[originally published November 15, 2011]
[Part 1] Where I lament about my laptop, teach some kids to dance and play rugby with camels:
We’re fearful of death.
The great beyond, reincarnation, a black void, where ever your respective religious beliefs tell you that you’re headed, we all at some point in time, will have to come to terms with it. But, of the three dead things I encountered this week — among them, a baby hippo being gnawed on by its papa and a teeny puppy getting flattened by a motorcycle — the third I wasn’t prepared for: MY LAPTOP.
We can recall the Lion King and blame it on the circle of life (granted I was at the zoo…) and circle of life; the second is just heart-wrenching (but understandable if you’ve seen the manic driving around here…), but the third, well…
There were no warning signs, no death-rattle, nada. I had turned to grab some memory cards and ba-da-boom, I came back to find the screen black, totally dead and somewhat charred on the inside thanks to a power surge. Mmm… BBQed mother board. It’s not exactly what I wanted for dinner.
So today we’re going to do something a little different!
At press time yours truely is 100% photoless. You may ask ‘why, Robin, did you not back all of this up on an external hard drive?’ and I will answer: ‘because I was stoopid.’
So how do I propose to create a visual project when my entire three months work may have blown up with those circuits (the hard drive jury — my friend Mike — is currently out and running diagnostics on it over in the UK)? Not quite sure. But today we’re doing it via Microsoft Paint. Thus, I give to you some cows and comic sans depicting the past two weeks spent with the Tag Rugby Trust up in Bhubaneswar, Orissa.
After getting some last minute travel preparations all sorted out, I grabbed a cab at 3:30am for a flight out of Pune. From there, a layover in Hyderabad would eventually land me in Bhubaneswar. I a semblance of an idea of where I needed to end up…but, to my surprise, I was met at the airport by Rajeev — a rugby coach in Bhubaneswar and on-the-ground member of the TRT — who whisked me out of the one-terminal airport and down the wide, sun-parched highway on that back of his motorcycle.
After dipping and dodging around the cows lazily laying on the roads, we dropped the bags at the KIIT University guesthouse (affiliated with this KISS school, where the rugby tournament would be hosted later in the week) where the Tag Rugby Trust gang had landed the day before. Though a UK-based charity, our crew was made up of volunteers from as far as Australia, Kenya and South Africa.
The Tag Rugby Trust is a charity that uses rugby as a vehicle for community and personal development. Kids play (or rather, should have the chance to play: more on this to come when I visit the Khelo charity in Kolkata). So, using the tool of play as a tool to break down social barriers — they especially focus on the importance of girls and boys playing as equals — the TRT has worked with thousands of kids over the years throughout India, Romania, Mexico, Zambia and Uganda. India 2011 was the Trust’s 35 tour. Here, we coached an upwards of 800 kids at 13 schools.
If you think about those numbers… that’s a lot of little ruggers over the years!
The Tag Rugby Trust believes that by instilling within these kids the ideals of teamwork, tolerance and co-operation (not to mention a sense of achievement come tourney day!) they’ll go on to utilize these tools within their own lives off the pitch.
The first week I was assigned to two village schools where TRT had been working for years, Nandankanan and Padashai. I worked with Colin, a British gentleman and TRT tour vet (this was his third India go-around!) who knew all of the ropes. Each morning we ate our porridge and chai, grabbed our kit bag and hit the roads in our tuk-tuk (a jumbo-sized autorickshaw) at about 8 a.m. After picking up two Young Leaders — older students from KISS who had gone through the TRT program years before and have since recieved coaching and mentorship training — we’d arrive at Nandankanan around 9.15 a.m. to begin a few hours of rugby practice with the 5th and 6th grade students.
These had to be the most sprightly, playful and curious kids that I’ve ever hung out with. I’ve never seen such toothy-grins!
When we would unload from the tuk-tuk each morning, they would all be waiting for us outside their four-classroom school. They’d all come streaming over with their kit and hands jutted out, greeting us with “Hello ma’am! Hello sir!” Ten minutes later, after we waded through all of the handshakes, we’d set up their cones, un-roll some tag belts and begin.
The children of Nandankanan spoke no English, as opposed to some of the large international school which some of the other troops were posted. They were, however, were totally fluent in the words and concepts of knock-on, forward pass and off-sides. I felt a little bit lost at points (my English needs work, let alone my Oriya), but our Young Leaders in tow — Dibia and Mono — were nothing short of phenomenal. The kids and I charaded quite seriously at eachother and laughed because we all rightly knew that neither of us had any idea of what each other was saying. At one point I decided that if I can’t verbally explain the off-sides rule in great detail… what I can explain through goofy antics is the Cotton Eye Joe. So we took occasional boogie breaks.
If nothing else these kids will be well versed in the ways of flashlines and line dancing.
I also got faux-adopted while I was away.
The headmistress at Nandankanan took a particular liking to me.
Though our communication was fairly broken, I understood the offer of “are you married? Would you like to be married now?” and subsequent offers to introduce me to her many male cousins. She handed me her cellphone one day so that I may speak with my ‘dad’ — her husband. Every day ended with the parting “I am your mama” and cheek kisses. Not quite sure what I did to gain her good graces, but it did spur some interesting conversation later on about arranged marriages here.
I think she may have just wanted a free t-shirt?
The tournament at the KISS school took place that Friday. Twelve teams — we later would add a deaf school to the roster the following week — took part. With cows grazing in the background and dogs napping in the shade on the sidelines, they all played three seven minute games in the initial pool before advancing on to semi’s and finals. By the time the afternoon came, the audience encircling the dusty pitch had grown to around 2,000 (all made up of KISS students). Each bolt to the tri-line was met by a roar from the crowd (which was quite often in the game of tag: its rapid style of play lends itself to scores sometimes in the double digits).
It was during the tournament that I met up again with Bhagya, my friend from the national team camp! I finally put two-and-two together and realized that it was through this TRT program that she got her rugby start and has since gone on to represent India on the international stage. As the team captain, she is heralded at the school as one of their many rugby success stories.
Final awards came and Padashai, the other team that I was helping to coach, ended up winning the cup. Now if we can only keep working on their dance careers, they will be completely well-rounded and ready to take on the world.
After the tourney and week #1 came to a wrap, we headed to the holy beach-side city of Puri for some R&R time. We played a bit of beach rugby, avoided pitch-invasions by camels and were even featured on the news the next day!
Heading back to the city Sunday, we kicked off another week of coaching. I was slated to help out at the school for deaf children (which would be totally a blog-worthy post in itself for so many reasons!) but a bout of sick left me straight-up green and incapacitated for a bit. But, these things all come to pass and I ended up well enough to be back out there for the all-girls tournament Wednesday.
We all parted ways Wednesday night — the TRT crew headed up to Kolkata where Spence, fellow volunteer and recent captain of the English women’s side, was doing a training with the Jungle Crows —- and I stayed behind to catch my flight the next morning.
I headed back with my load a bit lighter — sans computer, sans cellphone (stolen :( ), sans…stomach — but had my head full of ideas.
[Part 2] Where I get more serious than dead laptops, teaching kids to dance and playing rugby with camels:
I started this project with the idea that perhaps through rugby, women were in a way liberating themselves from the patriarchal social structure that exists in both India and sport. But, the more I look into it, the more I’ve come to understand that maybe I’m attacking this project from the wrong angle — or, at least, a very limited angle. I brought with a very westernized view with my Title IX ideals, the Mia Hamm “anything you can do I can do better” attitude, conscious of the social stereotypes the envelope western rugby culture. Back home we worry about ‘proving’ ourselves as women. My senior capping project investigated whether women in hyper masculine sports wanted to play with the men, like the men, or something entirely different. Social advances in the States had been made that has lead up to the point where women can voice their concerns about gender equality. But here, where 55% of India’s population lives under the poverty line of $2USD/day, the concerns of gender equality isn’t an option. Women, strapped with multiple children, picking the cotton and taking care of the home are sheerly trying to survive and not spending their times picketing for gender equality in the streets. The concept is foreign and often unattainable in every day life — let alone in sport.
So what does the female empowerment look like here and how does rugby play into it? Rather than with women, it has to start with the girls.
It comes from within the self — of course, on a very basic level the pride of victory and accomplishment of the body. But in India, it is coming with educational initiatives for the girl who can go to school past year eight, the one who is taught about different birth control options, the one who is encouraged to be knowledgeable about community politics. In order to be the beneficiaries of these factors, the girls must be first encouraged to have a voice. That’s where rugby comes in.
Through play, children — and their communities — grow.
In 2002, former secretary-general of the UN Kofi Annan gave opening remarks at the meeting of the Olympic Aid Forum in Salt Lake City, UT. He noted that the “relatively simple and inexpensive tonic of sport as a means to alleviate the trauma and suffering…it can contribute to peace-building, reconciliation and healing…” Looking at new ways to integrate sports into communities help strengthen these community ties, support both formal and informal education and, according to the same research, especially help young women and girls find their place in society. Focusing on using sport for personal, community and social development, attention is traditionally given to girls and children with disabilities, those who are often left out of the sporting picture. Support and sustainability of sport can be indicative of the community’s health. At every school, the Tag Rugby Trust leaves a kit bag complete with rugby balls, tags and cones. When I arrived at Padashai I was met by three sorry, but much-loved flat balls and a bunch of ragtag pinnies. A good sign, I thought.
On my trip, I spoke at length with Linda Anyango, member of the Kenya National Team who returned from Kenya recently with the TRT. There, she worked with two rural villages that ran a program combining women’s sexual health education and rugby. I thought this was genius! Between practice sessions, the girls would be brought together to discuss their health concerns and options. The community agreed to support these lessons; but, in effort to make it a more sustainable project, Linda will be returning to the villages frequently to check up… and keep playing. Here, bringing a sport into this specific community means bringing sexual health education as well. There are possibilities for rugby to bring overt development like education and health projects. What these girls that participate in these programs gain on an individual empowerment level may contribute to their desire for justice and respect with gender related issues.
The gender issue will always play a big role in sports and in India just as I surmised. But — something interesting is happening here. Rugby is evolving largely due to grassroots community activism: a perfect example of that is Bhagya’s story.
Many of my rugby friends here have told me that yes, they may have to stop playing someday because there isn’t really a socially-sanctioned way for them to escape the expectations of marriage and family in their 20s. Rugby isn’t going to eradicate these expectations. But, from the ground up, sport can start to give them a more equal playing field.
Rugby in India is growing along two lines: from the top-down in regards to the IRFU, and from the ground-up in terms of community activism. Somewhere along the lines, they meet and overlap, bringing women from a spectrum of communities together. We’re not necessarily looking at rugby leading to empowerment, but empowerment and rugby working together toward a better quality of life.