in the effort to become stronger physically and mentally. By playing rugby, she will get faster; her body will become more agile and strong. Along the course of learning the right tackling techniques, getting tackled the right way, getting into a ruck or maul, getting into a scrum, she will soon begin to realize the fact that her body has immense power and that she has every capability of playing a full contact sport and to be good at it. The ability to push your body and mind to the limit is a powerful accomplishment.

2. Our girls learn the importance of teamwork and trusting other people.

A girl who plays rugby will understand that she will have to put her body on the line and trust in her team mates. She will tackle someone, she will run, get tackled, ruck, will get up, run again, hit someone again, ruck again, run some more. Sometimes there will be a scrum and a tangled mess of body parts, she will get up and do it all again. It will go on for 80 long minutes. But at the end of every match, she will feel re-energized and mentally fulfilled because she was there for her team mates and her team mates were there for her. Her trust in people around her will increase and being a good hard working team mate, she will be equally trustworthy. She will learn that regardless of how talented and good a player she is, without the dedicated efforts of her team mates, she cannot win the match. She will have to learn to trust and be trustworthy herself, that’s the only way her team will compete.

3. Our girls learn that they are capable of doing anything that the boys can.

Rugby being a full contact physical sport is a very good opportunity to promote gender equality. Girls are tough too, both physically and mentally. What one must understand that a girl playing rugby is only going to be tackling and getting tackled by other girls. It is a fair and integral part of the game. By playing rugby, she will become more confident and have more self-belief in her abilities. I had a hostel manager back when I was working in New Zealand who was a volunteer community rugby coach. Every time a girl would approach her for medication for minor injuries, cuts or bruises, she had this very catchy phrase, “toughen up princess, stop whining like a little boy”. Our girls through rugby will learn that they are capable of doing anything. She will understand that she is quite unstoppable when she puts her mind and body into achieving a goal.

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Jungle Crows v YRC in India’s first women’s 15-a-side game

4. Our girls learn how to get back up after being knocked down.

There are numerous times in life, when it will seem like you are completely knocked down and have no energy to move forward. A rugby player who gets knocked down in life will have the mental strength to push hard and keep moving forward. In the 80 mins of a rugby match, players gets knocked down, fall to the ground but always get back up and continue moving forward. What one learns on the field is probably the biggest life lesson of all. A girl who puts in her hard work and is persistent in her training sessions will in most likelihood achieve the desired success. She will also gather the mental strength needed to face this world and live a fulfilling life. She will learn to accept defeats graciously and celebrate victories in full.

5. Our girls have a lot of respect for others.

The sport of rugby is more inclusive than most sports that exist in the world. A person of every body shape and size can find a position on the rugby field. For a girl, this can be very uplifting as her body shape or size will not affect her opportunity to play. She will learn to respect her team mates and her opponents who will in most likelihood be far more different physically then her. She will learn to accept different type of people and still play together as a team. She will learn that once she gets tackled, her teammates are there to support her. She will learn to obey the rules of game, respect the referee’s decision, and respect her coaches.

6. Our girls learn to be great ambassadors for the values of rugby throughout life.

Girls are the best ambassadors to carry the values of rugby into the life of their families. I like this set of values: teamwork, discipline, enjoyment, respect and sportsmanship – essential life values. These values when taught in a cohesive environment to the girls on a rugby field can be passed down for generations. Girls are excellent communicators and the real change makers of society. Rugby needs good ambassadors and girls are the perfect ambassadors for the sport worldwide.

7. Our girls learn the importance of hard work and develop a sense of pride.

“Wait, what? You play rugby??” will be a question that she will learn to enjoy the most in her life. It will instill a sense of pride in her because she will be among just the 1% of the girls in India that play rugby. Rugby requires sincere dedication, sacrifice and a lot of hard work to get good at it. The girls that venture into rugby will learn how important it is to work hard in life to achieve a goal and that there are no shortcuts to success. Given the right motivation, she will continue to strive to achieve more her whole life.

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