Connecting with our Scholars

Using the time of lockdown to deepen our understanding of our scholars and to see how we can better support them in the future.

By Shivanshu Singh in Kolkata, Akash Balmiki in Bangalore & Roshan Xaxa in Saraswatipur

Khelo Rugby has been under lockdown for a month now. With all outdoor activities suspended we’ve had to come up with different ways to be in touch with all our rugby crazy youngsters. Whether it is through our ‘chain of support’ to ensure everyone is safe and well, video calls with friends or rugby stars, posting exercise videos, sharing our best dance moves or just catching up on the phone our priority has been to stay connected.

We have also taken this opportunity to carry out a survey with 175 of our scholarship students – in Kolkata, Bengaluru and Saraswatipur.  We’ve used direct calls and also discovered google forms which can be operated through smart phones. The technology meant we could survey students sitting at home during lockdown. They were able to respond using their own phone or a friends.   

The idea behind conducting the survey was to take this chance to learn more about the youngsters, their family backgrounds and how their community is coping during the coronavirus pandemic. This is a situation that none of us has ever experienced or come across in life and we could see good communication was going to be important.

The survey was conducted between 5th April to 15th April.

Kolkata

60% of the students said they would not be able to continue their studies if their scholarship were to stop. Every student comes from an underserved background with their parents being drivers, butchers and other daily wage jobs to run the family. 63% of students have 4-5 members in their family living in a single room house. 95% of respondents said their families were supportive of them playing rugby. Many felt the scholarship was important as it convinced the family to let them keep studying. 72% of our scholarship students are first generation school goers from their families. When asked about what they want to do after they complete their education, the most common answers were Fitness Trainer, Sports Manager, to join the Police or Army and Hotel Manager. 

For 13 of the students responding their Class 12 exams have been postponed without completion, a particular worry. 86% of parents can no longer go for their regular jobs which for most means they are not paid. 60% of families are getting a food ration from the local municipality through a club or counsellor, the other 40% are using their savings to manage. In all cases the families said that they would face difficulty if supplies were stopped or once savings run out. 

“There are a total of 8 members staying in my single room house. I usually go to my friends factory to sleep at night. My father who works at a butcher shop is not getting much business. My mother is using our savings to run the family.” Khelo Coach Ashfaque. 

Though the lockdown has created many problems for everyone it has also brought a slight happiness to some of our youngsters as they are getting time to spend with their family. Normally this is not possible as parents had jobs with long hours and few if any holiday time.  Most days for our Kolkata children are spent helping their mothers in the kitchen, studying when they can, doing online classes & video conferences, with social media and games a regular distraction.

Bangalore

Survey with 42 young leaders, 68% of whom are first generation senior students from their family. 45% of the students have 5-6 members in their family and 55% live in a single room house. 100% said their parents support them playing rugby. Many also play kabaddi and kho kho apart from rugby. Seventeen are Decathlon trainees and most want to study beyond class 12 and work part time to support themselves and their family. All talked about taking one step at a time and wanting to finish their graduation. They would then think about their career choices depending on their marks and interest areas – though jobs in sports and fitness were mentioned as preferences. Karnataka is strictly following the lockdown, in 78% of the families parents are not able to go to their regular jobs. Respondents are spending time with their family, watching television, using social media and doing self studies to try and keep up with the school syllabus.

Saraswatipur

We had 35 of our scholarship students go through the survey from Saraswatipur. For 90% of children the main source of income for their family comes from working in the tea gardens. 45% of the young leaders who took the survey had 6 members living in a two room house mainly made out of wood, paddy straws and tin sheets. All of the students are a first generation school student and wants to do well in education and rugby. When asked about their interests 95% wanted to be better at or learn English and basic computer work. All 35 have 100% support of their family to play rugby and feel they are role models for more hundreds of children who train under them. At the moment none of the family members are able to work as the tea garden is closed and anyone entering the village from outside is sent away to the local hospital for a check-up. 92% of families are getting a ration to support themselves from the church, forest department or local politicians. They have all helped in distributing the ration for the village.

Everyone is focusing on their fitness and helping parents in their household work.  Lots are involved in cooking and working on the fields to help with growing vegetables. Fishing is also possible as the river is near by and parents are happy if a good catch of fish comes home. This family time is welcome as children and parents don’t always get much time together in the day. The tea garden has now partially opened and some family members have started going to their  jobs. Rugby training stays closed keeping the safety of children in mind. 

Conclusions

Using this time to better understand our scholarship children and the challenges they face was very useful. We see these children all the time but normally we are racing to a practice or thinking about an urgent problem. For all three of us, this was a good chance to step back and think much more about each youngsters situation. We know this will help us as we work with the children in the future.

It was nice to see that though the scholars come from different states and have many tough problems day to day, they all share a love for rugby which they are missing very much. When asked about how badly they miss playing, everyone had the same answer, that they cannot wait to get on the field once the lockdown is lifted. 

Ada Milby, the first female member of the World Rugby Council, “Sport helps to connect people and communities through the creation of heroes.”

All these young people are our heroes.

More Than Just A Try

The empowering change a game can have on a community.

by Ramona Sen, Author and Journalist

The girls from Saraswatipur are disappointed that they couldn’t participate in the Asian Games, the most high-profile tournament for the Indian rugby women’s team. Their hopes were soaring when the team was approved for the preparatory camp and cruelly dashed when the Indian Olympic Association decided to leave rugby out of the final Indian contingent.

“Some of our friends from the other states even left their jobs to come practise for this,” said Swapna Oraon, one of the first from her tiny tea-garden hometown in North Bengal to have taken to rugby.

Her disappointment is understandable. Swapna, Sandhya and many other young girls in Saraswatipur have been given a new lease of life after they discovered rugby. These are girls whose lives had been mapped out since they were tiny tots – scrape through class 10 and get married as soon as possible. Now, with the advent of rugby, marriage is no longer a matter of compulsion; they have the luxury of choice.

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Sandhya and Swapna: disappointed with the Asian Games decision but determined to keep playing

Rugby has put Saraswatipur on the map. “Our village is in the middle of the woods, no one knew it existed. But now we have out-station visitors and many people come to watch us play,” said Sandhya Rai, who attends George College in Sealdah, central Kolkata. She likes the big city, in spite of the serenity she has been used to. “Transport is available so easily in Kolkata. In Saraswatipur, we used to travel a long way to go anywhere and if we didn’t find transport, we would have to cancel plans.”

The game has made the village more cosmopolitan than it could have ever imagined being. Now its young girls wear shorts and dash about a field, like boys, driving the boys to the sidelines. Not that it was a smooth transition from playing doll to playing ball. “My uncle used to constantly tell my mother it was obscene of me to be seen with bare legs. But she’d always tell him to mind his own business,” said Sandhya. The censure isn’t limited only to the older generation, unused to seeing their womenfolk scampering about a sporting field. “Girls my age are married and raising children. They never took to rugby, or they tried and couldn’t play, and now they’re jealous and talk about us behind our backs,” said Sandhya, who is 17.

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Sandhya in action for West Bengal

Do the globe-trotting rugby girls, back from Paris and Singapore, assume that marriage and babies is not for them? Not at all. They like the idea of a boyfriend, preferably an athlete himself, someone who will understand equality. They face no discrimination on the field and don’t think they can ever settle for it in their inter-personal relationships. This, if anything, is the biggest change the game has brought about. For the first time, girls from Saraswatipur can dream of equality. “My husband should never be able to throw his money in my face and tell me I’m dependent on him forever,” articulates Sandhya, firmly. She understands the need to have the wherewithal to make her own life as well as inspire younger girls in the village to follow this not-so-beaten path.

Perhaps there really is something about sport that lends clarity of thought. The girls have learnt to be optimistic but practical about the life that lies before them. Though they’ve grasped an opportunity with all the doggedness of a forward, they see the struggles awaiting them – of having pinned their life’s ambitions on a game that might receive rejection from governing bodies, of making their peace with defeat at international tournaments “because the other team was bigger and stronger”. And through it all is the will to live a life that makes a difference.

swapna

Swapna breaks through for West Bengal

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