03 May 2011

Not so quiet on the Mid-Western front

I made my first trip to Mid-Western Nepal last week.

To be perfectly blunt, I’ve never really heard anyone say anything positive about the Mid-West and given that I had to go through some notorious areas of Uttar Pradesh to reach Nepalgunj, the largest city in the region, I was a bit on edge about the whole trip.

Nepalgunj proved to be much different than I anticipated. It is a bustling border-town not much different than many of the small cities across the country. In fact it is far more spread-out and seemed to have a lot more hotels and restaurants compared to many of the towns I frequently visit in Eastern Nepal. True to its name, the majority of the locals are Nepali speaking.
Bageshwari Temple of Nepalgunj
Western Nepal, that is to say the areas west of Pokhara and Butwal, now designated Mid-Western and Far-Western regions, are perhaps the poorest areas of the country. It was in these same lands that much of the Maoist insurgency gained momentum in its early years.

Poverty in the West is not limited to economic deprivation. Historically, sporting accomplishments by athletes and teams from the far-flung Western regions have also been poor. Locals point to bad role models as a major culprit. While Eastern Nepal’s proximity to West Bengal and Northeast India – a hotbed of Indian sport, helped them develop their sporting prowess, Far-West and Mid-West Nepal had an uninspiring mentor in Uttar Pradesh.

From anecdotal evidences I saw on my brief trip to Banke district (which includes Nepalgunj and the burgeoning highway town of Kohalpur), sports in the Mid-West is waking-up.

The tide has already turned in one area – women’s sports. The successes of womens’ national teams in football and certainly in cricket have been fueled by a roster stacked with Western ladies. Embarrassingly, that is the one sports development question this so called sports development expert forgot to ask during my trip – “Why is the Mid-West producing so many female athletes?” I’ll be sure to get the answer soon.

Oshonik Club is one club that has contributed to the development of womens sports in the region. For several years they have been conducting football clinics for girls across Banke district. With dozens of lady footballers as alumni, they now have a strong pool of players to form teams from and as expected do very well in womens and girls tournaments in the region. Club officials decided to begin with ladies football training as they felt it would be easier to manage compared to boys training which tends to be rife with egos and indiscipline.

Now though, the club has become gender neutral as they have also begun under-12 training for boys. There are currently around 35 trainees who are practicing at a small field owned by a local private school. The club hopes to branch out its training to other neighborhoods of Nepalgunj to increase accessibility.

Oshonik Club's Under-12 training
Oshonik Club and its president Bhoj Raj Sahi have some big plans for the future and look to emulate best practices of similar types of clubs from across the globe. As superstition dictates it’s better to show than to tell, so I’ll have to keep their ambitious plans under wraps for now. Let’s just say this is one club in Nepal that “gets it”.

A few kilometers north of Nepalgunj I visited the public field in Kohalpur town. One of the strongest teams in the district – Siddhartha Club was training there. Who said they don’t play football in Western Nepal? The boys from Siddhartha looked the part and were as good as any local level football club I have seen. If they are a representative snapshot of what the Western regions have to offer – then the big Kathmandu Valley based clubs would do well to send a few scouts over there.
Siddhartha Club training in Kohalpur
This was a football centric trip but while I was touring the government sports complex back in Napalgunj I bumped into national badminton player Anil Lakhe who was training around two dozen under 12 boys and girls inside the covered-hall. I immediately assumed he must be a sports teacher at a rich private school and coaching a few of his well-to-do students. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that on his own initiative he was developing an academy style training program, open to all, to groom the next generation of badminton players. Much like Bhoj Raj Shahi and a few others I had met on this trip, Anil seemed to have a certain fire and spirit about him which surely is good news for the future of sports in the Mid-West.
A brief chat with football friends from Banke
Certainly all these anecdotes are not out to prove that Nepalgunj/Banke is fast becoming the People’s Republic of China of Nepali sports. They face all the same sporting sector challenges that virtually every area in Nepal faces and I am sure had I spent more time there I would have come across the darker side of sports in the region. But while sport in many parts of the country is flatlining, it is good to know that at least in this one corner it has a pulse.