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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Kichad Rugby

How playing rugby in the mud (kichad) can teach children important life lessons

By Peter Fernandes

We started 2016 with a plan to build our Khelo Rugby project around the Power of Play. Sport can be such a powerful tool, on our playing field there is unity, social inclusion and gender equality. Khelo Rugby has come a long way in serving the community and we want to keep doing more for the young children who play with us. Khelo wants to be able to make a lasting impact on the lives of thousands of children, giving them strength, courage, knowledge and essential social skills required to build a good future.

At Khelo Rugby, we train our community coaches to provide high quality coaching to children that would not normally get such a chance. We encourage a very informal and friendly approach that builds trust with the children. The coaches are ably assisted in most communities by ‘Young Khelo Leaders’, who are young rugby players, normally graduates of Khelo Rugby who have displayed consistent skills in leadership and commitment to the programme. These Young Leaders are essential in enabling us to conduct more than 40 training sessions per week across 24 communities in Kolkata.

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Khelo Rugby’s Milindo leads a Charcha in Saraswatipur

Each month we work on a theme based around a socio-development issue and selected by the children and coaches themselves. The objective is to impart important knowledge to the children and give them a chance to learn away from preconceived notions & stereotypes. These knowledge sessions we call “charchas”, they are usually conducted at the end of each training session. Apart from the standard charcha sessions, we also organise workshops and rallies for our young leaders and community coaches to impart more in-depth knowledge about social issues.

The results have been really fantastic and have also been a test of the leadership qualities of the young leaders who have delivered beyond our expectations. We have realised along the way that true leadership skills come to light when the young leaders are given important responsibilities and are held accountable for certain duties.

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Khelo Young Leaders getting their work done!

Our Khelo Rugby centre in the village of Saraswatipur near Siliguri has been one of the most inspiring stories of the impact of the Power of Play. Within a span of 4 years, with the dedicated efforts of our coaches, the children have excelled to become outstanding rugby players and strong individuals who have gone on to represent the India National Women’s rugby team at international competitions and the West Bengal state rugby team. The girls have superb athletic abilities and are now looked upon as role models for the younger generation of girls from Saraswatipur. The story of the empowerment of the rugby playing girls of Saraswatipur has been a special feather in the cap of Khelo Rugby.

Our August theme was Indigenous Peoples to coincide with 9 August the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Like many tea estate communities Saraswatipur has a large proportion of indigenous people, mainly from the Munda and Oraon Adivasi communities. In order to celebrate their Adivasi culture we planned an educational camp concluding with a one-day rugby tournament – giving the children a few days of learning, competition and fun. The organising of the entire camp and tournament was entrusted to a few young leaders, from both Kolkata and Saraswatipur.

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Kichad Rugby

Through the camp children were able to learn about other indigenous peoples around the world and why there is a day to mark indigenous peoples. The children were also able to share interesting things about their own culture and life and feel proud of their Adivasi culture.

New Khelo Rugby manager Milindo on his first visit to Saraswatipur led a team of 6 young leaders from Kolkata and supported all stages of the project. His own expertise and experience was invaluable in enabling the children to talk and discuss openly and in a positive way. Interesting that the symbol of the international day was designed by a youngster from Milindo’s own indigenous community Rebang Dewan a Chakma boy.

indigenous-logoMajor highlights:

  • 12 teams with 180 children playing mixed tag rugby participated in a total of 32 passion filled matches, delighting the spectators.
  • Felicitation ceremony was held for 8 West Bengal players and 2 India National team players, Swapna Oraon and Chanda Oraon from Saraswatipur. Attended by the Sarpanch and members of the Panchayat of Saraswatipur village, Priest from the local church and the manager of the Saraswatipur tea estate.
  • A friendly tag Rugby match was played between Kolkata young leaders and Saraswatipur young leaders with a display of great strength, technique and stamina giving a boost and vision to the young ruggers of the village to continue working hard in the sport.
  • 20+ Young Leaders of Khelo Rugby organised the whole event with tremendous professionalism. The young leaders from Kolkata were treated like family and their hosts took them sightseeing, bathing in the river and to their homes for lunch and dinner. The experience was a humbling one for the young leaders who brought back some vivid memories.
  • For the first time, the people of Saraswatipur village celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and they promised that they would celebrate this day every year.
  • Celebration of indigenous culture with a program of Adivasi songs and dance which gave a broad perspective of the deep-rooted culture and uniqueness of Adivasi people.
  • 300 plates of chicken curry were cooked, served and eaten – nobody went home hungry.

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This was a true community event with everyone participating either actively or as part of a supportive audience. The elders of the villages were touched that their children had brought such an incredible event to life and that to with an acknowledgement of their own culture and identity. The energy and vibe were mesmerizing. Every try, every good effort on the field was keenly responded with huge cheers and much clapping. The audience and community were a big motivational factor and contributed in large part to the success of the event.

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