...Gordon D'Arcy showing some of the kids his rugby skills...
Gordon D'Arcy has just returned from an eye-opening visit to GOAL's projects in Calcutta, India. Here, D'Arcy speaks to IrishRugby.ie about his experiences there, the effect the visit has had on him and his efforts to spread the word about rugby.
I think once you become involved with a charity like GOAL and see what's being done, you just want to know what next'. Such is the effect that seeing Calcutta has had on Gordon, an experience that moved him.
The level of poverty there is shocking, but equally surprising is the positivity people have and how happy they are. When you think of poverty you automatically think of people begging, but in Calcutta, most people I saw were looking to help themselves. Nobody had their hand out.
"Education can change people's lives and sport can be a form of education too."
I was particularly affected by the red light district in Calcutta. The GOAL team had warned me to prepare myself, but I thought, well nothing has really hit me for six yet, I'll be fine'. But as we approached, we saw probably 200 girls lined up on either side of a narrow little street, a 400 strong guard of honour of prostitutes. Some of them couldn't have been 14 years old, as young as my little sister. Girls that age should be enjoying being a kid and not on the side of the road. Of all the things we saw that left the biggest imprint on me.
...Gordon and Paul Byrom with some of the girls at GOAL's halfway house...
I enjoyed seeing GOAL's crhche for the children of sex workers, that really stuck in my mind as a positive intervention. There, mothers who are forced to work can leave their kids in safety. The hope is that, through education, they themselves may be able, with a little help, to break out of the cycle of poverty. I could feel that the kids there were automatically wary of me, of men, because of their own abusive experiences of men. We found that taking photos and showing them to the kids was a great way of breaking down the barriers and once we did that we discovered that these were still just kids underneath it all - amazing kids.
Gordon describes the filth of Calcutta's slums, It was raining when we visited the slums and we got a real sense of what life there is like. Water ran down the middle of the roads and bits of faeces floated on top. We saw a patch of ground with a goal at either end where the kids play soccer - it was pure muck. On our way back, it wasn't the kids who were playing there, it was the slum pigs who were digging through the dirt. We learned that a stagnant pond to the side of the pitch is used for washing, drinking and cooking. GOAL has built a clean water well there and it's the pride of the slum, but otherwise facilities are extremely basic - there aren't even any toilets there. To picture the slums, imagine you are driving along the M50 and take one of the off-ramps. That is where the slum would be, underneath the ramp, by the main road.
"We found that taking photos and showing them to the kids was a great way of breaking down the barriers and once we did that we discovered that these were still just kids underneath it all - amazing kids."
Everything GOAL does in Calcutta and surrounds is inspirational but I was particularly struck by the Sundarbans project.
For the past three years, GOAL has been working in the Sundarbans region of Bengal, a desperately impoverished area which lies at the mouth of the Ganges. A group of isolated islands, only a few hours from Calcutta, the Suderbans are covered by mangrove forests and those who live there cope with inhospitable conditions and severe poverty on a daily basis. Traditionally, huge numbers of locals migrate to Calcutta where it is very likely they will end up living on the streets, desitute and homeles.
Gordon explains, GOAL is transforming one of the islands into a model development with solar panels for some of the houses, lights beside the water fountains, schools and health centres - all designed to make the island more appealing in an attempt to stop locals moving to Calcutta where they would live on the side of the street. Ultimately, people on the islands are probably poorer than people in the city, but their quality of life is much better and GOAL's works to maintain that bringing Indian people together to help each other.
"I think for kids in a place like Calcutta, learning to play a team sport, learning to interact with other kids, could be hugely beneficial"
He made the best of his own particular set of skills to entertain some of the street children in Calcutta. I held a rugby workshop with some of the GOAL kids using the 70 or 80 rugby balls Gilbert were kind enough to supply. Too be honest, I don't think the kids gave a hoot whether I was a soccer player or a rugby player, all they wanted to do was to get the ball and run around (the true spirit of rugby! - Ed) . It is quite a difficult game for people who've never seen it before, so eventually we gave up on the coaching and just had fun.
I think sport does have a role to play in development. Sport doesn't judge, whether you're good or bad you can still get into it. I think for kids in a place like Calcutta, learning to play a team sport, learning to interact with other kids, could be hugely beneficial. Sport can be as simple as learning to ask someone to pass the ball. It's a way of communicating. For damaged children it is a way of learning that there are good people out there. Education can change people's lives and sport can be a form of education too.
I had some preconceived ideas about what India would be like but I was not prepared for the fact that the work actually being done completely surpasses any ideas I had. It put a smile on my face.
"To see the work being done put a smile on my face"
But I do think it's important to tell people that the Irish concept of poverty in Calcutta, the image of people living in shacks on the side of the street, doesn't describe the slums where the real poverty is. Most people don't know that those living on the side of the streets probably have some source of income, a stall, whatever. People in the slums have nothing.
Gordon D'Arcy was accompanied on the trip by tenor and star of RTE's Celebrity Jigs & Reels, Paul Byrom.
For More on GOAL go to www.goal.ie