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

Right to Play – Jharkhand

It’s been 3 months since we started Khelo Rugby in Jharkhand full-time. We’ve 100s of children playing, have held a super tournament and are working with the children to consider their own lives and futures.

Contributions from Chotu, Shivanshu & Paul

On 6 April 2019 we held our second rugby tournament in the rural Jharkhand block of Jarmundi about 100km north of the city of Asansol. This is a flat landscape dotted with small hills rising out of the red earth. Life is clearly tough in the small villages that dot the countryside, for many access to electricity is at best patchy and for most water needs to be drawn each day from wells.

We were invited to Jharkhand by Terres Des Hommes the international NGO who have been working in this area for many years delivering rights based projects along with the locally based NGO Sarita. After working with TDH in Kolkata they selected the Jungle Crows and our Khelo Rugby project as a good fit to support their work in Jharkhand.

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Following a short trial at the end of 2018 where we tested out the children’s appetite for rugby, by January we we had the green light to begin full-time. We packed the car full of rugby gear, crammed in several coaches and with a lot of laughter and nearly ten hours on the road the set up team was in Jharkhand and the odd shaped ball was flying.

Once everyone’s initial excitement was over a small team of Chotu, Kishan and Karan stayed on and were soon busy zipping around on their cycles running practice for 100s of children. We’re been based in the small village of Haripur, just off the main highway and though electric is not always available and the well is deep the boys soon developed a routine. Reports of coaching in Jamatad, Simra, Daldali and Jeevan Joti were soon cluttering up the whatsapp.

The tournament was electric with special guests from Kolkata and a small audience of curious and enthusiastic villagers. Over 200 children were crammed into small school buses to reach the venue and for most this was the first time they’d played with children from neighbouring villages and in teams containing both boys and girls. The standard of rugby was a credit to the coaching team, with the standout performances coming from the under 10 boys and girls. It was interesting to note these weren’t children who spun into whirling easy celebrations, they remained reserved even when they’d played tremendously and won silverware. Winning, losing and playing in such an organised way with a team of friends was perhaps something they’d not experienced too much.

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Our project with TDH is about the right to play and we have taken a steady approach in our work with the children in Jarmundi. Like Khelo Rugby everywhere it is important to develop a trusting relationship with the children and their communities. We best do this with regular practice and giving children the chance to play in a safe and controlled environment. With a light touch we want to understand the children and encourage them to talk about their lives.

Following the tournament Chotu set up a small training programme for some of the older children where they were given the chance to work on skills around team work and leadership. A gentle introduction, just small steps in these children’s journey to become leaders and role models themselves. Much more about instilling confidence in these super young people.

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Khelo Rugby is all about equipping young people with skills and experience, with rugby as a motivating catalyst to achieve this. Having seen the smiles and enthusiasm of tournament day the entire team is excited by the journey that is just beginning.

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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!

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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Power of Play

Reviewing the Winter Camp and looking forward to the Year of Play

By Shreyas Rao

The Jungle Crows Foundation has been conducting its annual Winter Camp at the foggy environs of the Kolkata Maidan for the last 11 years starting from the year 2004. It is normally an event that lasts about 10 -11 days and involves engaging hundreds of children from several disadvantaged communities for a couple of hours each morning. Rugby is the principal sport and the camp involves the participation of the children in several play based activities developed around the central sport of rugby. The legacy of the Winter Camp has been well established through several journeys over the years of youth being transformed from a life of meager future to successful players and individuals who are able to take control over their lives.charge

The Camp has been growing in size due to the growth of our Khelo Rugby project which is getting involved with more and more communities across Kolkata. The objectives of the Camp and the Khelo Rugby project revolve around the idea that play can be a huge positive, a belief that all children, irrespective of their socio-economic background, deserve to develop themselves through the medium of play and this supports them in fulfilling their potential. In a society rift with inequality and casteism, the programme aims to aid children break through the dogma of predestination by providing a support structure based around play, in an environment that is inclusive, non-threatening and aids in self-discovery. The 2015-16 Winter Camp engaged more than 800 children on an average each day from 22 different communities, who were attended to by a team of 75+ volunteer coaches. It turned out to be the biggest camp we’ve ever organised, the biggest anything we’ve organised actually!coaches

This Camp involved a lot of planning and turned out to be a huge logistical effort – one of the benefits to all of us this. We had to ensure all the 800 children had a safe transport facility to and from home, a fun-filled Camp session, some basic kit and a healthy breakfast each day. As we prepared ourselves to gain a momentum into the Camp, we felt that it was important to develop a higher objective, so as to create a sense of direction to all the effort and have an over-arching goal. Thus, was born the idea of “Year of Play” – the concept of utilizing the Camp to create a platform for the year ahead, to start our own movement towards the Power of Play.

It is quite easy to be cynical about an initiative like this as it is for a short period without guaranteeing any sustainable or measurable impact on the lives of all the children involved. Yet, it contains within it, an essence of an ideal world, a consistent effort for equality and a belief of a new social reality. It is this feature of the Camp, that I believe, makes children participate each day in consistent numbers and compels the volunteer coaches to forfeit their Christmas holidays for this noble cause. Waking up early on a cold smog filled winter morning at Kolkata can be quite a task but the noise and laughter of hundreds of children enriches the heart of any soul who wishes to lay oneself bare to the experience. It was in such an exhilarating atmosphere that we wanted to take the first small step towards initiating the idea of our Year of Play.happy

Within the Khelo Rugby project team, we have developed a set of fundamental principles that we keep in mind as we develop our programmes with children. It basically revolves around teaching children to value their own lives, teaching them something new each time, appreciating them, developing their self-belief, acknowledging their rights, providing them emotional support and working towards building non-threatening platforms for them to succeed in their lives. The medium of play helps us to break several cultural barriers along the way in realizing these principles. It provides an environment where the engagement can take place in a very spontaneous unpretentious way.

Taking forward from these fundamental principles we felt like we needed to develop the theme further and use the New Year’s Day to delve, discuss and initiate the activities of the coming year. Perhaps, we were looking for “resolution” of our own. We have become so used to objective singular New Year “resolutions” that the concept itself has become drenched in mindless euphoria. As an organization, we had to ensure that the “resolutions” involved the hopes of others with a spirit of equality and justice. We needed to provide space for the rights of the children of the world. In that sense, we felt that one of the ways to “resolve” for a better tomorrow was by working towards initiating a movement on the topic of PLAY. Not just in a superficial way by playing or teaching someone a game but by acknowledging that the Right to Play of children in the world is directly connected to the various movements of social justice and freedom. That war, violence, hatred and greed eventually effects the way or the amount a child gets to play, to learn, grow and fulfill human potential. That the Right to Play is under threat from the inequality and ecological destruction that is manifesting all around. While there was the theoretical challenge of having to articulate our vision to our children, our team and to the world outside, there was the other challenge of practically implementing it as a visual display of our thoughts.rugby

The idea came about of creating the word “PLAY” on our Maidan Crow Field, involving all the children and volunteers who participated in the camp. The preparations began a day earlier by marking out the field through outlines and cones. As the day started, the coaches were encouraged to hold open discussions or a “Charcha” over the topic of Play with the children, trying to make them understand what it meant to them in their lives. We then moved onto the Herculean task of arranging all the 900 odd children in the formation of the four letters, with all the coaches keeping a vigil and making sure everything was in order. It turned out to be a lot easier than expected and when the formation was finally done, our team was brimming with a sense of achievement. A few slogans were chanted on the theme of Play, a mass wishing of Happy New Year took place, great photographs taken through some daredevilry up trees, breakfast distributed and finally all returned home overwhelmed by the feat!tug

Having managed to accomplish the feat, our next challenge was to elaborate the idea into a framework of ideas that could be practically implemented in various forms. We felt that such an important and universal idea needs to be laid out on a canvas in a way that we can paint our future plans and goals. After open discussions, we managed to create a fundamental framework:

  • Providing opportunities to as many children as possible to have a safe play experience.
  • To promote the participation and support for girls and their participation in their own journey of self-discovery through play.
  • To bridge gaps and fight inequality by being inclusive in all our endeavors.
  • To aid in the development of the culture and market for sports so as to develop play as a worthy effort for participating children.
  • To establish platforms for advocacy that can minimize the hurdles for success through play.
  • To innovate and create new designs for play spaces and play grounds, such that it stimulates play based activity in all communities.
  • To acknowledge rights of children and launch a fight against child abuse by creating awareness among children themselves through the medium of play.
  • To acknowledge that the children are the future and the next year needs to provide the basis for better years to come, a better tomorrow full of hope and promise because our children deserve that.

So, we at the Jungle Crows Foundation, are going to try our best in our own small way to develop our program around these points. For all of us who have been a part of the Winter Camp, it has been very memorable as we soak in the positivity, delve on the negative points and look to better ourselves for the future. At the same time, we invite development organizations and governing bodies worldwide to join our endeavor, for what lies ahead of us is a huge task. Year after year is turning out to be more harmful for the lives of children as the threat of both man-made and natural disasters looms large. So the idea of play and its universal appeal has become more relevant than ever before. We need to believe in it, for sake of ourselves and the children.  It will involve debunking a lot of myths, reshaping our identities, re-learning our histories, re-assessing our self-worth, introspecting deeply on our delusions and liberating ourselves to a brighter future. However, and most importantly, it involves engaging ourselves in the simple safe, fun-filled, powerful activity of PLAY.

Let us all cheer for a Year full of PLAY!!play