“The moment that I kicked a football I forgot everything.”

As witnessed at the bustling fish market at Sasson dock earlier that morning, work in the fishing industry is hard. The fishermen spend days out at sea in unseaworthy vessels and return with an ever-decreasing catch. The market itself is full of smells and sounds as the night’s catch is bought and sold. Women push past eager not to miss out – their focus on the job in hand is absolute. The colour of their saris and the flags of the fishing boats do little to alleviate the gloom that pervades.

The quote sounds as if it had been said by a multi-millionaire Premier League football player. In fact, they are the words of an inspiring young man who grew up with nothing in the fishing community of Mumbai, India. His name is Ashok Rathod and the name of his charity, which spawned from his enthusiasm, is the Oscar Foundation which uses football to inspire change.

I was walking through the fishing community with Ashok. He was very quick to use the word – community – as opposed to the more derogatory word of slum. For him it is about individuals and neighbourhoods and he does not believe people should be labelled as to where they come from.

Back in the fishing community, children run riot on the narrow dirty spaces between the houses. Their parents are out at sea or still at the market. These children have nothing to occupy themselves. Except that is for the Oscar Foundation. Ashok points out a tiny room accessed by a rickety ladder in which six children sit on the floor reading battered books that have been donated from charities. In another room, eight older children are coming to grips with the heat, bulky computers and a scratchy mouse. It is not much, but it is a start for these children that they cling on to for dear life. The Oscar Foundation rents these threadbare rooms and trains the helpers/teachers.

Ashok turns a corner and we are in a narrow dark alley. My eyes adjust to the dimness as Ashok knocks on a door announcing, “This is my parents’ house. They will not be here but maybe my brother’s children.”

He opens a door to a room of about seven feet by seven feet, the walls lined neatly with pots and pans. A gas plate for cooking in the top left-hand corner and place for washing in the right.  In the bottom corner are some wooden steps which lead to another level where his parents and nephews sleep at night. His brother and his wife sleep downstairs in the room in which we are.

We emerge from the fishing community and further down the road enter the laundry community. The walls of the houses are painted in bright colours, the roofs are crammed full of drying clothes, sheets and towels. I am disbelieving that in this melee of laundry, items are not lost. But as throughout India, there is a system that navigates the chaos.

Next, we head to the Maidan, a communal field near to Mumbai University where cricket, as it does with the rest of India, dominates. The Oscar Foundation team occupy a dusty corner.

“Why did you not focus on cricket?” I ask Ashok.

“Because I had nothing, as do the boys and girls we work with. You need bat and a ball for cricket and then later on pads and the rest. With football, all I needed was a football, even if it was homemade.”

Ashok inspects the worksheet of the young man taking the practice. The template is impressive – asking for details on warm up, skills, timings and all with diagrams – as is all of the Oscar Foundation. It is the attention to detail and structure that enables the Oscar Foundation to encourage leaders to mobilize communities. It is about empowering others at grass-roots to spread the word rather than relying on the Foundation to do so. It stimulates self-reliance and independence.

The boys and girls – Oscar Foundation does not discriminate – look immaculate in their red shirts and shorts and white socks. I am surprised not to see them so well turned out but at the expense of kitting everyone out. I ask, “Does everyone in the foundation get a shirt, shorts and socks?”

“When we first started, the Muslims used to stick together and so too the Hindus. The people from the laundry community would not mix with those from the fishing community. Once we gave them some kit, all that changed,” replied Ashok. The power of uniform.

This in essence is what the Oscar Foundation does. It brings children together who have little or no hope and shows them a path forward. It gives them a confidence.

Thanks for reading

Justin Wateridge

Author: Justin Wateridge