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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Lovepreet’s Bengal Jungle Adventure

Saraswatipur – Challenges and Opportunities through Khelo Rugby

By Lovepreet Singh Gill

My name is Lovepreet Singh Gill and I have lived my whole life in Kolkata.  I started playing Rugby more than 3 years ago starting from the Winter Camp organized by the Jungle Crows Foundation and I have really loved playing and training with my team – the Jungle Crows.  The founder of our club is Paul Walsh and with him we now we run the Khelo Rugby program for children from disadvantaged communities. I am involved as a full-time coach in the program, in which I go to the communities to do rugby coaching and have some fun with the kids, while helping them to have a good way of life.  I have also been involved in Netball and I have been doing the same in the schools while teaching netball. On Saturday morning, we also have our Rugby Academy sessions were children from all over come to learn proper rugby. Having been involved with the Khelo Rugby project and Academy for a while, I received a fresh challenge in October 2014 from the foundation.

Me and some of the Saraswatipur children

With some of the Saraswatipur children

Just shout; “KHELO KHELO”

I was selected to manage our Khelo Rugby programme in the North of Bengal in a very rural village called Saraswatipur. The nearest big town is Siliguri and that village was right in the middle of the jungle! The previous coaches were Sanu and Amirul, and as their time in the village was over, Paul requested me to do some work there. I was little bit scared when I heard from my colleagues that lots of wild elephants are there in that jungle!

The three and a half months that I was there was amazing and I found any number of really talented children. Not only in Rugby, but even in other activities like dancing, football, volleyball etc. The children were very enthusiastic and they were really good at catching new games. The participation of the girls in rugby in Saraswatipur is more than in the town.The senior girls team were already very good in the game and all the credit goes to Sanu and Amirul who made it possible through their hard work. I didn’t have too many difficulties while coaching them because all the boys and the girls were listening to each and every thing through my coaching sessions!

Victory In For the Girls!

When I heard that the All India Under 19 girls 7’s tournament was coming up, myself and Sukumar (who joined me for a month and helped me a lot) had planned to do plenty of good training sessions with the girls – using drills, developing their fitness and working on their other weaknesses. The girls worked very hard and came runners-up in the All India tournament. On that day, I felt really proud that I was able to coach such talented girls and to win in only their second tournament outside was indeed a great achievement for them.

All India Runners-Up

Saraswatipur: All India Runners-Up

Jungle Adventure at Saraswatipur

One day I planned with the local boys that we will go deep into the jungle where the villagers are allowed to hunt for birds and pigs, we were about 10 boys and they all were excited about it. Next day in the morning, I was excited but nervous about facing the elephant, still I heard a voice in my heart – “lets go, we will see what will happen!” I took my catapult and lots of parle-g biscuits in my bag and we all arrived at the jungle for a day of lot of fun! We came back and on the same night, a jungle elephant came into the village! It was the first time I had seen a jungle elephant in the open and all the people (including me) were shouting “hurrrr hurrr” so that the beast would go back to the jungle!

Friendly Village Peacock!

Friendly Village Peacock!

Winter Camp 2014 at Saraswatipur

Like every year, in the last week of December, Jungle Crows Foundation organized a winter camp at Kolkata and at Saraswatipur in which more than 400 hundred kids participated. The main motive of that camp was to have fun with kids. This time I got the opportunity to do the Winter Camp in Saraswatipur and make it successful. Parvez was there to help me and previous coach Sanu also came along. Before the winter camp started, we organized a one day workshop with young boys and girls about how to become a good leader. We had given the tasks to them to create new fun games which we can apply in the winter camp. After that, we selected the best young leaders who will do coaching in winter camp and this time we said to the young leaders that, in this winter camp, the main focus is to teach boys and girls in the age group of 13-16 about proper rugby.

Through the blessings of god and hard work of young leaders, the Winter Camp went excellent! All the young leaders and the kids said that this was the best winter camp they had!  I felt so good, no one can imagine that! It was all possible due to my mates –  Parvez and Sanu. Big thank you to them.

I have been back in Kolkata for some time now, in my home and felling happy but I miss Saraswatipur a lot. For a number of days, I was there and I didn’t miss my family at all much because the boys and girls there gave me so much love and respect that I will never forget. Miss them all a lot. But I have so many great memories from my time in the jungle and village, I will cherish them forever!

Winter Camp Saraswatipur

Winter Camp Saraswatipur

 

Amirul’s Great Big Rugby Adventure

by Amirul Hossain

My name is Amirul and I have lived my whole life in Kolkata.  I started playing rugby more than 4 years ago and I really love playing and training with my team the Jungle Crows.  Our team is pretty good and I play for our second team called the Maidan Hazards (the Maidan is the big park where we practice in the centre of Kolkata).  The founder of our club is Paul and he comes up with all these names, like Crows, whoever would have thought to name a rugby team after a squaky Crow or Hazards.  But we’ve been a Hazard to many a team in India and are growing stronger and stronger and now we can beat the Crows as well!

Not long after my brother Zaffar (not my real brother but my rugby brother) started Khelo Rugby I was selected to be a Community Rugby Coach for Khelo Rugby.  I mainly coach and spend time with the children in the communities around where I live which is Kidderpore, near the docks and river area of Kolkata.  People are sometimes a bit nervous about Kidderpore but it’s my home and I love the area very much.

Just shout, "Khelo Khelo''

Just shout, “Khelo Khelo”

Earlier this year I was selected to lead a new Khelo Rugby project we were putting together in the North of Bengal in a very rural village called Saraswatipur, the nearest big town is Siliguri.  Read Hari’s blog post, “Rugby Brews Up in the Jungle” to find out how the setting up of the project went.

Anyway last week I went back to Siliguri to take admission to College and again visit Saraswatipur village.  I have been given the chance by the Jungle Crows Foundation to go and stay in Siliguri as they will sponsor my stay and college, this is really very excting for me.  I will be able to carry on coaching in the village and I will start more coaching and grow rugby across the whole town and countryside.  I had never thought I would have chance to go to College and now I will study hard and be able to help my family.

With the Saraswatipur Khelo Rugby Girls

With the Saraswatipur Khelo Rugby Girls

As soon as we arrived in Siliguri on Saturday we made our way out to Saraswatipur and met all the children again, they were so happy to see me and this time I had two other Jungle Crows players Sanu and Arun with me.  This was Arun’s first visit to the village and he thought it was a very amazing place, he really loved it.  But he was very nervous about the elephants.  In the village it can be dangerous to go out after dark as lots of wild elephants are there and they have even killed people.  We didn’t tell him there was also an elephant living near the village with the Park Rangers.  When we were drinking tea in the evening this elephant came past, Arun was very scared and tried to hide until we told him that this was a friendly elephant!

On Sunday we ran a small tournament and could see straightaway that all the children had stayed practicing, they really are good at rugby.  We had also collected up a big big bag of clothes from friends in Kolkata so at the end everyone got a new t-shirt or shorts.  The children in Saraswatipur really don’t have much clothes, much of anything really so it was nice to be able to hand over something that would be useful for them.

Talking and Listening

Talking and Listening

I had to ruturn to Kolkata the next week, but even that was good as our Maidan Hazards won the Centenary Cup Plate tournament beating the Kolkata Police Sergeants team.  They got a little bit angry as most of our players are much smaller and younger than them, they thought they’d win easily but we beat them 24-10.

So next week after my Eid I will be packing my bags to return to Siliguri to a new part of my life.  I will have a friend Sanu who is also continuing his school in Siliguri. We will have great times making a whole new rugby community in Siliguri, making sure the children of Saraswatipur are doing well and working hard for our future also.

My Big Adventure!

On My Big Rugby Adventure!