Jai Yuwa!

Jharkhand, Definitely not Perpendicular

The Lonely Planet guide to India is a beast of a book, extensively covering the country from Chennai to Kashmir in 1244 pages[1]. There are exactly two pages of this guide book dedicated to the entire state of Jharkhand.

But Jharkhand (located in the North-eastern corner of the country) is no small or insignificant mass of land. It’s got 40% of India’s mineral wealth—mostly in the form of coal and ore—not to mention a massive lumber industry. This wealth has not trickled down to the people who live here, however, and it’s obviously not being utilized to put in infrastructure like quality roads, schools, health centers, or sanitation facilities. Jharkhand tops the charts of all the lists you don’t want your home state to be on: high maternal mortality rates, number of child marriages, malnutrition, poverty, trafficked people, and corruption. It’s a textbook example of a resource curse. The sizable profits from Jharkhand’s natural wealth remains in the inefficient hands of its greedy politicians.

When I mentioned to friends in Mumbai that I was planning to spend time in Jharkhand, I might as well have said I was going into the Heart of Darkness. Reactions varied from confused to shocked to wary. Jharkhand has gained a recent reputation in the film industry due to this summer’s release of a movie called The Gangs of Wasseypur. The film, set in the Dhanbad region of Jharkhand, depicts two warring families vying for control of mining and fishing industries. The place is portrayed as lawless and backwards[2], and I was jokingly and maybe not-so-jokingly reminded of this many times before I left the big city. To be honest, the dramatic responses about going to Jharkhand made me all the more curious and excited to visit—not to mention the fact that Lonely Planet practically skipped over the state. I didn’t know what to expect, and that was a little thrilling.

Yuwa 101

I came here to volunteer with the organization Yuwa: the same group that sent young coaches to lead the new football team in Dharavi (Mumbai). Yuwa was founded by Minnesota-native Franz Gastler in 2009. While teaching English in the village of Hutup outside of the capital city of Ranchi[3], Franz asked one of the girls what she liked to do in her free time. She said she liked to play football and wished she could play on a team. Franz told her that if she found some other girls who wanted to play, he could lead practices for them. The girls came out in flying colors, and practices became a daily occurrence. Franz saw the enthusiasm and dedication of the girls and recognized that a football team could be the perfect platform upon which to promote education and instill confidence. Eventually he quit his job with an Indian NGO and began devoting all his time to the creation of Yuwa.

For these rural girls, life is almost entirely centered around housework and farming. It is not uncommon for girls to get married at age 15. In the vast majority of families, boys are given preferential treatment in terms of money allocated for education, portions and quality of food, and access to health care. A girl will eventually cost her own family money in the form of dowry when she leaves to live with her husband. For those living in poverty, giving preference to boys is a financial and practical decision. Despite the many hours of work girls contribute to the household on a daily basis, it is the boys who will stay with the family and carry on the name.

There was a good deal of skepticism—and even resistance—in the community when girls began leaving their houses to play football for an hour and a half every evening. Shouldn’t the girls be working? It is common to see men and boys idle or at play in public areas; walk around Hutup and you’re likely to see groups of men lounging around tea stalls, teenage boys gambling with cards, and younger boys playing cricket or marbles. Women and girls, however, always seem to be working: cutting grass for the cows, planting rice, washing clothes and dishes, collecting water and cow dung, carrying massive baskets on their heads. If the women are ever idle, it’s definitely not in public spaces. Yuwa’s practices were unprecedented. There had never been organized recreational activities for girls.

Along with three young Indian men— two of which were Anand and Hirlal—who also dedicated time to coaching the Yuwa girls, Franz visited the houses of players with reluctant parents. Apparently there had also been fears amongst the community that Franz was going to traffic this girls out of Jharkhand—a concern that isn’t outlandish, given the high rates of trafficking in this area. Ironically, however, it is often girls’ family members (uncles or brother-in-laws) who are directly involved in trafficking coordination. Speaking with the families helped ease concerns and misconceptions. But what really changed local opinions about the Yuwa girls was their successes. In a short amount of time, the teams started traveling around the state to play in matches. Although they weren’t going very far, it was an opportunity to travel that they never would have had otherwise. And the Yuwa girls played good football. Since 2009, 17 of the girls have been selected to play on the state team, and three were selected for India’s National Team (which included flying to Sri Lanka for a tournament). A handful were chosen to participate in a coaching clinic in Delhi.One was accepted to a 6-month training program called Colorado Rush, although sadly her visa was denied. Six girls have spent time coaching the new Dharavi team in Mumbai. And just last week, two Yuwa girls returned from a 2-week-long football camp in Washington D.C., sponsored by the US State Department. The local media had a field day. The community now recognizes the good that Yuwa program has done, and takes pride in its girls’ acheivments.

The less glamorous but more profound achievements, however, are evident in the way players have changed since joining. Kusum, a 12-year-old Yuwa player with a huge smile and quick mind, explained that before Yuwa, “No one ever looked at the girls. Now they pay attention.” She said that playing football has given her a reason to take care of herself and her appearance. Before the team, she says she didn’t have any reason to keep clean or look nice. When she started going to practice everyday (which is held on a dry grass field near Hutup’s main road) she saw how the other girls looked and acted, and began taking the time to care for herself.

Now, Yuwa’s daily practices draw about 150 players between three different, nearby sites in Jharkhand, and between 15 and 30 players at the Dharavi site in Mumbai. There are several boys teams, but the majority of the teams are made up entirely of girls. Yuwa’s underlying principle is for the girls to take ownership of their own teams. Team captains keep an attendance log, which includes both practice and school attendance of each player, and manage a team savings fund with money for subsidized shoes and balls. This all encourages the players to be  accountable to one another and act as their own leaders. The Yuwa teams are not a single coach dominating a group of young athletes; they are groups of friends dedicated to enjoying and improving their football game and themselves.

For many of the girls, it’s more than game. It really is changing the course of their lives. Yuwa’s ultimate goal is to prevent girls from early marriage by keeping players in school. I’ve talked with girls who have bluntly told me that the reason they attend school everyday is because Yuwa encourages them to do so. By showing both the girls and—importantly—their families that furthering education can mean opportunities to successful futures, Yuwa has already prevented the marriage of its older teenage players.

Life in Hutup

I moved into the Yuwa house in early September. It’s settled near the edge of the Hutup village: a place teetering between rural and urban, where the sounds of the nearby highway disrupt any ambiance of remoteness.  Most people here get by by farming small plots of land (rice, corn, wheat, and potatoes), keeping livestock (cows, water buffalo, goats, and chickens), and working temporary manual labor jobs. The amount of trash heaped along the sides of the unpaved roads seriously mars any chance Hutup had of being picturesque, but it does have some things going for it in terms of scenery. When it’s windy, the rice fields look like lakes of green waves. The sky seems more expansive here, and the cloud formations can make for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. At night, hundreds of fireflies congregate in the trees, reflecting the spread of stars above. There’s a river nearby, and on clear days you can see mountains in the distance.

The Yuwa house has become a sort of community center and second home for the group of girls who originally started Yuwa. The walls are plastered with drawings, short compositions in English, football photos, and news clippings about Yuwa. A small desk in the main room is cluttered with trophies and medals won at various matches, and the bookshelves are crammed with early-reader books, dictionaries, atlases, and educational games. On any given night, three to five girls sleep in the spare bedroom after cooking dinner of oatmeal, chapatti, and a vegetable dish.

Although most of the girls have basic, conversational English and I can speak a handful of Hindi words and phrases[4], communication is a challenge. Franz (who speaks Hindi) is currently in the US, so the girls and I have had to be even more creative and persistent when talking about anything complex. Still, we’re able to connect over things like Justin Bieber, laughing at my inability to make circular chapatti, killing mosquitos, and—of course—football. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel comfortable walking down the road and strolling into the girls’ houses.

I’m going to wait until my next post to describe some of the projects I’m working on for Yuwa, but my days look something like this: I wake up around 4:45 and fumble around collecting teaching material and making myself look presentable. Ride over to a nearby village of Sildiri with coach Anand, and teach a small English class to some Sildiri football players. Come back to Yuwa house around 8, and spend the day reading on the roof, preparing for Khan Academy (more on this later), or wandering about Hutup. I help organize several students who are participating in math program on Nook tablets between 3:30 and 4:30, and then walk over to the football ground for practice. While at practice, I try to burn off my extra energy, remember all the girls’ names, and try not to twist my ankle as I attempt to keep up with some seriously skilled 12 year-old footballers. After practice, a small group of the girls head back to the house with me. We cook dinner, do small art projects, and listen to music. The power will invariably go out at least twice.

The days in Hutup get long: there’s a lot of hours between 8 and 3:30. My mobility is much more restricted than it has been during the rest of this trip, and I’ve had to adjust to change. I also feel more conscious of my foreign-ness in Jharkhand than I have anywhere else in India, but the Yuwa players have done a wonderful job of making me feel welcome. Many of the kids in the area seem to know my name now, and nothing makes you feel more welcome than some five-year-old screaming your name from across a field when you walk down a road. 

Another note on my name: the way people pronounce “Rose” here sounds similar to the Hindi word that means “everyday”. So several of the players have taken to addressing me as “Rose – Everyday!”

Thanks for reading this extra long post. I’m going to try posting shorter entries more frequently. There are many small, good moments that deserve mention. Stay tuned!

[1] I’m not traveling with this book, by the way. Not worth the extra weight.

[2] I  saw Gangs of of Wasseypur Part Two in theaters, making it my first Indian cinema experience. It was in Hindi and there were no subtitles. I thought that I was more or less understanding everything, until the last five minutes. And in that one, quick scene some key things happened, and I realized that I has missed all the film’s major plot points. Oh well. I liked the soundtrack.

[3] Yes, Ranchi is pronounced as “raunchy”. It makes for some good names like The Ranchi Club.

[4] My favorite word so far is good-goody. It means tickle or ticklish. Although I also really like the words mutlub and lugbug.

5 thoughts on “Jai Yuwa!

  1. Rose, Thanks for sharing! You write so informatively and it’s wonderful that you are helping those girls out of a life of drudgery & work, work, work! You are really touching their lives for good. Loved the photos, too! Take Care & Stay Safe. xxxooo

  2. wow! thanks for your great writing. And photos. Your blog was forwarded to me by Tom Gastler, Franz’ dad. We love and support your work. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Look forward to reading and seeing more from you…

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