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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Akash’s Rugby Journey

Community Coach Akash Balmiki tells the story of his journey growing up with a rugby ball by his side.

By Akash Balmiki

My name is Akash Balmiki. I am 21 years old and live in Kolkata, West Bengal. I have been raised in a simple and humble family consisting of 5 members. I have two elder brothers, mother and father. My father works as a sweeper and my mother is a home maker. I am currently a community coach for Khelo Rugby and a player for the Jungle Crows Rugby Club. From a young age my parents have taught me the importance of living happily with very basic amenities and minimal facilities. Right from the time I began to walk and run, I had a good liking towards sports, especially outdoor sports. I attended Government school in Kolkata but I could not afford continuing my education because of financial difficulties at home. The sport of rugby has made a big impact in my personal life.

I got introduced to the sport of rugby in the 2008 Jungle Crows winter camp. One of my neighbours told me about a fun-filled event that takes place at the Kolkata Maidan during the winter holidays. I did not know anything about rugby and had never seen a rugby ball in my life. The Jungle Crows winter camp was a life changing experience for me. Before the camp, I was very shy and hardly had any friends. After the camp, I had 20-30 friends and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. The winter camp assisted me to open up a bit, have fun and learn a new sport. Each day of the camp, we got yummy breakfast. The coaches were very caring and ensured that everyone had a lot of fun, ate a proper breakfast and drank lots of juice. Since the 2008 Winter Camp, I have continued to be addicted to the sport of rugby. I would attend every Jungle Crows Academy session which was initially held near the Calcutta Rangers Club. It was even more fun during the monsoons because we would all be covered in thick muck and my mother’s scolding would not hamper my enthusiasm.  After all these years, my mother has also understood the role that rugby played in my upbringing.

From 2008-09 I never missed the Crows Academy which helped me to develop the core skills and techniques required to play the game of rugby. My first coach was Akhtar Sir who always emphasized on fitness, discipline, hard work, respect and being punctual for every session. The values I learnt back in 2008 have imbibed in me till this very day. All the coaches of the Jungle Crows were amazing and always pushed me to achieve my best on and off the field. In 2010, Khelo Rugby started to organize training sessions at a field barely a few metres from my house. I attended Khelo sessions from 2010-11. At the Crows academy I continued to work very hard to improve my game and physical fitness. I also realized that the food I eat played an important role in my health. I stayed away from junk food, oily food and consumed very little sugar. Till today I avoid tea or coffee. Looking at my game improvement, Paul sir gave me an opportunity to play for the Maidan Hazards, the development team of the Jungle Crows. I played for the Hazards for 2 seasons, 2012 and 2013. We had a great group of players who did exceedingly well and we even managed to defeat some seasoned teams in the Calcutta cup and other rugby tournaments which we played in.

In September 2013, I got a call from the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) to attend the India camp for the U-19 Asian Championships. I was very nervous and it was the first time I was leaving my home in Kolkata to go to another place. My team mates assisted me to get my passport done in a short span of time. The India camp was very good and I made it to the Indian National U-19 rugby team. It was a huge achievement for me and I got lots of encouraging positive wishes from my team mates of the Hazards, Jungle Crows and Paul sir. The U-19 Championship in 2013 was held at Lahore, Pakistan and it will always remain a very memorable experience for me. Wearing the India jersey for the first time and listening to the national anthem being played gave me goose bumps. 2014 was the year when things were getting one notch higher and I was assuming more serious roles as a rugby player and coach.

Early in 2014, I got an offer from Paul sir to work as a community coach for the Khelo Rugby project. I loved working with children and it was a very good life opportunity for me. I took it up with full heart and till this day continue to work in the many communities of Khelo Kolkata spreading the joy of rugby. In 2014, I achieved another personal dream and milestone by making it into the Jungle Crows team. All my role models like Tudu da and Zaffar da played for the Crows and it was a dream for me to represent the Crows team. I continue to represent the Crows and have played in all tournaments for them from 2014 till date. In my first season for the Crows, we won the Howrah Rugby 7s, All India U-20 championship, Georgiadi 7s, Centenary Cup. We were also the plate winners at All-India rugby nationals and stood runner-up in the popular Calcutta Cup. In June, 2014 I made it to the senior India national team that played in the Division III 5 nation’s championship at Pakistan. We lost against a formidable Uzbekistan team in the semi-finals, 17-23.

In 2015 I got selected to take part in the 2015 UNOSDP Youth Leadership Programme at the IMG Academy at Florida, United States of America. The 13-day camp was dedicated to giving youth leaders from around the world, a practical training on the best practices in the field of sport for development and peace in order to better use the power of sport to make positive changes in their communities. The experience was very good and helped me to get more insight on how to become a better coach at Khelo Rugby.

In May 2015, I represented the India team for the Asian championship held at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I loved this tour and Uzbekistan was a completely different experience. The country is very beautiful, the people were very warm and friendly and the food was lip smacking good. It made me realize that the real beauty about a country is the people. Uzbekistan gave me that very welcoming experience which I will always cherish. Coming back to India, we trained really hard to do well in the All-India nationals in October 2015 and were rewarded for our hard work with the plate winner’s trophy. In Feb 2016, my Jungle Crows team-mate Sarfaraz Ahmed (Tiger) and I represented the India Rugby 7s team at the Asian 7s tournament in Dubai, UAE. It was nice to have a team-mate and brother along with you on a national tour. We had a good tournament which started with a convincing win against Qatar but lost to a technically superior Chinese Taipei team.

Khelo Rugby has a cultural exchange program with the Auckland Grammar school, New Zealand. In July 2016, my colleague Harinder and I travelled to Auckland for a 21 days program at the Auckland Grammar school. New Zealand is by far the most beautiful country that I have visited and I am really thankful to the Jungle Crows for providing me with this opportunity to learn in a rugby crazy nation. I came back even more recharged and committed to sharing what I learnt with my fellow colleagues and the Khelo children.

Just over a month back, I attended my 5th India camp for the Asian 7s tournament at Doha, Qatar. The camp was held in Delhi for 3 weeks and we used to train thrice a day. We did fitness training, had Gym sessions, rugby skills training and a couple of friendly matches. Every player wishes to represent the national team. To play for the country, one has to follow important things like discipline on and off the field, respect your coach and follow his game plans. One has to also respect each team-mate and bond as a team. The tournament at Doha, Qatar was not a successful trip for the India team. We lost the first two matches and only narrowly beat Pakistan by a small margin. Doha, Qatar was a good place. I liked the food especially their shwarma’s and burgers. They have very good sports facilities, probably the best rugby pitch I have played on so far. Having good sports facilities is very vital in attracting youngsters to the sport. At the Doha 7s, I also got the opportunity to meet rugby legend Ben Gollings and have a very small but meaningful conversation with him. It was inspiring to talk even for a few minutes to such a top player and share a selfie with him!

In India, playing for the Jungle Crows, we are privileged to have a very well maintained rugby pitch in the centre of Kolkata at the Maidan.  I guess a major part of why we continue to produce good players every year is because of the good facility that we have at our disposal.

For my personal growth, I am extremely grateful to Khelo Rugby. Becoming a community coach is the best thing that has happened in my life. I get to spread smiles to thousands of children which is a very nice feeling. I am also thankful to Shaila Ma’am and Rubickon English classes who painstakingly and patiently taught me verbal and written English.  The ability to speak in English has improved my confidence even more. Compared to my previous international trips with the India team, in the trip to Qatar I was much more confident at immigration and striking conversations with random strangers in public.

I want to be a role model to the 100s of youth that I train in rugby on a daily basis at our Khelo Rugby communities and the Crows Academy. Being a coach is a very big responsibility as I have to keep learning new things and develop my own self in order to assist another person to do better. I strongly believe that every person is capable of achieving any goal in their life if they work hard and are sincere in their dedication towards achieving the goal. An aspiring rugby player has to put in a lot of work in improving his/her rugby skills. A player has to be very patient because good results take time to achieve. I have seen a lot of aspiring athletes take supplements and drugs to enhance their physique. It is best to stay away from these harmful chemicals. A person’s body is best built by eating natural food and a dedicated fitness regime. An athlete has to be careful of what they eat and stay away from intoxicants like alcohol and cigarettes. There are other important components that makes one a good player. One has to respect your team mates, rugby is a team sport. If you learn to play and work together as a team, then only can your team win laurels. I have literally grown up with rugby and I strongly feel that as many children as possible should have the chance to grow up with rugby.

 

Rugby Building Futures

Talking Rugby Futures with Akash and Puspendu

by Disha Musaddi

The Jungle Crows Foundation, through its unique open-for-all sport-for-development approach, has supported many children from disadvantaged communities over the years to express themselves through the medium of sports and reach their full potential. This interview series is an attempt to bring out the stories of several such young people associated with the Foundation. We aim to develop a platform for further discussion and dialogue on the theme of sports for development. In the first of the series, Disha Musaddi speaks to two young rugby players – Akash Balmiki (19 years old) and Puspendu Tudu (20 years old) about the experiences and opportunities that have come their way since joining the Jungle Crows and starting to play rugby.

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Puspendu and Akash

So Puspendu, first of all, what’s the story behind your unique nick name ‘Commando’?

Puspendu: As a kid I used to play and jump a lot. One day I jumped from the second floor and climbed three floors from the pipe. On seeing this, my friends told me I should be called Commando or ‘fauji’. They eventually stuck to Commando and gradually everyone started calling me by that name.

For how many years have you boys been playing rugby?

Akash: I have been playing for the last 6 years, started sometime in 2008.

Puspendu: I started playing in 2004 when I was just 10 years old.

We’ve heard that, initially, you both have practiced and played a lot together; tell us about those days and how you both started playing?

Puspendu: At first, I wasn’t friends with Akash. We both belonged to different groups. Then gradually we became friends, then I asked him to join me in rugby, but he wasn’t interested. But when I got the chance to go to England one day to play, he was amazed to know about it and then decided to join me for practices. We would go for practices together…go everywhere together. If it rained, then the two of us would play in the maidan…sometimes only the two of us would be there.

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Akash and Commando with the Jungle Crows U20s

Which position do you both play?

Akash: I play number 10, I personally feel it’s the best position ever. In this position the player has a lot to do and to think about. He has to take along all the players together.

Puspendu: Centre. It is an important position in the back, they are the ones who make the game.

How do you prepare for a match? 

Puspendu: One day before a match, we increase our water intake because we get cramp easily during a match and even tire easily. I then try my best to calm my mind and be at peace.

Akash: Before a match, I drink lots of water, focus on the game and listen to our coach, what he has to say.

Who is your inspiration, as far as rugby is concerned?

Akash: It’s Sailen Tudu. According to me, he’s the best player; he has taught me well about rugby…everything in life. He’s like a big brother to me.

Puspendu: It’s Sailen Tudu for me too. When I came to Calcutta the first time, I met him. We belong to the same village. There were only two people from my village those days, Tudu bhaiya and me… no one else. He taught me, sent me to school. Those days I used to only play, I didn’t have any knowledge about rugby. One day he took me to the Maidan and introduced me to Paul (Walsh) sir. Since then I’ve been going for training.

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Comando makes a superb break to score: All India Rugby 2012

An advice given to you, which has helped you?

Puspendu: Respect is the most important thing for me. Respect the players and your coach. No matter how great you are, if you don’t respect your coach, you’re nothing.

Akash: Tudu bhaiya taught me to respect my position in the team, team mates, and coach. His advice is the most useful as he leads by example.

What about respecting the opponents?

Akash: Yes, we do respect them in the game. When they get injured during the game, we help them. Because at the end of the day, it’s just a game.

You both have gotten the chance to visit UK, how was your experience? Was it the best experience of your Rugby playing career so far? 

Puspendu: I never imagined I’d go to England… never thought I would get the chance to travel by plane. The first time I went on a plane and lived there, it was a very nice place. It’s a very clean, no dirt at all, the people were good… everything was amazing. From then on, I have never looked back and my Rugby playing has only improved. Recently I also got the chance to play for the India team and that for me is my big achievement.

Akash: I had just played my second game in La Martiniere school tournament, where I played well. Arijit Sirkar had asked me for my birth certificate and told me that I would go to UK, but I took it as a joke. My passport was made and Paul Sir came to my house to tell me about the verification. When I went to the station, the officer couldn’t believe that I am going to UK. He looked at me condescendingly and said, “this boy from the basthi will go to UK?”  My mother wasn’t happy with this decision; she was scared about who will take care of us and how will we manage. But, I really wanted to go and convinced her. It was the first time I was on the plane and that made me nervous, and Commando told me that the toilets in the plane are very small… that freaked me out more.  On reaching, we met Peter and Steve, after which we got divided into two’s to live with different families. Sanjay and I got to stay with a Punjabi family. And, we met Curt and Tudu at Caldy Club, where we played our under 13 tournament.

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Akash leads a session at Winter Camp 2014

If there’s a new kid who wants to play rugby, what would be your advice to him or her? 

Akash: First, I will describe the ball! The kid will be surprised to see an egg-shaped ball, and then I will talk about rugby and tell them that if they want to play, they should eat good, healthy food.

Puspendu: I will do the same. I will speak to him, and tell him that he’s a good player. I will tell that if one gets into bad habits, it will instead affect one’s health… the game too… I will try to explain the harmful effects of indiscipline.

Besides playing, the two of you have also done some coaching Tell us a bit about that.

Puspendu: I don’t do much coaching. To be frank, I find coaching a bit challenging; I don’t think it’s something I can do too well. When I go for practice, I explain the format and rules of the game to all those who are new.

Akash: I started my coaching experience with netball. Initially, I was very nervous and didn’t know how to go about it. I would just observe Lovepreet and try to work it all out. Paul Sir would encourage me, which did give me some confidence and I’ve had training. Currently I’m coaching at three communities in our Khelo Rugby project (Bhavani Bhavan, Bijoy Basu, and KPT Colony), a couple of schools, and I am also involved with Netball coaching in a few Girls’ schools.

Can you tell us a bit about Netball?

Akash: Netball is the best sport for girls, according to me. It’s a no contact sport, so the girls can play without hurting themselves. It can be played in basketball courts too.

What more you want to do for the children associated with Khelo Rugby?

Akash: I would want them to study while becoming a good player at the same time.

Puspendu: I want to teach them, want them to play well… be a good player… work on fitness, eat healthy food…

Akash: Yes, don’t eat junk always… Most important!

You both have played a few seasons of Rugby now. So can you talk us through your day during the rugby season?

Akash: During those times, we don’t think much about studies! We only think about how we are going to play, about winning the game.

Puspendu: I don’t think about school and studies too.. To be honest, I don’t think much about it otherwise! It’s the rugby season, so my main concern is how we are going to play; we make the game plan, focus on fitness, and go to the gym.

What’s the best thing about each other when it comes to rugby?

Puspendu: Akash is a complete player, has the skills, his passes are good…

Akash: Commando has good skills, passes, running and the best part is, he is always one step ahead of the others.. always thinking about what should be done next.

And, the weakest

Akash: Commando doesn’t talk much, he has to talk more! He can be one of the best player in the country if he talks more..

Puspendu: Akash’s tackle is the weakest; he misses the tackle at the most crucial point and the opponents manage to score a try.

Will you teach him how to tackle?

Yes, of course.

Will you learn, Akash?

Akash: Definitely, there are a lot of things Commando has taught me regarding rugby, before I joined Jungle Crows. I will continue learning from him.

Puspendu: I will be very happy if Akash becomes a better player than me one day!

Can you tell us about Paul Sir, what do you think about him and his influence in your life?

Akash: I’ve never seen anyone like Paul sir in Kolkata, because he took local boys like us and spoke to us and made us what we are.

Puspendu: He has helped me a lot. He would be always very happy to see me play well. Whenever I needed something like shoes, shirt, shorts, he would give it happily.

Commando, tell us about your special interest in the children from the Adivasi community.

Puspendu: Adivasis are very fit… they play football, hockey and so many other sports There are people of all cultures who play… there are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims… I want there to be a separate team where the Adivasis get a chance to play and have an identity of their own … I want them to organize and play very well, make a mark for themselves. I want people to recognize them, because many don’t know about our culture, and they think we are just illiterates from the jungles. What I really want to do is to train them hard, and learn a lot. If rugby can change me, my brother Tudu, then it can surely transform many other youngsters and prevent them from exploitation.

Other than rugby, which sport(s) do you play?

Puspendu: Football, cricket…

Akash: We play these sports just for fun.

Tell us about your future plans…

Puspendu: Studies is a big challenge for me! But I want to work hard, finish my studies and maybe join the army team one day. I also want to work hard to promote Adivasi Rugby.

Akash: Last year, I played for the India team and that was a very proud moment of my life. I want to be the best coach and retire as one of the top players in the world!

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Comando and Akash with the India U20 team playing in Pakistan

Jaipur Bulls Play Rugby

Khelo Rugby takes the Oval Ball to Rajasthan

As told to Shreyas Rao

khelo jaipur 3The Khelo Rugby team was recently invited by the Jaipur Bulls team to conduct a 5 day training program for children playing with them in Rajasthan. This came as a great opportunity for us to go into a new location and teach the game to new people. Two of our Khelo Rugby Coaches namely Nanda Majhi and Ajay Balmiki and two of our young Jungle Crows stars Sabirul Peada and Amit Pandey jumped on the train in Kolkata to travel to Jaipur to conduct the training.

Ajay - Sabirul - Ajay

Ajay – Sabirul – Amit

The training sessions were divided into 2 segments – a morning session for the seniors who were getting ready to play the National Games qualifiers and evening sessions for the under- 12s. 100 children took part from two different communities and were taught tag-rugby. On the last day of the training camp a tournament was organized by the Jaipur Bulls under the supervision of Nanda and Ajay which had 10 teams of Under-12s. It was a great experience for everybody involved, especially the children who all loved having the the chance to learn a new game.

From the Coaches:-

Coach Nanda

Coach Nanda

Coach Nanda: The senior Jaipur Bulls players involved were very sincere and genuinely happy to learn. They also showed a keen interest to implement the Khelo Rugby in about 4-5 communities.  They said that they will also aim to go to the schools. The response was very good and enthusiastic from the children too. They were coming from all over and a long way to play every day.  I think that Jungle Crows can grow more with tie ups like this. And in the end, the icing on the cake was that the team I coached won the tournament!

Coach Ajay:  Initially the children that we began coaching did not know any tag rugby and they were only tackling, but the ground was very bad. We had to teach them from the basics. However, they improved a lot because they we were talking a lot to each other and were respecting each other. In the end of our sessions, they used to lift the coaches with joy! Each day a few more girls joined in as well which was good, and the number increased from 2 to 6 to more than 10 in the end.  As we were leaving on the last day, many of the children were crying which made us feel sad and happy. This was my first experience with communities outside and though language was a bit of an issue, it was a great experience.

#KheloKhelo

#KheloKhelo

Coach Sabirul: This was second time I went for coaching outside of Kolkata after my experience with Mirik. On the first day I was quite nervous but when I met the seniors, I felt better. The children were all nice. The first day it rained and all the children ran away but the next day onwards it went fine. On the funny side, I got mixed up with my language and kept giving instructions in Bengali very often! This experience has given me more confidence and I hope to be able to go to more new communities. khelo jaipur 4

Zaffar’s Khelo Chennai Mission

by Zaffar Khan, Founder Khelo Rugby

Our mission was to re-energise our Khelo Rugby programme in Chennai and in March we did just that, working hard to put together a first girls and boys tournament with over 160 children participating in eight boys and six girls teams under the scorching Chennai heat.

To organise the whole event took us ten days of tough work and the days seemed sometimes years but the boys from Chennai Irish RFC who are our partners for Khelo Rugby made it all so much easier. In the end we launched 4 schools and 2 communites under Khelo Chennai.

Accompanied by my mad co-worker and Khelo Head Coach Nanda Majhi together we travelled down by train from Kolkata and got straight to work with the Chennai team. From day one the Chennai guys were really hospitable and showed us how to get by in what is a very different city from our home town of Kolkata. In the first two days we visited over a dozen boys and girls schools but the response from each was not so enthusiastic, especially with exams around the corner. With perserverance though we managed to sign up four co-education schools, one far village and one fishermen’s community one after the other and now things looked more relaxed. We decided Monday morning was going to start 24/7 of only coaching tag rugby for the next five days to hundred and sixty children. We cracked on with our job , three sessions in a day, over twenty km covered every day, no lunch and breakfast at times, arguments and some time the best of jokes out of the blue made it a week with lots of learning.

We have always said that yes Khelo is a great tool to develop any kind of sport but what we believe in is much more than that. Every time we step into a new challenging environment with the intention of touching children’s lives with good sport and fun. This has turned out to be such a rewarding experience for us, the communities involved and more important to the children involved.

I would like to share the story of young Shraavan Thiruvonam (who we all called HEART boy) who comes from a lower middle class family. I am not going to sing a story about how poor he is and how great we were to give him the opportunity to play tag rugby. He is not the guy I would want in my team, he was skinny as a stick, quiet as a mouse and had a major heart operation just six months ago. For the first two days that we visited his school he just sat on the bench watching us.  On the third day while we were practicing the ball rolled out of the ground  and towards him. I looked at him and asked him to throw me the ball, he picked it up and instead of throwing it to me he came running to me and handed it over as he said, “just because I have a heart problem does not mean I cannot be in the school team”, I replied “I never said you cannot be in the team” the next thing was a big heart smile on his face. At the back of my mind I had a fear about him playing but I think I could see the strength in his little heart which gave me the courage to let him play. I have to admit he did not do a Johnny or Serevi (two greats of rugby) but he was a team man.  At the end of the tournament everybody knew him as HEART boy.  In Khelo we believe in the inner strength of children. In our lives we have all experienced the feeling of being suppressed or put down by someone or other, telling us we are not good and we cannot do it. Our challenge is to show the youth of this country that they can make changes even change the country by their own determination, faith and belief.

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Children from all over the city traveled to the T-day. The coaches had their teams ready, whistles warmed up, the ground was prepared, trophies ready, colorful bibs on and the whistle blew hard as we started the tournament. Girls and boys team playing simultaneously on two pitches it was fast feet, quick hands and  lot of passion from the children in trying to get their hands on the silverware for their respective schools and communities. Olcott School prospered in the end, an original Chennai Irish Khelo location with both of the girls finalists and winning a super game in the boys final versus Minjur. All the pictures are here.

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We’ve now appointed Ravi to work part time between his studies as a Coach in Chennai, he is a great young man with a good future and we hope to be able to support him as he develops. As we settle into a routine let’s see how else we can develop and support the Chennai Khelo team and our partners the ‘supermen’ of Chennai Irish RFC. We want to involve their players more and more in the community, both to support growing their team but also to help them as they develop and grow as young people.

For myself and Nanda this was another brilliant experience, out of our comfort zone, facing challenges, working with new people – Khelo really does change lives and not always the ones you think you’re changing!