It’s been a long journey from Berlin to India for Andrea Thumshirn (37), the founder of ‘Garh Himmat’ and ‘Hockey Village India’. In a tete-a-tete with SheThePeople.TV, Andrea spoke about how she grew up in a small town called Schwabach in the south of Germany and how she took up hockey at the age of 6 and never stopped till date. Her entire family is engaged as coaches in a local sports club there.
Villages Thumshirn works with Jatwara in Rajasthan, Busawal outside Mumbai and Sanguem Goa
She was greatly influenced by her grandfather, who was into fencing, and her grandmother, a gymnast. Being a daughter of a volleyball player and a gymnast, Andrea found her calling in hockey. Following a slipped disc and subsequent surgery, Andrea played for the Berlin Sports Club. And then she moved to India.
From Berlin to Garh Himmat: How did it all start? How did you end up teaching hockey to rural kids?
After my surgery, I was advised not to play hockey. I studied fashion design, but my passion was sports, so I never found the time and dedication for my studies. I travelled a lot during that time and discovered various places in Asia. I learnt a lot from travelling and thought I should make it my profession. I started studying Tourism Marketing and got a job as a Product Manager for Asia in a travel agency in Berlin later.
After 3 years of hard work, I started my own company. Many times in a year I travelled to Indonesia, the Philippines and India. In 2010, I arranged a Hockey trip for a bunch of young Hockey players from all over Germany to India where we played in different cities against local teams and had some cultural programme in between. My local business partner showed us a little village halfway between Agra and Jaipur where we stopped over for lunch. Time seemed to stand still there and it seemed like the ideal place to see and experience the real India. This village later became my Hockey Village.
While travelling through, my business partner and I thought that we could teach the kids a little English so that they could guide the guests. The local family could have some extra income by serving lunch and the whole village would slowly open up. On one such visit, I thought how bored a child must be if there was no sports infrastructure around. So I brought some hockey sticks and gave it a try. I was still most of the time in Germany but found it very challenging to coach in the village and make a change. The kids went crazy playing and we had a little dusty ground in front of the fort where we could practise. I started bringing German volunteers to the village and they would stay for some time and teach English and Hockey. But it was too much to ask for from these young school graduates to manage all that on their own. So I started thinking about shifting to the village. That idea was growing in my head and in October 2011, I sold all that I had and said goodbye to my friends and family and shifted to that village. I reconstructed 2 rooms in the ruins of the fort where I and the volunteers would live.
Facilities were very basic with frequent power cuts and dirty water. It was hot and humid, dusty and sandy and in winter, it got very cold. “If the villagers survive, I will as well” became my mantra…. We had sandstorms, monsoon floods, I had bats in my room and every now and then dogs and goats would come to my room as the lock of the door was broken. In the village nothing was available like tools to make my room nicer, some fruits or any restaurant. Very late I found out that there is a liquor store behind the fort but it was not appropriate for a woman to have a drink. I went there every alternate day to buy a bottle of beer. I was the attraction of the village….I had to learn that there were either alcoholics or non-drinkers.
Being a former German Hockey player, what inspired you to start ‘Garh Himmat’ and ‘Hockey Village India’?
I started coaching children at a very early age. I always had tears in my eyes when my girls were winning an important match. I thought that I could create something unique and that sports would change the lives of so many children – especially girls. The joy of giving became like a drug for me and I spent all my money for the kids to make them happy.
What is your long-term vision behind these two projects of yours?
I want to see one of my kids wearing the Indian shirt and I want to see them in good jobs, giving back to their families and society what I gave them earlier. I want to run more Hockey Villages and schools and prove that sports and education as a combination is the key to success.
What has been the most touching moment you’ve experienced as a coach?
I adopted 3 boys in the village. I am taking care of their education and one of them is living with me like my real son – he is from Goa. The other 2 live with their families but are with me during the weekends. We spend holidays and outings together and they are wonderful human beings.
In May this year (2016), we conducted a Summer Camp in an orphanage in Odissa for 2 weeks. I wanted to see if this could be our next Hockey Village. I sent my 3 boys and 3 of our Hockey girls along with a German volunteer and a local coach. The orphans had a fantastic time and our Rajasthan kids did a great job as assistant coaches. They understood that there are children in their country who have even less than them. So my seed of giving back has grown in them and they understood what life is all about. I am very proud of them. They are very eager to go back and coach again.
Do you face any struggles for sponsors to continue with your passion to teach hockey to the kids?
Oh yes a lot of struggles. Almost all my money comes from Germany. In India it is very difficult to get funds even if it is for their own country. We are making a Hockey ground at the moment and I was asking local companies to support me with material without any success….
We have read news about the issue you faced battling abuse and adversity. How did you overcome them?
I try to understand where that urge to abuse me comes from. It is a deep inherent jealousy which is not meant against me personally. Villagers, especially in this area, are of very low mentality. They are not open to new things and they are jealous and greedy. The easiest way is to spread rumours and pull that person down again. People did not understand why I do all that, what is my motive. At the beginning it hurt me a lot, but I started feeling pity with them rather than getting angry. I feel that Indian hockey needs a good grassroots program and better infrastructure. Too much politics is involved in sports.
What are the chances for girls to play hockey in the villages or overall in India? Do they get as much exposure as they deserve?
Of course not. Sports for girls is still seen as a chance for girls of poor families to earn some money, even if professional sports girls earn only a small share of what boys would earn, but that is even in Germany like this in most games. Many girls are coming to our girls and ask how they can join our academy. They see how we deal with the kids and how we coach them. We have a different approach towards the game. First of all the girls should enjoy to play – dedication will come later. If I give them the chance to develop and expose themselves, half of the battle is won.
Any future plans of sending your kids for nationals?
Well nationals are always the target. Until now we were not able to send anybody as we were not acknowledged by the Rajasthan Hockey Association. Now the cards are mixed again and we hope for the best. The kids are burning to present the state!
What are your biggest challenges?
I have to live with the mindset of the villagers who assume that I have an unlimited resource of money and that somehow I would make money out of their children too. Recently I was blamed to have said something against Muslims so all the Muslim kids stopped coming. Children from my English Medium School stopped coming because people say that kids are only playing in my school and they don’t learn anything.
What would be your advice for the girls who aspire to make a career in sports?
Do what you love to do – play, sweat, fight, win or lose. Be a team player, a leader, a goal-getter or a goal keeper, enjoy the game and see what life brings.