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).

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.

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How to be a SUPERHERO

All about our new Khelo Rugby balls

by Paul Walsh

Our new rugby balls for Khelo Rugby feature four panels that help children think in terms of being a SUPERHERO!

But what sort of SUPERHERO do we mean?

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Lesson one is the theory…..

Panel 1: EXCELS

  • be exceptionally good at or proficient in an activity or subject.

Panel 2: COMMUNITY

  • a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

Panel 3: CARES

  • what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something.

Lesson two is the practical….

What we have tried to do is capture some important life lessons in the design of the ball panels. And along with training for our young Khelo Leaders to deliver sessions using the ball as their guide, our ambition is to influence a few thousand young minds on these issues.

2017-ball-excelsExcels: we want the children who are part of Khelo Rugby to think about their own performance in everything they do – at home, in school, in activities and in playing. The ball shows a school, an open book inscribed; “Always learn something new” and children on a pedestal after competing. We know that winning isn’t everything but we do believe children should be encouraged to put in their maximum effort. And though we would love to be producing fleets of professional rugby players (our passion), this is not what Khelo Rugby is about. School and education is where children need to excel and this is why the school building is prominent. And if rugby is also the children’s passion then great, because in our experience the longer a youngster can stay in education – passing Class 10, Class 12 and going to College – the longer he or she can play!

2017-ball-communityCommunity: at the heart of Khelo Rugby is our rugby community, where Khelo has grown and developed from. Our inspiration has been working with youngsters who have found their feet and blossomed playing rugby to now be part of their own businesses, working in decent jobs and studying further than they could have imagined. Discussing with children their own communities and how they can have a positive influence on them is a big part of Khelo Rugby. These communities include their families, the locality they live in, their town, city or village and of course all their rugby playing friends. Looking out for those less able is demonstrated by a couple of old folks, we have the symbol for recycling and a green tree. We feel community is a responsibility and each and every child needs to understand and be confident with their role in their communities.

2017-ball-caresCares: our ambition is to support children to become caring individuals and to do this we think it is important that they care for themselves as well as for others. Heart, tooth and an apple show some of the physical well-being a child needs to know about. We’ve lost Khelo children to traffic accidents so a symbol and training for safely crossing the road has been incorporated on the ball. And a clock is there to prompt a discussion on punctuality and the responsibilities we have to others.

We were delighted our new balls arrived in time for our Winter Camps and made a real difference to the work of the Coaches during the Camps. There was lots of excitement as the balls flew into use and we have been delighted with the positive reaction from everyone who has taught or played with them.

Finally, special thanks to Shreyas for introducing us to Mamata who did an incredible design job!

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Universal Children’s Day 2016

Thoughts around the Universal Children’s Day 2016

by Peter Fernandes

Childhood is the state or period of being a child. It is the early innocent years of a person’s life cycle before adolescence. There are various childhood factors that create the kind of attitude that the person has in their life. At Khelo Rugby, our theme for the month of November has been “Childhood”. We as an organisation work to create positive experiences in the lives of the hundreds of underprivileged children that we reach out to. We are able to achieve success in our program because we use the simplest medium that a child understands and enjoys – PLAY!  Play is considered to be so important to optimal child development that it has been recognised by the United Nations as the right of every child – and more precisely in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Our organised Khelo sessions are designed to get the best out of every child. Over the years of working with underprivileged children who often come from difficult backgrounds, we have learnt how important the role of a coach can be in the life of a young child. I am personally privileged to have been given the best of education, love and the community support growing up in my childhood. I had very supportive parents and a positive friend’s circle which has enabled me to seek the good in life. A lot of credit to the kind of friends I made has to do with sports. Being involved with active sports representing my school and state of Goa in hockey gave me the opportunity to make good friends and surround myself with a positive eco-system of life. When in school I had the opportunity to try my hand at different sports. I took a strong liking towards hockey because I had a good coach. The coach was motivating and always pushed me to achieve success. I would not pay much attention in my class in school as much as I would pay attention to what the coach on the field was saying. The positive attitude that I live my life with today has a lot to do with what the coaches on the field taught me. A good coach has the power to play a very important role in a young child’s life. Coaching is not a profession; rather I would call it a vocation.

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At Khelo Rugby, we are blessed to have compassionate coaches, many of whom have come from similar difficult backgrounds as the young children they conduct training with. Most children in our program don’t have access to positive community role models. Our coaches become an important community support, something that all children deserve in their life. Once we are able to get to the level of the child and become their friend we are able to create a bond of friendship. A good friend who has empathy and understanding is a very important bond children need in their lives. Having a friend in a coach, who a child can trust, who they can look up to, who they can aspire to become, lets them open up their lives to the coach and share their feelings. These feelings could be something very small or meaningless to an adult, but to the child, it can mean the world.

Our focus of 2016 has been the #YearofPlay, we at Khelo Rugby have taken the power of play to thousands of children across Kolkata, Saraswatipur and Bengaluru. We have begun training at 4 new communities in the last 7 months and looking to add 3 more communities in the coming few weeks. It’s a very exciting time to be associated with the Jungle Crows and Khelo Rugby, which is not just growing in numbers but I’m also excited to see the coaches getting more mature and assuming the bigger role of a leader of the communities they work with.

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Rugby is a great tool for children to engage and interact with the world around them. Besides getting the opportunity for physically exercising their bodies, they also get an opportunity for intellectual and emotional development. They learn social skills like making new friends, to work in a group and broaden their scope for social interactions. By playing rugby they also learn to accept defeat and celebrate victory, two very basic but critical aspects of life. The sport of rugby gives a child opportunities to explore their creativity. A player on the field has to be sharp to react and quick to move their feet. Rugby is physically demanding and also works on mental toughness.

It is very rewarding to give the children who we train in rugby, opportunities to showcase their talent. We conduct rugby training in our communities. We also have the Jungle Crows Academy every Saturday morning where aspiring and budding young rugby players can play and develop their skills. We organise the Khelo Sporting League on the last Sunday of every month, which gives children from across Kolkata the experience of a real tournament. Our involvement in the lives of these children as a friend, an elder brother, an elder sister who they can trust and share their feelings with is improving by the day because of our charcha sessions.

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The Year of Play has been an interesting journey so far. Most of the children we work with come from tough home situations and can be challenging to deal with. Parents are often less responsive and more authoritarian making it difficult to implement our plans. We work hard to explain the benefits that sport plays in the life of a child. It is clear that a child living in a disadvantaged community gets very little social support. So what are we at Khelo Rugby going to do about it? Well, talking on behalf of the organisation and while we prepare ourselves for the upcoming Winter Camp 2016-17, we will continue to try to make a stronger social impact by getting more involved with our Khelo children and their communities. We will use a more bottom up approach where we do what the child in our programme wants Khelo Rugby to do. It is a tough task for all of us, but life is never easy and the impact that we can create is going to make it all the more fruitful. The strongest component that we will continue using to promote youth development is our love for the sport of rugby. We love our rugby and want to share our love for the game to the hundreds of children that we reach out to.

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This Universal Children’s Day we toured across Kolkata taking a fun filled session to more than 700 children in 15 different Khelo Communities. It was a marathon trek starting at 7am and finishing past 7pm. All of our Coaches were involved, it was inredibly motivating, great fun and hugely rewarding – pictures here are from that!

Khelo Khelo

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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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SCORE for Health & Hygiene

How the children of Khelo Rugby worked together to SCORE for Health & Hygiene

by Milindo Chakma

On any given chilly morning or sunny afternoon you will find Khelo children running around to score a try, can be in Brooklyn or Boistala or any of our 25 Khelo Rugby locations in Kolkata. India today is still one of the major countries where half of the urban population are living in slum areas. Most of the Khelo communities we work with are in these slum areas. There are many many health related issues for the children growing up in these slums, specially in the monsoon season.

Diseases such as dengue, malaria, typhoid take many lives in the rainy season. “Health and Hygiene” was selected for the month of September as the theme for our Khelo Rugby Program. The main objective was to work with the Khelo children to help them better understand issues around personal hygiene – such as washing hands with soap and eating healthily and raise awareness about monsoon diseases such as dengue and malaria both for the children and their communities.

At Khelo Rugby we try to work on different social issues affecting communities by using fun games, rallies, street plays and charcha sessions. We encourage the children in Khelo to came up with their own innovative ideas to deliver these messages. We want the children to be leaders in their own communities and pioneer what we do together. The Health and Hygiene month was a tremendous example of this, with children devising their own posters, organising rallies and getting out and about in their own and neighbouring communities to share the messages they had devised. This is neatly summed up in this 90 second film featuring some of their activities.

SCORE: Since we work with young children, the medium we choose to deliver key messages is very important. Shashi one of our young leaders from Howrah Philkhana designed an info-graphic poster “SCORE”.  In the graphic the word “SCORE” is used to convey important messages on the wider topic of health and hygiene. The meaning of SCORE is short, catchy, sweet and meaningful.

Sleep Safely – Use a mosquito net. Sleep for 8 hours. Early to bed, early to rise.
Clean with Soap – Wash hands with soap. Take bath daily. Keep nails trimmed to keep germs at bay. Erase germs with soap.
Open your Eyes to Your Surrondings – Keep your home and surrounding area clean. Use dustbins and empty dustbins regularly.
Remain Fit – Play Sports. Walk, jog, run. Exercise regularly. Encourage your family to stay fit.
Eat Healthy – Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Eat boiled and well cooked food. Drink plenty of water. Avoid salty snacks and soft drinks.

This excellent infographic from Shashi gave our coaches and young leaders great support in delivering these important messages.

September at Khelo Rugby was all about health and hygiene. It is important our young leaders and children are fully engaged and leading the way on our monthly themes – they have to be owned by them.  Through awareness campaigns, cleanliness drives, charcha session and the SCORE infographic we were able to support children in taking a small step forward in living safer lives.