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India: Village girls discover the playground

Sep 14, 2011

A German Hockey Village Project is teaching hockey and English to little girls and boys in the remote Indian village of Garh Himmat Singh in Rajasthan to give them a better life.

Jaipur: It's 5 pm and the girls have started gathering outside the dilapidated fort, a familiar landmark in Garh Himmat Singh, a sleepy Rajasthani village that lies 125 kilometres from the state capital of Jaipur. Hockey practice will start in some minutes.

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Every evening, 15-20 girls and boys scramble to get hold of a hockey stick and start warming up before their daily match.

The girls and boys play on alternate days, but even on the girls' day out, the boys hover around keen to get some time on the field after their sports hour is over.

Sanika Khandelwal, 11, has barely learnt to dribble the ball properly, but when her coach, German Antje Weidemann, shouts 'shoot', she hits it past the goalkeeper, Sangram Singh. "It's a goal," Weidemann announces, even as a jubilant Sanika slaps the upraised palm of her proud coach. Frustrated, the goalkeeper, all of six years and the youngest member of the group, hits the hockey on the goalpost and says, "Not again!"

Change in social attitudes

There was a time when seeing young girls on the sports field would have been unthinkable in these parts. But things are changing in Garh Himmat Singh. And this change has come because of a unique project initiated by Andrea Thumshirn, 36, a first league hockey player from Germany.

Thumshirn, who has been playing since she was six, first came to India in 1998 and instantly "fell in love with the people". Subsequently there were many repeat journeys till she decided to set up a travel agency in Berlin that specialises in creating tailor-made trips to Southeast Asia. It was on one of her trips that her Jaipur-based Indian partner, Dilip Singh Chauhan, took her to Garh Himmat Singh, where his family lives in a part of the garh (fort) - the rest is in ruins.

It's a village of over 4,000 people and most of them survive on farming. There are five schools - four government-run and one that is privately run. There is no doctor, water comes for a few hours only and electricity is through generators. In short, this is a village typical to these forgotten parts. But something about Garh Himmat Singh struck a cord with Thumshirn.

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She recalls, "We took a walk in the small lanes and even visited some schools. I saw children sitting on the stone floor. The conditions were bad: Two teachers were responsible for four classes at the same time! English lessons were on the time table but since the teachers themselves couldn't speak the language, no one expected them to teach it to the kids. I saw a lot of English books lying around untouched in the principal's room. That's when I decided to help the children in some way."

It was in 2009 that Garh Himmat Singh saw its first foreign group: Thumshirn brought a mixed hockey team from Germany. Through donations they were able to bring a carpet for the girls' school, some sweaters for the cold winters and school equipment and uniforms for those who couldn't afford them. "That is how it began," she says.

Then in 2010, after the Hockey World Cup, the parents of some German national players, who were en route to Agra, came to the village. This was followed by the arrival of a veterans' hockey team from Vienna, Austria. 

In July 2010, Thumshirn started the Hockey Village India project to train the local kids in hockey and give them English lessons. Dilip's cousin, Chandu, whose family lives in the fort, remembers how when they had asked the villagers to send their daughters for hockey practice, there was no response.

Encouraging young players

"Despite it being the national sport, there is almost no awareness about hockey in villages, and to get girls out to play was next to impossible. At first, we had only boys coming in for practice, but gradually people have understood our intentions and are now sending their daughters, too," says Chandu, who also heads Thumshirn's village project.

"Only months back, we had no idea about how hockey is played and here we were playing a match with experienced players from a prestigious school"

Yogendra Singh Naruka,13, Caption of the village team

"We first got sponsored sticks from India - mixed labels - then we got Tornados and then I brought some secondhand sticks and TK sticks from Germany as the Indian sticks, unfortunately, were not of good quality. Recently we have got Nawaz sticks from Pakistan. I collected a hundred pairs of sports shoes at a kids' tournament in Berlin and brought them here," Thumshirn says, brimming with enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, an Under-14 village team was formed. The average age for the boys was 10-11 years. Talking about the team composition and its prospects, Thumshirn says, "It's very important to start hockey at a very early age. In Germany, we start even earlier. But in India, only a few teams are really under-14, so it is hard to find tournaments for us to play at."

Nevertheless, the players were told to practice regularly for a special match in Jaipur. Those who didn't practice for two-three days at a stretch were asked to return their shoes. That was how, on a bright day in August this year, 14 boys and seven girls took a train to Jaipur to play their first match - against the U14 team of Delhi Public School. Thumshirn's team lost 6-0, but they had a victory of a different kind: They were richer in terms of experience and exposure.

Yogendra Singh Naruka, 13, the captain of the village team, puts it this way, "Only months back, we had no idea about how hockey is played and here we were playing a match with experienced players from a prestigious school. We were completely outplayed on the field but I can't even tell you how valuable an experience like this was for all of us." In Jaipur, the children met former Indian goalkeeper Baljit Singh Darwal, who joined them for lunch, while former national coach, Harendra Singh, came to Garh Himmat Singh a day earlier to play with the boys. It was on that day that Weidemann and her friend Judith Woeff joined the village project as volunteers.

Volunteers for the project

Thumshirn reveals that she had started getting volunteers for the project from last summer. "Two French girls stayed here for six weeks. Then a German girl was here for two months. There was a long gap in thewinter because I was struggling with my business in Berlin and didn't find time to select volunteers. But in March this year, two German girls came for three months and Antje and Judith are here for six weeks," she says. The volunteers, mostly students and hockey players from Germany, pay for their travel and food - Rs 300 a day. Chandu provides them with free accommodation, two mud houses with limited electricity and water supply.

This is Weidemann's and Woeff's first trip out of Germany and it's not easy living in a village. "It's difficult staying at a place where power often plays truant and water is scarce. The other day when Judith was midway through a shower, the water supply failed. But it's fun teaching. We wash their sport shirts by hand and prepare for the English lessons when we are not teaching them hockey," says Weidemann, who, along with Woeff, finished school just this year.

The youngsters teach English in the afternoons in a makeshift classroom in the village temple. Says Woeff, "It is very difficult to teach when you don't know the mother tongue. Children here have never learnt to learn; at school, they only repeat but don't understand. But we want them to one day play on a higher level and get jobs - through hockey - outside the village. And, for this, they need to know English."

Today, Thumshirn is already planning a hockey academy here to provide full education combined with hockey. Says she, "We simply want to give the kids a better life through sports and education."

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