Living with the Jungle Crows

Thomas was with the Jungle Crows as a volunteer, teacher and mentor, here is more on his adventure in India, learning about how critical values are and that there is always hope.

by Thomas Pothet

The very first time I went to the Jungle Crows rugby field with my friend Pritam who I had met at University in Paris, something struck me. It wasn’t the fact that these children were playing rugby under intense heat and humidity like as if it was nothing… it was their discipline.

I was truly impressed by how disciplined the children were. As my 16-year-old brother plays rugby, I have often seen rugby training and how trainers can struggle to keep the discipline but it was different in Kolkata. Even though they had not seen Pritam, their role model, for a couple of months, none of them interrupted their practice to run toward us. They all stayed focus on their training and one by one, without disturbing the training, players came to greet us.

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Thomas and Pritam leading a class on leadership in Kolkata

It was my first touchpoint with Jungle Crows children and I already had learned something by watching their training.

Through Rugby, Paul Walsh and the Khelo Rugby trainers teach values to these youngsters. The values include discipline and respect, but it is also about being passionate, being committed to something, being a hardworking person and being able to take the lead, to become a leader. Knowing that some of these youngsters used to be thugs or street kids, growing up by their own on Kolkata’s streets, I couldn’t feel anything else than admiration toward Jungle Crows work.

What I saw with the Jungle Crows work was not only about rugby. They teach rugby rules, how to play, how to become a coach, but they mostly teach values and how to use these values outside the rugby field.

As I mentioned, Jungle Crows values are not only about discipline, respect, passion and commitment but I also saw them working hard on fighting gender inequalities in Kolkata and this is not the final step of Jungle Crows children’s journey.

Indeed they also expect the children to spread those values in their communities among the younger generation, to show leadership skills by initiating social projects (collecting trashes, planting trees…), and to become role models for their younger brothers and sisters.

To help them in their journey, Jungle Crows is providing leadership training, English classes and is also financing scholarships. It is through education and through these values that the boys and girls are empowering themselves and are becoming leaders in their community.

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Thomas with a group of young Khelo Rugby Coaches at the Crows Nest, Jungle Crows HQ in Kolkata

Coming from poor backgrounds, if it wasn’t for Jungle Crows, many of these young people would have dropped out of their studies and started working. As their family are not educated and struggle financially, mostly they see education as a cost, not as an investment.

Jungle Crows campaigns to show how valuable education is, how education can bring the change they need in their life and how education can make them become a better person.

Before travelling to Kolkata, I read the City of Joy written by Dominique Lapierre, the writer ends his book by saying that Kolkata is a true lesson of hope and humanity. While I volunteered for Jungle Crows, I learned many things about Kolkata and the Jungle Crows children, and I must say that I truly agree with Dominique Lapierre.

I have never felt like that before but, watching the children playing rugby barefoot, enjoying rugby to its fullest, giving their best both at school and on the rugby field, it made me realise that despite their often extreme poverty, these kids are more joyful and hungry for life than ever. I had never seen such poverty, but I had also never seen people with such big hearts and so eager to learn and live.

From my experience with Jungle Crows, whether it was in Kolkata or in Saraswatipur, I believe that everything these children and young leaders are doing is driven by their hope of having a better life tomorrow, their hope of being able to take care of their family and their hope of doing something that they can be proud of.

Somehow, when I was watching Jungle Crows boys and girls, regardless of their religion or differences, giving their best, an unstoppable flow of emotion overcame me. Every time they were playing, I could only be impressed by them and by their achievement.

These kids taught me many things, I believe that they made me more human, more compassionate and a more hard-working person but for and foremost, they taught me a lesson of hope. Thank you.

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If you’d be interested in volunteering with the Jungle Crows, please be in touch over email: info@junglecrows.org
www.junglecrows.net

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

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

by Thomas Pothet

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

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

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

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

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Kangchenjunga viewed from the Baikunthapur Forest

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

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

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

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Centre construction in full swing

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

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Passionate about their rugby

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

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

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

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

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

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www.junglecrows.net

Tiger v Leopards – the Spirit of Rugby

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

By Paul Walsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Half time team talk for the Leopards

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

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

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India star Neha attacks

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

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

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All smiles – Tigers & Leopards

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

Find out more from our website!

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Khelo Rugby Family: Crows & Leopards

Rugby Friends in the Forest

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

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

by Thomas Pothet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learn more about Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crows here!

Spirit of Rugby Nepal

The story of Khelo Rugby’s Himalayan rugby odyssey.

by Akash Balmiki

This story starts a long way from the Himalaya’s near the Everglades jungles of Florida. In 2015 I was selected to represent Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crows at a United Nations Sports for Development programme at the IMG Academy in Florida. At IMG I met Prateek who was from Nepal, he worked for an NGO named Childreach and we became friends because we were both passionate about sport.

As always I talked a lot about rugby with Prateek. He’d no knowledge of the game at all, but we could both see how much fun it would be to take the game with the odd shaped ball to the children of Nepal. Jump to 2016 and the story is taken forward by colleagues Paul and Hari when they meet up with Prateek in Kathmandu during the Hong Kong Vandals rugby tour. By this time Prateek and the work of Childreach has been taken over by the terrible effects of the 2015 earthquake – villages destroyed, lives broken and communities devastated.

A rugby visit to Nepal was just within reach but it needed one more piece of the puzzle to make it all possible and that was World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby programme. A grant awarded to the Jungle Crows to take their Khelo Rugby project further afield, this was just the incentive needed to make my rugby odyssey to Nepal a reality.

Planning was able to start and in October 2017 our Nepal rugby journey began. I was very lucky to travel with my Khelo Rugby teammates Turi, Kirpa and Barkha – together we were able to keep motivating and encouraging each other. We all joined up for the first stage of the trip in Saraswatipur where we ran through our plans and finalised roles and responsibilities. We were to focus on teaching the children tag rugby along with the 5 core values of rugby. I along with my Khelo teammate Turi conducted a few of our BASIC Training sessions (Being A Smart and Innovative Coach). We were joined in Saraswatipur by Prateek and his colleague Shamsher – it was great to be able to show them what we had so far achieved in Saraswatipur.

Our journey proper began from Siliguri. We were all very excited to be taking Khelo Rugby to Nepal, to be sharing it with a whole new group of children. The first leg of the journey was a marathon bus ride from Kakabhitta to Kathmandu which took around 16 hours. It was a challenging journey as travelling in the mountains is never easy. We reached Kathmandu safely and were warmly greeted by the Childreach team.

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In Kathmandu we were joined by a group of  4 talented and experienced volunteers from “Coaches Across Continents”. We discussed our plans with them and shared our experiences as well. We then embarked on a 10 hour journey to Dolakha which kept us on the edge of our seats as the mountain roads were difficult and yes, scary too!

The school we worked with first had been destroyed by the earthquake in 2015. Childreach Nepal had helped to reconstruct the school and build new toilets for the children of the school. I had been apprehensive in case of any language barrier with the children but soon discovered the influence of Bollywood movies and songs meant all the children had good Hindi.

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First day at school we saw many boys and girls playing football, this was a good sign and they were very excited to learn rugby, a whole new sport for them. The shape of the rugby ball made some children smile, some laugh and some ask questions. Well, it took me back to when I started playing as a young boy fascinated by the shape of the ball. After a brief nostalgic moment I explained to them why we were there and began our first session – “Khelo Khelo” as we say.

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One of our challenges was to teach the children the five core values of rugby namely, “Respect, Discipline, Passion, Solidarity and Integrity”. We took up one value each day. We focussed our session around that value. We played games and a lot of rugby and at the end conducted charcha sessions explaining the meaning of each value and what it meant to us in practical terms. The team worked really  hard to teach 68 children about these values through games and open discussions. The challenge was made much easier by children who were very talented and quick learners. They grabbed the topics easily and also learnt the game fast. At end of the week we organised a Spirit of Rugby Tournament. I must admit, it was a treat to watch young boys and girls play such good rugby. I was really happy and proud of our team for having been able to teach good quality rugby to children playing for the first time.

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After a great experience at Dolakha, we headed back to Kathmandu. After a week of intense training we finally got some time to relax but it was just a short stop as very quickly we were on our travels again. One more village awaited, more traveling, more children and more rugby.

Our next destination was Sindhupalchok, a village about 8 hours from Kathmandu. This village was also destroyed in the earthquake and had suffered more damage compared to Dolakha. We started with a group of 48 young boys and girls eager to learn rugby. Our session plans remained much the same but with a few newer challenges as the coaching team grew bigger as we had more volunteers wanting to be involved in sessions. The days were packed with intense training and by the time we hit our beds we were all very quickly snoring!

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The second tournament went as planned and with this we came to an end of another beautiful journey. We headed for Kathmandu and spent a day visiting the local shops buying gifts for friends and family back home.

At the end of this project I can firmly say that I have learned so much more than I could have imagined. These camps made me a better coach and a more responsible one. I really feel I have grown with the project. I started off as a small kid playing rugby and now I’m a Khelo Coach leading 100s of youngsters on their own rugby journeys. Rugby is a part of who I am today and to be able to take this across borders and share it with the children of Nepal has given me immense happiness. I am incredibly grateful to all my teammates for putting together such a successful and impactful Spirit of Rugby adventure.

Cheers to Khelo Rugby – you can watch a short movie of our Himalayan rugby odyssey here – enjoy!

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