Own it

Last month, I was a witness for a Yuwa girl as she gave a police statement about an incident of harassment and attempted theft. To collect this girl’s statement, twelve detectives and officers rolled up to Hutup village in two police-issue jeeps, wielding AK-47’s. It seemed absurdly over-the-top for the case in question, but I was still happy that a case of harassment was being formally addressed. These things are often shrugged off as nothing.

As the girl finished giving her statement, the head detective turned to me asked me if I was married. Then he carefully spelled out my name on the statement as a witness:

Kumari Rose Thomson

 Kumari is a title that means unmarried girl. After I signed the document, the detective asked me for my father’s name, so he could write it under my name. If I had been married, my husband’s name would have gone in that place.

It seems that as a woman, I have no legitimacy without the addition of the name of my male keeper. I’ve been in rural India long enough that this irritating formality didn’t surprise me—but it was still felt like a slap in the face. It’s as if girls and women can’t own their own lives.

Kumari, Kumari, Kumari

Kumari is the last name shared by the vast majority of girls in the villages of Jharkhand. After marriage, girls change their last name from Kumari to Devi: a title that signifies that a woman is married.

If you took a Yuwa team roster that consisted exclusively of last names the list would read: Kumari, Kumari, Kumari, Kumari, Kumari…. Endless Kumari. This led for some confusion at the tournaments in Spain, where it had to be clarified that No, the girls in Yuwa are not all related.

The use of the title Kumari is a constant reminder of the life path expected of girls in villages. Many parents believe that higher education, or anything beyond 10th standard[1], is pointless for their daughters. Why invest in education when the girl will get married in her mid to late teens? Why waste money on school when the girl’s future is to be a wife and a mother? For a family that struggles to feed all its children, it makes financial sense to prioritize a son’s education.

For a woman without education, temporary construction work is one of the few options available for supporting her family.

For a woman without education, temporary construction work is one of the few options available for supporting her family.

A girl is rarely asked about her own dreams for the future. Her future is not her own. The girl belongs to her family—until the day that ownership is transferred to her husband and in-laws.

Unexpected consequences

 As a state, Jharkhand is notorious for its high rates of child marriage. In Hutup village, I meet young women my own age who have two or three children. Many of the girls in Yuwa have older sisters who were married off before age eighteen. Because I see the girls of Yuwa everyday, however, I’ve come to think of them as exceptions to this cultural norm. I see them as immune outliers who bravely defy expectations. I forget that early marriage is still a very real threat for them.

After returning from the trip to Spain, the Yuwa football players became local heroes. These girls are the only people around who have flown in an airplane or traveled to a different country. As Kusum explained in her Tedx talk, after the trip abroad, “Everyone in the village knew us. Everybody knew my name. Everyone says girls in Yuwa are doing very good things.”anglian news3

anglian news4With the media attention and visits from big-shot politicians looking for good photo ops, the girls did more than just gain respect for their unconventional passion for football. These 13- and 14-year-old girls became attractive potential brides.

Yuwa’s full-time Female Mentor, a young woman from Jharkhand named Neha, meets with player’s parents regularly to discuss the girls’ futures. Some mothers revealed that in the wake of the trip to Spain, men have approached them with offers of marriage for their daughters.

One mother, a widow, told Neha about a marriage offer that came for her 13-year-old daughter from an older man in the army. Her extended family pressured her to accept the proposal because the suitor had a stable job and could offer financial security. She refused because she knows her daughter has different dreams.

Another mother told Neha about a tempting proposal that came from a man working for a computer company. Again, this offer promised the sort of financial stability which parents in villages dream of. This mother refused the proposal, even though in the past she has married off her other girls in their mid-teens.

When asked about her rejection of the proposal, she explained,

“My daughter is a very different kind of girl. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with her. But I will support her in what she wants to do. I knew she would be very angry about the marriage offer, so I didn’t tell her. She wants to continue her education.”


Rewriting the script

 A few weeks ago, I watched a team of 11- and 12-year-old Yuwa girls draw pictures of the woman they want to become. The final result was a winsome hodge-podge of teachers, police officers, “doctys” (female doctors), and bankers. This typical kids’ activity has a much more significant impact in this village, where the script for girls has already been written. There’s a novel message being reinforced again and again, every time a girl meets with her Yuwa team, six days a week, year-round: You can take charge of your life.

Girls in Yuwa's early morning English class.

Girls in Yuwa’s early morning English class.

The senior girls of Yuwa who have already rejected offers of marriage are living proof of that message for the younger players. They speak up to their parents about their goals, excel at school, and seize the opportunities in front of them. They report incidents of abuse and harassment in their villages, school, and homes because they know their own rights. These girls shake up the system and it upsets the bitter, beaten people who cling to it.

It is not easy.

But the little girls look up to these players and see the message in their actions. This is your body. This is your voice. This is your life. Own it.DSC_6168

One of the senior team captains gives a speech at the Yuwa Spring Talent Show.

One of the senior team captains gives a speech at the Yuwa Spring Talent Show.


One of the state's highest level police officers, Sampat Meena, visiting Yuwa to tell her story. Girls asked how to become officers themselves, how to protect themselves from boys and men who harass them in their villages, about their right to get married when they want, and how to prevent their parents from sending them to live at places they don't want to be.

One of the state’s highest level police officers, Sampat Meena, visiting Yuwa to tell her story. Girls asked how to become officers themselves, how to protect themselves from boys and men who harass them in their villages, about their right to get married when they want, and how to prevent their parents from sending them to live at places they don’t want to be.

Last week, I introduced one of the senior team captains to a visitor. “This is Sabitri Kumari,” I said as they shook hands.

Sabitri immediately made a face and shook her head. Then she corrected me with smile.

“No Kumari.


Just Sabitri.“




[1] Sophomore year of high school, for those of you in the US.


Sharah, Lioness of Hutup

Hello and happy new year! This is Rose, here to introduce my first-ever guest blogger. Sarah came to volunteer with Yuwa in mid-January as an English teacher and will be here until June. She has launched a new daily English class in Basati Village, in addition to teaching a second afternoon class in Hutup. She gets to her class via auto-rickshaw every morning at 6:30 am, helps train Yuwa goalkeepers, and can make a mean Italian pasta sauce using local ingredients. Sarah has quickly become the friend of countless Yuwa girls and gained a reputation for being tough and outspoken.

It’s fitting that the girls pronounce her name like the Hindi word for lion: Sharah.

One Month Later: Thoughts & Impressions During My First Month in Rural Jharkhand, India

Girls just want to have fun. And they do in Yuwa. 🙂

As I sit on the Yuwa House’s (Aka my workplace and humble abode) patio, basking in the sun and swatting away flies with the famishment of a hungry lioness, I question if it is possible for my written words to leap off the page and truly entrench themselves into your mind’s eye.

I often get asked to eat with the girls and their families.

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Sarah or Sharah as the young Yuwa girls pronounce my name. I was born and raised in Iowa, which for those of you who do not know (yes, there are many who do not know) is located in the Midwest of America; aka, the greatest area, period. Coincidently enough Yuwa’s Founder and Director, Franz, and Yuwa’s Coordinator, Rose, are both from the Midwest. Minnesota and Missouri to be specific. Which means we come from three states that line up perfectly on top of one another on the map. Needless to say we form an illustrious Midwestern spectacle in the tiny village of Hutup, where we all live together. Filling out our crack team and household are Neha and Ana.

Ana is from Spain and has a business mind like no young adult I have come across before. She speaks perfect English and gets the worst sunburns one can imagine!

Neha is easily the most impressive young Indian woman I have and most likely ever will come across in my lifetime. She is from the state of Jharkhand and is the Yuwa girls’ mentor. She has a mind of an accomplished scholar and the soul of a humble, mature woman. If I was better with words, I could write a book about Neha – she exemplifies the type of woman Yuwa hopes each girl in this area will become.

Nothing like a little afternoon footy amongst the beautiful hills. During practice there are always cows, goats, stray dogs, people, etc. walking through the pitch. 

Our oasis. This is one of the football pitches the girls play on. It is located on the compound where I live. You can see the Yuwa house on the back right. The blue building on the back left is the Yuwa Nike Game Changers classroom where girls learn English and study Math. 🙂

So many rad girls in Yuwa.

Speaking of Yuwa, what is Yuwa? Yuwa is a NGO that uses football as a platform to promote girl’s empowerment, health, education, and improved livelihoods as well as prevent human trafficking, illiteracy, and child marriage. Through gaining confidence the girls spark youth-led change, which transforms the culture around them through their peers, families, and communities.

Where is Jharkhand, India and what is the state like for girls growing up here?

Jharkhand is the 28th state of India and the last state to form in Nov. 2002. The social and economic indicators of Jharkhand are amongst the worst in the country. Even though the state is rich in minerals (Jharkhand accounts for 40% of the mineral resources of India), the inequitable distribution of wealth and the lack of political will plague the state.

A 2013 UN report declared the state of Jharkhand as the worst victim of human trafficking in India. Child marriage is very common and acceptable and illiteracy is rampant. When a girl is born in Jharkhand, her life has usually already been planned out for her. She is isolated— if she is not seen working in the house or fields she is harassed. She is illiterate—more than six in ten women here can’t read. She is married off—Jharkhand leads Indian states in child marriages. She remains vulnerable— an estimated 30,000 girls from Jharkhand are trafficked every year. She gets pregnant. The cycle is passed down to her girls and continues.

In its single-page entry on Jharkhand, Lonely Planet describes the state as follows:

“…there is widespread government corruption, sporadic intercaste warfare, banditry and Naxalite-Maoists (insurgent) violence, all of which contribute to the region being the poorest, least literate and most lawless area in India.”

Now that you know a little about Yuwa and the state of Jharkhand let me get to the juicy part….My thoughts and impressions during my first month here, in no specific order.

*Are men and boys in this state really THIS WORTHLESS???? They sit around in groups all day, drinking chai or alcohol, eating sweets, playing games, scratching their asses and staring gape-mouthed at girls passing by. It blows my mind every time I see this repeated type of behavior. Do they work? How to they make money to blow on all the chai, sweets, and alcohol?

*Duh, I should not be surprised to see a 12-year-old boy (or younger) driving a scooter. Boys do anything they want.

A lovely woman hard at work and squatting.

Need water to drink, cook, clean, and bathe with? Just find your local hand pump and bring a lot of buckets to carry on your head. Women and girls allowed only. (Get it? Because men do nothing.)

*Woman and girls do EVERYTHING!!! Wash the dishes, sweep the house, hand wash the laundry, lay the laundry out to dry, collect firewood far off into the distance, pick up cow poop, roll it into many small-ish balls, flatten them and hand plant them on the brick walls to dry so they can be used later to start a fire. Also woman make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, take care of the farm animals living on their property, clean the farm animal waste, sweep, wash, repeat. It is unreal. My favorite moment (sense the seething sarcasm) thus far was when I witnessed a mother, father and child walking down the road. The mother was balancing a 15 pound tub on her head filled with clean laundry and the father was carrying the small infant. At first I was semi-pleased – at least the father was taking care of the infant. Not even 10 seconds later the father flung the child at the mother and walked down the long road empty handed. Let’s recap – Mom is holding an infant in one arm and balancing a 15 pound tub on her head while the father does nothing. HHHMMMMMM. As one of my wise teenage students told me the other day “I never want to get married. You become a private servant when you marry.” You go girl!!!

*Dear god the sanitation situation in this state is repulsive! AHHH! If you live in a western country, are a clean freak and have no sense of adventure, it is safe to say you would not make it in this state or country.

Fresh coconut (Safe to drink and delicious)

*Eating street food, restaurant food, or household foods not cooked by you can be an adventure in learning about how tough your stomach is. I have a fairly fortified stomach thanks to all my travels. Even in Mumbai years back I had no problem. Well, rural Jharkhand is a little different. Do not eat the pani puri unless you want to spend the next day in bed.

*People of all ages squat for hours and hours and hours everyday…cutting veggies, preparing rice, sweeping, doing laundry, chatting, cleaning dishes…HOW? My legs shriek for relief from my body weight after 5 minutes.

*Speaking of squatting I must squat to use the restroom…thankfully I am squatting into a flush toilet that is essentially a hole in the ground, but heck, at least my thighs will be as strong as an ox by the end of my time here.

*Really, nearly 92% of the people in Jharkhand do not have access to a household toilet?? Yep, true story. People go anywhere and everywhere to relieve themselves.

*It is completely normal to pile 20 or more people into a tiny tuk-tuk. Clown cars have nothing on how many people here you can find in a moving tuk-tuk.

*Also, it is wholly common for 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 people to be riding on a scooter or motorcycle. Really.

*Oh, driving on the wrong side of the road is standard. My first foray into this common practice had me wondering if I should have updated my will as the cars came barreling down at us head on.

*All drivers are maniacs. Thank god I lived in Italy, otherwise I would be white as a ghost after each ride.

Our local market is a hopping good time. Everything is fresh and cheap. I can buy 1 pounds of tomatoes, 1 pound of potatoes, 3 bundles of cilantro, 1 pound of oranges, 1 pound of bananas, 1 pound of peas, 1 pound of apples, and 1 pound of lemons for perhaps $2.50 USD. Take that overpriced American supermarkets.

*If you are have white skin and light brown hair be prepared for open mouth stares and whispers everywhere you do. Really, everywhere. Thankfully Italy prepared me for this type of uncomfortable situation. Just wear sunglasses everywhere, walk with confidence and wear your don’t F with me face.

If I had to live with livestock I want baby goats!!

*Animals are everywhere. People live with lifestock in their homes. Not on their compounds, in their homes. Image for a moment that you sleep with all your cows, chickens, and even ducks. Yeah, I cannot imagine that either.

*Is it really ordinary to have a driver? And a cook? And a maid? I do not understand this concept.

*The newspapers here are not just dreadful, they are also amusing. If you have never read the Dil Se section of an Indian newspaper I highly suggest you send me your address and I will post you the cut out tomorrow. Pure amusement.

These are the cow poop fire starters I referred to. You will find them hanging out to dry on every brick wall available.

*Toffee (Or candy, as us Westerners refer to it) is given as change. So even if I do not get my 7 rupees back, at least I will be hopped up on sugar for the rest of the afternoon. 🙂

Medical practices in villages can make you believe the “doctors” studied in the 16th Century. This is a before and after picture of one of the Yuwa girls who had to get stitches. A village doctor used what I like to prefer to as “rope” to stitch up a girls arm. Thankfully we have a brilliant REAL doctor who took those stitches out and the girl is going to be A OK. Will probably leave a wicked scar though. No worries, scars are beautiful

*The Christmas sweater is the greatest invention ever. It is fuzzy, sparkly, brightly colored, outrageously popular and downright hideous. Thank you for my daily giggle, India. 🙂

Yuwa girls are eager learners. 7AM English class.

Oh my goodness, I could go on for another 20 pages, but you get the point…Life in rural Jharkhand is downright different. Nonetheless I am loving every minute thus far. The people and girls I spend my days with are so interesting and inspiring; it is an absolute treat working with them!

Basically, life is weird here, but dang is it good.


It’s Kusum!

Two months ago, 13-year-old Kusum volunteered to give a talk at TEDx Gateway in Mumbai. Franz had been invited as a speaker, but wanted to pass the opportunity off to one of the girls to talk about Yuwa in her own words.

I explained to Kusum that there would be over 1100 people in the audience and that thousands more might watch it over the internet. The other speakers at the event would include some of the most passionate, intelligent and driven individuals in India. And her talk needed to be English. Kusum’s English is good… but she still has a long road ahead before she reaches fluency. She has never read a chapter book in English.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, after showing her some TEDx videos online.

She hardly paused before looking at me with an expression that clearly said: Well, duh.

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

For 6 weeks leading up to the TEDx event, Kusum and I worked together on her speech. We talked about what details to include, what was important for people to hear, and what fundamental message she wanted to share with everyone. She wrote her story by the light of kerosene lamp. Kusum’s family had electricity installed in their mud house last year, but power is spotty in villages.

After several drafts and revisions, Kusum created a hard copy of her talk. In less than a week, she had it memorized. She practiced in her home in the mornings and in the evenings, in front of her family and friends. She practiced in Yuwa English class and on Skype for my family. She practiced with Franz shining a giant flashlight in her face, to simulate the stage lights. She practiced with a microphone at Jharkhand’s World Toilet Day Event to an audience that wasn’t actually listening. 

Time for TED

We flew to Mumbai several days before the TEDx event to meet the other speakers and rehearse on stage. Kusum navigated a swanky cocktail and dinner party wearing a Yuwa track-suit. She carried around a martini glass of juice with a glowing ice cube and made casual English conversation with adults from around the world. I thought she might get tired or bored after a few hours. She didn’t. She talked with a man who recently became the first Indian in the world to circumnavigate the globe, alone, in a sailboat. It took him 150 days. She introduced herself to an Israeli composer, an acclaimed wildlife conservationist, a 15-year-old who has constructed a 3-D printer, the founder of a micro-enterprise development bank, a National Geographic photographer, and a woman who’s revolutionizing interactive museum technology.

Kusum leaned over to me and commented very seriously, “Everyone here is interesting.”

TEDxGateway Kusum clappingOver and over again, Kusum was asked if she was nervous for her talk. Again and again, she said she wasn’t. We found out that her talk had been scheduled as the last of the day; the organizers wanted her to be the grand finale. 

Raising the roof

Franz took to the stage first to introduce Kusum. He described how in the past year, since the trip to Spain, Kusum and her teammates have become youth icons. They have been featured in every national newspaper, a myriad of magazines and news shows, and acclaimed by Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra. We’ve estimated that in the past few months, their story has reached over 200 million people in India. 

Why is the story of the Yuwa girls so compelling? The struggles Kusum and her teammates face are shared by hundreds of millions of women and girls in rural India. Their struggles are not unique. When the girls of Yuwa confidently share their stories, they give voice to millions more who are not heard. Their triumph over the odds is inspiring.

“Kusum and her teammates are leading a movement of girls who are fighting for and finding their freedom, one football practice at a time. Ladies and gentlemen, my Indian super power…girl power…”, Franz began, attempting to refer back to a Marvel Comics executive’s speech earlier in the day that referred to a new female Indian superhero, “whatever she is, Kusum Kumari!”TEDxGateway Kusum shailesh photo

Franz gave her a high five as he walked off the stage, and Kusum walked into the spotlight. The audience went wild, making Kusum wait, smiling calmly, for at least 20 seconds before beginning.

I am Kusum.

I am 13-years-old.

I’m from Jharkhand.

I want to tell you how football changed my life…”

She shined. Her delivery was flawless and her voice never faltered. Although the auditorium was packed, I believe her when she said she really wasn’t nervous. Although I couldn’t see it from my place in the front row, many people were tearing up throughout Kusum’s talk. I was one of them.

The climax of the talk came when she delivered the following observation:

“In Spain, I saw that girls and boys were the same. There were no differences. Girls went everywhere that boys went, even at night.  [Big cheers and laughter]

“They did everything that boys do. I thought this was very good. [Big cheers]

“I want to feel free like the boys!”  [Audience went wild]

When Kusum came to her conclusion, the audience leaped to their feet and gave a rousing standing ovation, as if they had been waiting on the edge of their seats for their cue. The auditorium was a roar of sound. Kusum stood in the center of it all, beaming.

Back to the village

Weeks before, in preparation for TED, I showed Kusum a video of Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the UN. She was impressed by the story of Malala and excited that a girl was advocating for girls’ education; something Kusum wants to promote as she gets older. I pointed out to Kusum that her own story and her own TED talk held the very same message… and that she too was already reaching thousands of girls.

On the way back to Jharkhand in the airport bookstore, we bought Kusum her first chapter book in English: I am Malala.

As we went through the airport security, a female airline pilot approached us with the enthusiasm of a teenage Bieber fan. She explained that she had flown in from Delhi for the TEDx event and had been extremely moved by Kusum’s talk. As the pilot was speaking, a security attendant approached us, curious about the celebrity attention being given to this young girl, and asked the pilot who she was. The pilot smiled broadly and replied,

“It’s Kusum!”

I will post the video of Kusum’s TED talk when it comes online. In the meantime, you can read the text of her talk here.

Want to support Kusum and her friends? Click here!DSC_0362

Fair and Unfair

When I feel like I need a real cleansing, I walk into the fitness center of Ranchi’s only five-star hotel and use the deluxe shower in the women’s locker room. The water pressure and heat are pure bliss, and I leave the place feeling cleaner than I’ve felt in weeks.

The staff doesn’t ask me if I’m a guest. Nobody stops me. It doesn’t matter if my clothes are sloppy and I look disheveled. I can waltz in like I belong, be greeted like someone important, and leave without any incident.

I can do this because I’m white.

There is a hierarchy here that determines the way people treat each other. I know plenty would argue that this social order is complex—that it’s developed from colonial history, the caste system, tribal traditions, gender roles, and modern politics. But on the surface, it seems pretty straightforward. If you’re small and dark, you’re used, abused, and walked over. If you’re tall and fair, you’re treated with deference.

This isn’t a hard-fast rule. But that said, I know what I see. People who do manual labor and menial jobs, cycle rickshaws, farm—essentially, the poorest of Jharkhand’s population—have darker skin and tend to be short and slight. Those in positions of authority (politicians, police officers, businessmen, government officials) are significantly bigger and whiter. This isn’t just an imagined phenomenon or a coincidence: those in the army and police are specifically chosen for their height.

To prove that I’m not exaggerating, check out this ad for the wildly popular skin-whitening cream, Fair and Lovely. The dad’s line that sends the girl into tears is “I wish I had a son.”

There aren’t 1950s-America-era signs around Ranchi designating “Whites Only”… but I’d like to see someone with dark skin try to walk into that five-star fitness center looking as disheveled as I usually do. It just wouldn’t happen. And I admit, I take advantage of the ridiculous privileges that my appearance grants me. It’s an uncomfortable reality in Jharkhand, and my time with the Yuwa girls has allowed me to witness what it means to be at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Fair and Lovely and Sick of It

While there are definitely more advantages to being a white, blonde female here than drawbacks, I’ve got to take a minute to illustrate how I’m treated daily. Mostly, I’m stared at like I’ve come from a different planet. These are not subtle glances. I’m talking about open-mouthed, unabashed gaping. People doing double takes in the street, stopping in the middle of traffic, halting conversation to point me out. It’s impossible for me to be anonymous, although I do my best by wearing a scarf over my face and hair and donning sunglasses when I’m in a crowd.

The number of foreigners that go through this place is minuscule, and most of them are businessmen who stay inside their hotels. So although I can understand why I’m such a spectacle, it’s exhausting to be gawked at whenever I step outside. I didn’t realize how freeing anonymity could be until I couldn’t have it anymore.

I’m usually treated with the utmost deference, often bordering on celebrity treatment. My appearance has gotten me into utterly absurd situations. I’m often asked if people can take photos with me—in restaurants, stores, zoos, concerts, malls, bathrooms, offices. Sometimes people don’t have the audacity to ask permission and attempt to take sly photos in which I’m carefully framed in the background. It’s expected that I’ll skip through long queues instead of waiting like everyone else. I’m exempt from most public rules, and am often waved through security with a smile and a head bobble.

During one especially bizarre afternoon, I ended up as one of three chief guests at a school award ceremony[1]. I shook hundreds of hands, gave an impromptu speech about the importance of education (I’m pretty sure nobody understood what I was saying, so I wasn’t nervous), and handed out a bunch of certificates with cameras flashing throughout the entire event. Again, this happened because I’m white.

It’s gotten to the point that incidents like this no longer surprise me. I’m worried about what this is going to do to my ego in the long run.

The Other Side

Spending the majority of my time with the Yuwa girls, I get to see glimpses of the way they’re treated, and what’s it’s like for girls who don’t look like I do. While my white-blonde-foreigner status keeps me right near the top of the social ladder, the Yuwa girls rank near absolute bottom. As poor, dark-skinned, tribal, unmarried girls, they are rarely given basic respect when they’re out in public. I’ve seen them ignored, glared at, scolded for the pettiest of things, and disregarded. I’ve seen a feverish, exhausted girl be shooed out of a doctor’s office because the sandals on her feet were “too dirty”.  Several girls told me that they’re made to pay a cleaning fee at their government-run school—and then they’re forced to clean the school.

On an impersonal level, the hierarchy of Jharkhand is uncomfortable. When it gets personal—when you see kids you care about being treated like shit—it becomes indescribably infuriating.

A few weeks ago, I found out that many of our girls had been slapped, verbally abused, made to pay bribes, and forced to sweep the floor by officials at a local government office. They had been going to this office repeatedly for weeks, attempting to obtain their birth certificates. They need these certificates to get passports to compete in the Spain tournament, and hadn’t told Franz about the ongoing incidents of abuse.

I felt sick to my stomach when I heard this. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hurt someone more than I wanted to hurt the cowardly worm who would lay a hand on these kids. What disturbed me more than the fact that a grown man in a government position was hitting 12-year-old girls: the girls didn’t consider this behavior out-of-the-ordinary. They’ve experienced the same treatment from teachers, principals, postal workers, uncles, fathers and brothers. They were used to it.


The girls confront the government official who’s been abusing them. After the media storm, all of them eventually received their birth certificates.

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 11.23.53 AMWhile the girls seemed ready to disregard this whole episode as normal, Franz wasn’t. Within two days, the girls’ story was on the front page of the 2nd largest English newspaper in India. The story went semi-viral on Facebook. People were angry—Indians and non-Indians alike. Supporters Yuwa in positions of power in Jharkhand put pressure on the local office responsible for abusing the girls. Eventually the man who had caused the most trouble was removed from his position—although not before sending cronies to one of the girl’s houses in an attempt to ‘discourage’ her family from pressing charges.

The optimist in me wants to believe that this incident and the outcry against it will help the girls realize they’re worthy of respect and demand it as they get older. I want them to be angry about the injustices they encounter daily. I want to believe that these tough kids can start to change the system in which skin color, status, and gender determine the way people are treated.

Neha, a young local woman working for Yuwa, agreed that the girls now seem more likely to unite against injustice. “But,” she added, “They need to know someone will stand beside them.”DSC_3157

[1] The other Chief Guests included Mr. ‘Frang Gostler (from the United States of American, U.S.A.)’ and a high ranking local police officer

Exceeding Expectations Always

Apparently, this is Jharkhand's new tourism slogan.

Apparently, this is Jharkhand’s new tourism slogan.

Last month, I came back to Jharkhand to continue interning with Yuwa.

If you read my description of Jharkhand from back in September, you know it isn’t the happiest place on earth. If you’re not included in the miniscule elite that controls the state’s natural resources, it’s just not an easy place to be. Most people live in poverty and are incapable of either finding or affording quality education. Those who do acquire some wealth, power, or education cling to their fortune and flaunt it in the form of extravagant luxuries and utter disregard for anyone with less prestige than themselves. Jharkhand is a mess, and I haven’t encountered anyone optimistic about improving the state’s levels of corruption or poverty anytime soon.

This is one of Jharkhand's biggest politicians and a member of Parliament, Here is simultaneously promoting himself and endorsing Poto Instant Potato Flakes.

This is one of Jharkhand’s biggest politicians and a member of Parliament, Here he is simultaneously promoting himself and endorsing Poto Instant Potato Flakes.

These men cycle down the highway every single day, utterly loaded down with black-market coal. Coal is one of Jharkhand's biggest industries.

These men cycle down the highway every single day, utterly loaded down with black-market coal. Coal is one of Jharkhand’s biggest industries.

Typical group of Hutup village rug rats. The girls are collecting cow dung to use as fuel.

Typical group of Hutup village rug rats. The girls are collecting cow dung to use as fuel.

But I wanted to come back to Jharkhand.

When faced with the prospect of extending my project, I had the option of going practically anywhere in the world. And I realized that what I wanted most was to return to Hutup village and the true-grit girls I met through Yuwa. Cambodia and Vietnam and Nepal were all places that were stunningly beautiful, (slightly) more functional, and definitely easier for a foreigner to navigate and enjoy. But I wanted to come back to the dysfunctional wreck that is Jharkhand, India.

As Charles Dickens said, “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.”

Jharkhand’s dismal reality, however, makes Yuwa’s programs all the more important and exciting. With so little effective developmental work being done here—and absolutely no other programs exclusively for girls in this area—Yuwa’s impact is easy to see. The program is still small, but the effect it’s had on these girls’ lives is enormous.  13-year-old Rinki said it best when she explained the importance of her team to a visitor: “Before I joined Yuwa, people didn’t look at me or know my name. Now when I walk through the village, everyone knows my name.”

I was psyched to jump back into Yuwa action, and I unintentionally picked an especially exciting time to return. A team of Yuwa girls had been invited to compete in Spain’s largest international football tournament, the Donosti Cup[1], held in July 2013. The girls will be the first Indian women’s team in history to compete in Spain, which is renowned for having the highest level of football in the world.

The Supergoats

It might seem extravagant to spend so much money on plane tickets and travel expenses to send an entire team of rural Indian girls to Spain. I know how far a handful of rupees can go in Hutup village[2], and the money could easily support Yuwa’s regular programs for a long period of time. So why spend so much on a week-long tournament trip when most of the girls and their families don’t even get enough to eat daily? Why invest so much for a short-term experience?

Because these girls deserve the chance to show what they’re worth. They have grown up in a place where women are expected to give without receiving, girls’ self-sacrificing contributions are overlooked, and where hard work rarely results in… results. This will be the first time in their lives that their tireless efforts will result in something so meaningful.Image

LakshmiYuwa’s Donosti team (recently dubbed the Supergoats[3]) represents the most dedicated and outstanding girls in Yuwa.  The 18 girls selected come from seven neighboring villages, include two sets of sisters, and represent five different religions. They spend hours each day collecting fuel for fire, fetching water balanced on their heads, cutting grass for livestock, and cooking meals for their family. Despite the heavy weight of household responsibilities, they make time for the sport they love and consistently dedicate themselves to their team. These 18 girls were chosen after a careful process that took into consideration their commitment to improving themselves through Yuwa, school and practice attendance, football skill, and—importantly—their character. Every girl was ranked by her teammates based on five values: positivity, honesty, caring, selflessness and inspiring unity. The girls on this team were chosen as much by each other as they were by their coaches.Sildiri

ShivaniThe Supergoats practice six days a week on a dirt ground, save their own money to purchase football equipment, and take pride in their improved school attendance. The girls on Yuwa’s Donosti team are role models for thousands of girls in their region. They are proof that girls can play football. More importantly, they are proof that a girl’s place does not have to be in the house.

This is not just a scrappy team of underdogs. They are small, undernourished, unaccustomed to playing on grass, and reliant on generous donors to pay for their tournament and travel cost: but these girls are not to be underestimated. They are fierce football players, and they have already beaten some serious odds that life has stacked against them.Rinki

KusumPusapa2Participating in the Donosti Cup will allow the Yuwa girls to interact and share their stories with other young people from all over the world. It will also be the first time for them to compete against other teams that take the game as seriously as they do (I’m talking about girls who wake up at 4:00 in the morning to do their chores because they want to have practice at 5). For some of them, it will be the first time their families regard their daughters’ unconventional self-initiative as admirable and worthy of respect.DSC_2434

Franz (founder and director of Yuwa) applying duct tape to girls'  falling-apart football shoes before the Supergoats selection camp.

Franz (founder and director of Yuwa) applying duct tape to girls’ falling-apart football shoes during the Supergoats selection camp.

MeenaSupergoatsAfter spending four months over the past year in Jharkhand with the Yuwa group, I can’t help but feel a fervent sort of pride for the Supergoats. I really, really want this for them.

A group of people from Spain (TZBZ) are responsible for inviting Yuwa to Donosti, and they have taken the lead in fundraising for the trip. It’s still uncertain whether or not the money will be raised in time, but it’s been truly heartening to see such consistent and persistent efforts on behalf of the Yuwa girls coming from people half-way round the world who have never met them. TZBZ has been going above and beyond to gain publicity for Yuwa  in Spain–they’ve already been featured on television shows and supported by professional women’s football teams.

Out of the 400 teams competing in the Donosti Cup this year, Yuwa is being featured on the tournament's homepage.

Out of the 400 teams competing in the Donosti Cup this year, Yuwa is being featured on the tournament’s homepage.

In the meantime, the Supergoats have hit the ground running to prepare for this tournament. They know they’ll be facing some real opponents in Spain, and they’re determined to play their best when the time comes. This morning I got up at 5:00 am to run 10 kilometers with four of them: they chose the time and the distance.

Where Jharkhand leaves a heck of a lot desired, the Yuwa girls are–without a doubt–exceeding expectations always.

The Yuwa gang, celebrating Holi (Hindu festival of colors) on the Hutup ground.

The Yuwa gang, celebrating Holi (Hindu festival of colors) on the Hutup ground.

[1] This year, there will be 400 teams attending and 8000 players. It’s taking place in San Sebastian.

[2] Last time I went to the market, I bought 1.5 kilograms of tomatoes for 15 rupees. That’s approximately 30 cents in the US.

[3] Domestic goats are very common in and around the Hutup area. They routinely wander through the girls’ football practices and matches and are notorious for their early-morning bleating. Goats, however, have some seriously redeeming qualities: they are fast, wily, agile, smart (when compared to, say, sheep), and persistent to the point of being annoying. Yuwa’s Donosti team share many of these traits… hence the name Supergoats.

Girls Got Confidence

The Field as a Stage

The girls who play for Yuwa make eye contact when they speak. Talk to other girls in the village, and they demurely drop their gaze and tend to mumble. Participating on a team gives girls a very noticeable boost of confidence that is made all the more apparent because it’s such a contrast from their peers. I didn’t realize the extent of Yuwa players’ confidence until I watched them play in a match in another district of Jharkhand. This event took place in mid-September, but even if this post is belated, it’s a story worth relating.

At 6:00 on the morning of the match, about 25 girls arrived at the Yuwa House, ready to go. Coach Anand informed me that the mini-bus would arrive any minute, and that the match was about “two or maybe two and half hours away.” Not bad. Regardless of the cramped conditions of the bus, it would be a chance for me to see more of Jharkhand countryside. The girls charged around the house, eager to get on the road. Based on their energy, you never would have guessed it was so early in the morning.

The mini-bus didn’t show up until 9:30. Yes, that’s three-and-a-half hours late. This didn’t seem to faze anyone, least of all the girls, who took the extra time to do each other’s hair in elaborate braids and show off their dances moves. About 40 of us (including the players who wanted to come along to cheer for the competing team) piled into the mini-bus that was meant for 18 passengers. Several of the older boys rode on the roof when no more could fit inside. We heroically defied designated vehicle capacity, and set off on our journey. One girl sat on my lap, and the two girls on either side of me promptly borrowed my arms as pillows and fell asleep.

Including a handful of stops to pick up more passengers and buy bananas, we drove for six hours. It got a bit stuffy and I lost feeling in my legs, but the girls were admirably free of complaints and still buzzed with the same anticipation they had had at 6 am. I kept thinking about Anand’s original estimate of this trip lasting “two or maybe two and a half hours.” It was at this point that I made a mental note never again to trust Anand’s judgment of time or distance.

Just when I thought we must be arriving at the field, we stopped at a roadside dhaba (a diner for truck drivers and travelers) for lunch. Apparently the political sponsors of the match were paying for the players’ meal. Although it seemed like a bad idea to eat a lot of food immediately before running around, the girls all ate their weight in rice and vegetables. I still marvel that girls so small can eat so much rice.

Bellies filled, the girls and I piled back into the mini-bus and set off once more. I had imagined that this match would take place in a stadium, but our vehicle turned onto an unpaved road and began a long and bumpy trip past villages and rice fields. And suddenly, when we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, our bus came upon a clearing with a massive gathering of people. My jaw dropped. The crowd was improbably huge and packed around the designated football field. Without any proper bleachers, people had improvised by stacking themselves in rows to watch the match, climbing onto surrounding roofs, and even taking to the trees to get a view. At one end of the field sat a stage with premium seats for politicians and other big egos. Police officers wearing red berets and wielding sticks patrolled the area to keep order. All of this, to watch the Yuwa girls play some football.

 I was reminded of something Franz had told me about Indians. Their most impressive displays of organization came from two things: religious festivals and sports events.

The Yuwa girls and I were ushered out of the bus and guided through the crowd by the police officers. Everyone had been waiting for our arrival. I felt like we were extremely important. I was also very conscious of being the only foreigner in a crowd that must have numbered in the thousands. I wasn’t the one about to play a match in front of this crowd, but I couldn’t help but feel jittery and nervous at the prospect of so many spectators. The girls, on the other hand, seemed utterly cool and composed. They held their heads up and focused on their warm-ups. Their body language was all confidence: of course there should be a crowd this big to watch their match.

After the Big-Shot politicians had their chance to flamboyantly and gratuitously introduce the match and its participants, the game began. The opposing team of girls was noticeably older and bigger than the Yuwa team. I prowled around the edge of the crowd taking photos and marveling at the intensity with which the girls were playing. They were awesome. Despite the obvious disadvantage of their size, the Yuwa girls were out-playing the other team in every one-on-one situation. And the crowd, like most crowds, loves a tough underdog: the cheers were almost entirely biased for Yuwa.

The final outcome of the match was 0-1, with Yuwa scoring the winning goal in the last five minutes of the game. The crowd, which had otherwise been impressively orderly, collapsed onto the field in celebration. The teams were quickly surrounded by the police and chaperoned over to the politicians’ stage for the presentation of awards. I thought this award ceremony would be a quick ordeal, considering the fact that we had over six hours of driving in the mini-bus to get back to Hutup. I didn’t realize that the ulterior motive of this entire event was the local politicians’ self-inflated need to speak in front of large groups of people. Thus, we all sat quietly for the next hour and a half while each of the Big Shots blathered on about things that could not possibly have been important.

We didn’t get back to Hutup village until almost three in the morning. Our ride home involved Hindi sing-a-longs, a wrong turn that cost us about an hour, many failed attempts to sleep on the cramped floor of the mini-bus, and a 1:30 am stop at a dhaba for dinner. The team filed into the Yuwa house and promptly crashed on the floor to sleep. Not once in this entire day did I hear one of the girls complain about being uncomfortable, hungry, intimidated, or tired. It was tough imagining how a group of American 12-year-olds might have dealt with a similar situation.


The girls’ confidence I witnessed in the match isn’t confined to the football field. After noticing the near universal enthusiasm for Hindi music videos and dancing, I thought it’d be pretty easy to organize a Yuwa talent show. This was definitely an accurate observation. The kids were so eager for a venue to show off their moves, I didn’t need to explain the concept of a talent show more than once to get a startlingly enthusiastic response. My efforts to arrange the event quickly took on a life of its own.

Pictures can speak louder than words, so I’ll just share some of the photos I took during the talent show. The performances were 90% dances, plus a couple of comedy skits and speeches in English (two about Ghandi and one about football). I led a group of girls in a clumsy rendition of the “Cha-Cha Slide”, which went over well with the audience despite being repetitive and not nearly as exciting as the girls’ Bollywood dance sequences.

 Fake Snakes: The Ultimate Confidence Killer

To conclude this post—which is meant to be a salute to the confidence of Yuwa players—I want to share with you how to obliterate confidence in rural India. Buy a realistic rubber snake. When Franz came back from the U.S., he brought an exceptionally convincing fake cobra. The kids’ reactions to finding this thing in various places around the house were priceless. They would scream and sprint out the door, sometimes running all the way down the street. Once convinced to come back, however, they were eager to pull the prank on their friends and elicit similar over-the-top responses.

By far the best fake snake reaction came when a group of about fifteen Yuwa players were waiting for their auto-rickshaw in the house. Out of pure coincidence, the kids were all gathered around a National Geographic picture book about snakes. Franz quietly approached the group holding a basket covered with a shawl. Once in the middle of the circle, he lifted the shawl to reveal the snake. It was like a bomb went off. Everyone screamed, some fell backwards, and those who kept their balance were outside within seconds.Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of this moment.

Bottom line? Given the absence of fake snakes, Yuwa girls got confidence on stage, on the field, and off the field.

A note on the backlogged-ness of the blog: I am currently OUT of India and in Battambang, Cambodia. I’ve got another post in the works about Darjeeling, but I’ll catch up to the present moment eventually.

A Cup of Chai

Reflections on Indian Hospitality

Credit where credit is due: With a couple exceptions, most of the photos included in this post were taken by students in the English class I’ve been teaching. I let the kids use my camera, and told them to take photos of an important place in their life (they all chose their home) and an important person in their life (they all chose one or both of their parents).

This is what happens when you are welcomed to visit somebody’s home in a village:

The person you know greets you enthusiastically—sometimes shaking your hand, sometimes giving you the two-handed Namaste bow, and sometimes bending down to touch your feet as a sign of respect. The house is made of mud, its smooth walls painted white. There’s a goat or two standing nearby, and chickens casually stroll in and out the front door. Your host invites you inside, and leads you to the nicest room in the house: usually a bedroom, the walls adorned with various religious icons. A child quickly appears carrying a plastic chair, which they set next to you and command you to “Sit!” Other children peek around the corners of the door to get a glimpse of you. There are lots of children. It’s not clear which of them belong in the immediate family, which are cousins, which are nieces and nephews, and which are neighbors. There is always a baby or toddler present. If you watch carefully, you will likely see an adult discreetly give one of these children a handful of rupees so they can sprint off to the nearest store to purchase sugar for chai and a package of snacks for their guest.

 It’s rare that there are enough plastic chairs for everyone present, so there will inevitably be people standing around you. Long periods of silence aren’t regarded as awkward or a social problem that must be fixed, the way they might be in other places. If there is a television, however, it may be flipped on with the assumption that a background of Bollywood music videos will make the visit more entertaining for you. Your attempts at conversation will be appreciated, even if your Hindi is abysmal and their English is limited. Charades will make everyone laugh, and will only sometimes be effective. Any son or daughter that takes English classes in school will be proudly presented to you, and goaded into making introductions and reciting numbers or the alphabet.

After a while, the women of the house bring out a metal plate with a cup of chai and an array of snacks. This will probably be the only time you see some of the women, unless you insist on helping out in the kitchen. The chai is made with milk and saturated with sugar: I dare you to find an Indian household that willingly chooses to drink their chai without sugar. The food will include biscuits (sugary, processed cookies available in every Indian store), namkeen (a salty, fried chip-like mix), and some homemade fried snack. You will likely be the only one eating and drinking, and it will be difficult to share the food you’ve been given. Your best bet for sharing will be to pick out the youngest kid, and start handing them biscuits. Your hosts won’t consider this rude, and you won’t have to eat the entire plate by yourself.

After eating, unless you’re really entranced by the Bollywood music videos on TV, it’s a good idea to ask for a tour of the house. This way you can see their garden and its spread of pumpkins, radishes, a plot of corn, a papaya tree, cabbage, and potatoes. The other rooms in the house have multiple purposes, but almost all of them act as bedrooms: the majority of the home’s occupants sleep on mats that are rolled up and put away every morning. You may choose to invade the kitchen, which will endear you to the women after they get over the initial humor of a guest wanting to hang out in the kitchen. The stove is made of mud, and its fire is fueled with leaves and dried cow dung. The women squat near their cooking on tiny wooden stools that are more comfortable than you first thought they would be. The walls and ceiling above the stove are blackened from the daily smoke. If they are cooking a vegetable dish, it smells fantastic. When you try to help make roti, you will be corrected because roti must be perfectly circular. Your roti will never be perfectly circular, but you will always be encouraged to try again.

If you just came by for a brief visit and a chai, the family will insist you stay for a meal. You insist that you need to be leaving. This will go back and forth for a while, but eventually the family will gather by the door to see you off. They will invite you to come back again soon—to celebrate an upcoming festival day, to have dinner, or to help their child practice English. You say you would love to.

Over the past two months, I’ve been in more village homes than I can count. I’ve spent the night at a number of Yuwa players’ houses in nearby villages and had small glimpses of their daily routines. It’s difficult to convey what this experience has been like, and I realize I’m characterizing the villagers by grouping them together in the description above.

If you travel for an extended period of time, you must learn to be a good guest.  I am still learning this lesson. It’s not always easy to be constantly receiving the generosity and hospitality of others. After a while, I start to feel like a freeloader. Sometimes I can’t help but reflect on the stark difference between a village family’s lifestyle and my own lifestyle, and I’ll feel guilty about the sacrifices they’re making on my behalf. As a guest, I am always placed on a pedestal—given the only plastic chair, the biggest serving of food, and the best sleeping arrangement available. It’s times like these that I’ve got to check my own pride and recognize that hospitality is not something reserved for certain income levels. The villagers I’ve stayed with have been happy and proud to treat me as their guest. And it’s been an honor to be in their homes.

That said, I’ll have a ton of guest karma built up by the end of this trip. I know when I eventually pay it forward by hosting others—wherever I may be—I’ll be thinking of the lessons on hospitality I’ve been learning in India.