Sunday, October 31, 2010

field of dreams

1. Alive! Sorry to give no prior indication! How are you!
2. At my newspaper this week, we published a Diwali-special issue about giving, with a focus on organisations who work with the urban poor. One of our stories highlighted the work of people who use football as a developmental tool to work with underprivileged children in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. You can read that story here and read the whole giving issue here. Below, I reproduce an extended version of the story I wrote, about the Mumbai-based football aid organisation, Magic Bus. You can read more about Magic Bus and find ways to contribute to their work - no matter where in the world you may be - here

The slum neighbourhoods and informal settlements of India’s cities are often hubs of economic activity. Their productivity usually extracts high prices from their residents in terms of health, nutritional resources and opportunities for sustainable progress. In these high-risk, stressful environments, the idea of sports and recreation for a vulnerable population of children from marginalized areas can seem a little whimsical. Why would anyone get them to play in the time they could be taking more classes, or learning a vocational skill?

The most direct answer is that sport, of course, is essential to developing life skills. All the desires attendant to introducing children to a culture of sport – from wanting them to make friends with others, to wanting a future sports star in the family – are universal, but they are an afterthought to a more fundamental idea. Children have the right to play.

Perhaps no other structured sport admits how universal this idea is, than football. It has thrived throughout the world even without, and sometimes in defiance of, sporting infrastructures. It encourages female participation even in rigidly gendered societies, across class and sometimes across age. Unlike cricket and many racquet sports, it does not require a plethora of equipment. As footballers of all shapes and sizes have proven, it doesn’t even have definite physical requirements, like height or build. It is a simple game: a ball, a bit of open space, and a general consensus on where the goal should be.

This is why it is also a billion-dollar industry of professionals and pro tournaments, one in which Indians do not yet play a major part. But even as more and more children wearing replica jerseys of English clubs and expensive boots trickle on to city maidans and school grounds, the sport’s parallel character can engage children who perhaps do not dream of playing for FC Barcelona or Manchester United; who may not even know when they start out that they could one day be eligible to play on India’s national teams. For them, as for children across the world, it can be a chance to experience a level playing field, and learn crucial values: teamwork, foresight, tactical thinking, respect and fair play. Football is no substitute for formal education, as all sports-for-development organizations emphasise. But neither is it an activity that compels children to accept its gifts. They look forward to going to out to play.

In a country where less than 10% of young people have access to sporting infrastructure, perhaps no game is more crucial to a promising future. It may not be a future with a glamorous, money-powered league or a World Cup victory, but those are not football’s only metrics of success.

On Magic Bus

Ten years ago, Parvati Pujari, then aged nine, found herself on a three-day games trip to Dahanu. “I’d never taken a trip before,” she says. “And it was total fun – we played games and went trekking, did lots of creative activity.” Two months after that, Magic Bus, the organization who took her on that trip, turned up again, this time to play football with her and the other kids.

“At first, I didn’t think very much about what I was doing,” she remembers. “The things I know now – to strike the ball with the inside of the foot, to dribble, the skills, the laws – they came later.” She loved the game, and learned well. Now a 19-year-old with a Diploma in Physical Education and a commerce student at Siddhartha College, Mumbai, Pujari is still with Magic Bus, as a mentor and trainer for children in what is among the city’s oldest and most famous sports-for-development programme.

Several of her fellow trainers at Magic Bus are young men and women like her, giving children from Mumbai’s most disadvantaged areas the chance to learn crucial lessons about their lives and abilities – but most of all, just a chance to play. “There are a lot of NGO’s addressing health, education, nutrition for children from marginalized areas,” explains Sohan Shah, head of sustainability at Magic Bus. “And that kind of symptomatic work is necessary. But we do something lateral.”

Magic Bus, founded in 1999, first became famous for their unique developmental ideals, which integrated some of the philosophies of Patanjali yoga, based on self-questioning and assessing the individual’s relationship with the world, with an idea so fundamental it is often overlooked: children have the right to play, and to have fun. From its early beginnings with day trips and training in rugby and football, Magic Bus has evolved a formidable curriculum that can span a decade. “Our beginners come to us between the ages of seven to nine, usually, and stay until they are 17 or 18,” Shah says. Perhaps because of their deliberate approach, rates of attrition are miraculously low.

Sustainability is important to Magic Bus. Their programme touches 3000 children a year in Mumbai, at over fifty locations across the city, but they aim to reach a million children within the next three years, through a nationwide expansion of the Magic Bus programme in other cities and through rural India. Their ‘Train the Trainers’ system for rural areas trains coaches from within the community to work with children across hundreds of villages.

Magic Bus has been aggressive about setting up effective partnerships to aid their goals. Their work has attracted attention from UNICEF and training initiatives from English Premier League clubs like Manchester United and Aston Villa, and received support from civic authorities and sports organizations throughout Mumbai and India. But their local networks are just as crucial. “Once parents are sure that you aren’t there to take advantage of their kids, they’re happy to support Magic Bus,” Shah says. “For many of them, it’s an opportunity to give the children what they never had. Some communities have helped us by cleaning up disused and neglected public spaces for the children to play.”

Magic Bus curricula are wide-ranging and incessantly reviewed to stay relevant to children, but football remains crucial to the balance of life and sports skills they set out to teach. All of Magic Bus’ developmental goals – purposeful living, responsible behaviour, social cohesion, self-esteem and self-efficacy – seem to progress through football. Their mixed-gender teams encourage gender equality. And over the decades, they envision Magic Bus’ operations dovetailing with the growing sporting infrastructure and culture of the country. Already, a Magic Bus men’s team plays in the First Division league of the Mumbai District Football Association. “They started out in the sixth division,” Shah says. “And they’ve had one of the quickest rises upwards. They’re younger than most of their opponents, but their toughness and mentality has carried them through.”

Later this year, Magic Bus’ women’s team will start to compete, too. One of their defenders will be Parvati Pujari. It has not always been an easy journey. “My parents understand now, but it took a while to convince them,” she says. “Sports may not seem so important when you first think about it, but then how do you know how important something is going to be to a person unless it actually becomes a part of their life? Not everyone is willing to give girls a chance to play, to set them goals, to make them display their talents. In this world, even stepping out of the house means inviting a thousand questions about what you do, where you go, why you do this, what you're getting from it - and then having people tell you, don't do it. But we need to play. And to other girls I would say, you need sports like you need to eat.”

1. Sustainable and strategic partnerships for financial support
2. Communications partners in media and advertising
3. Volunteers committed to at least 2 monthly attendances on field or office work once a week


Din said...

'lo, my mum runs communications for an NGO called Dream a Dream, which does similar 'life skills' work for poor urban kids in Bangalore- they run sports/adventure/arts classes, provide vocational counseling, help with scholarships and so on. I sent her this, and she was
a) very touched that 'someone gets it' and hasn't asked why they don't focus on 'important' academic skills like maths or writing or whatever.
b) most gratified that such programs are finally getting some attention in the press.

You made one lady very, very happy; and allowed her, for once, to be proud of her daughter's friends, so many thanks for the post. It has made my life considerably rosier for a while.

(I posted a version of this comment earlier, but then blogger did weird tricks, so if both show up, use this one?)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article...Further to my post the other day on your tumblr blog under "Ask" utility, I got in touch with them and will be most likely meeting them this week.

Being an avid footballer, I was surprised at myself for not knowing about this organization earlier