To empower and improve rural India, one must focus on every individual from the community, says community activist Ulrike Reinhard. With her initiative Janwaar Castle — India’s first Skatepark — she has revived a rural village in Madhya Pradesh to explore new avenues.
According to her, NGOs working for a certain segment of society do not help in bringing the required change. “I do not believe in initiatives taken for a particular section of people like women’s empowerment or orphaned kids or any other segment. I believe that to improve the living conditions of a particular area or village, one must focus on the community as a whole and use a specific tool as a medium of connection. The fundamental aspects for improvement should be based on cooperate and co-create. In our initiative, the skateboard plays the role of the connecting medium,” says Ulrike.
She came to India from Germany four years ago to attend a conference, but set on a journey to explore the country. Her voyage took her to Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh where she met a family who showed an interest in setting up a school for the villagers. She was excited about the project. But, when it didn’t work out, she envisioned bringing a skateboarding project to the area. That was how Janwaar Castle in Panna, about 90 km from Khajuraho, started.
“The Janwaar Castle is much more than a skatepark. We use it as a powerful tool to strengthen communities and improve young people’s lives, education and aspirations,” says Ulrike and adds, “It’s about uplifting the entire community through a project that brings villagers of all ages together and gives young people a reason to stay and build up Janwaar for future generations.”
Skating is just the attraction and the “cool” sport, says Ulrike. “Unlike cricket or hockey, skateboarding is new for the kids so they’re very curious and eager to learn. It’s attractive, thus somehow makes it ‘cool’. But it also teaches you to fall and rise, take risks and more importantly, maintain balance.” With only two fundamental rules, “No school — no skateboarding” and “Girls first”, the project inculcates self-organisation to young kids. According to her, ownership and responsibility are the basic principles to bring transformation.
Ulrike adds, “The kids don’t have to ask for permission — it’s open for everyone. And it works very well, as they take responsibility of the gear and boards. The positive energy of the kids is now firing the entire village. As Mehmood Khan, a friend and a person with whom I work closely said: ‘I’ve never seen a village changing so fast’.” These simple initiatives have now encouraged children from the neighbourhood to attend school on a regular basis. They are also much more committed and confident about themselves now.
She proudly says, “We’ve certainly brought something precious into their lives. Where this will lead exactly, I don’t know. We now include the villagers in our work, especially the farmers, to move on to the next step and lift up the village as a whole. The children are still the driving force with the skatepark being a major attraction.” Going forward into this year she wants to help locals understand that it doesn’t need much to lead a sustainable life.
“We recently had a workshop with the villagers asking them to jot down the basic problems faced by them. The idea is to find solutions to those problems together,” Ulrike adds.