When two worlds collide
Two girls football teams from starkly different places discover more fusion than friction when their two worlds collide.
Sakten village, Trashigang Bhutan, 21 January 2018 - The picturesque village of Sakten, up in the Bhutanese highlands, is a hardscrabble place with a population of some 2,000 hardy, semi-nomadic inhabitants.
It may not have the pedigree,, amenities, roads, or even the lushness of other villages in its district but Sakten is a treasured, spirited and vital place, away from the uproar of modernity that has blanketed much of the Bhutanese landscape.
Sakten can boast proudly of characteristic trees, animals, birds, plants, a school, a Basic Health Unit, a monastery, and, mystifyingly, a football squad of young girls with abundant talent and grit.
Apart from showing the expected characteristics of a mountain village, Sakten also boasts of a highly talented girls’ football squad.
Affectionately called the ‘barefooted girls,’ the Sakten girls cut their teeth on squashing all challenges that came their way. Their invincibility earned them considerable public attention and the title of Kuengyel (champions) in 2016 when they defeated every other team in the eastern region of the country.
That changed everything for them. In fact, it began to turn perceptions of this often forgotten and cut-off community upside down.
It all began in December, 2016, when UNICEF partnered with Thimphu City FC to chalk out a football event in the capital, Thimphu, and sent out an invitation to the young Sakten squad to participate. It was thought the event would have the added benefit of allowing Sakten’s highland lasses to see firsthand the capital city and a different way of life. The football event and other planned activities would allow them opportunities to feel empowered and perhaps become agents of change when they returned home.
For some of the ecstatic girls, it was their first and longest journey ever outside their village.
“Being invited to Thimphu was like a dream come true for us. The buildings, cars, lights and people we’d seen in the movies always awed us.”
“Most of us come from families of yak-herders and we hadn’t even set foot in Trashigang. Being invited to Thimphu was like a dream come true for us. The buildings, cars, lights and people we’d seen in the movies always awed us. We wanted to experience all of that. We wanted to meet our favorite actors,” says 18-year-old midfielder, Pema Choki, and quickly disappears into the crowd desperately trying not to cackle.
Her teammate, Thukten Yangzom, recounts the visit with the same fervor.
“Playing on an artificial pitch and wearing football boots was difficult for us. We quickly conceded a goal against Pelkhil School during the first half of our first game,” she says. “So, in the second half, we requested to take off our boots. Playing barefoot like we were used to, we equalized quickly and also put in a second goal to win the match.”
Almost a year has passed since that memorable outing to the capital. Yet conversing with the girls even now, it becomes obvious how their trip last December was fun-filled, beneficial and educational.
“The trip to Thimphu was a wonderful learning experience for us. We visited a lot of places, institutions and organizations. We were educated on a lot of issues including child protection, girls’ empowerment, sanitation and menstrual hygiene,” says Karma Zomba, a member of the old squad. “All that we learnt there, we try and impart to the younger girls in our school.”
In Thimphu, the Sakten girls lost to City Girls FC in their final game but, as they proudly insist, they won over many hearts and a solid fan base.
“This is the first time that Sakten has been in the news, not for yaks and nomads but for football”
On 9 October 2017, in a reciprocal gesture, the Sakten Girls hosted the Thimphu City Girls FC on their home turf, the field at the lower secondary school. A sizable contingent of the semi-nomadic community’s residents crowded into the school’s football ground to watch its team take on the more outgoing and flamboyant visitors.
A minute of silence was observed before the match for Sangay Dema, the former captain of the Sakten Girls football team, who passed away this year unexpectedly when the school assembly was in session.
But as the whistle blew, and the game kicked-off, chants of “Go, Sakten, go,” reverberated throughout the school football ground. The home team, fielding much younger players than the club, eventually lost 4-3 in what was a grueling contest. Yet, most impressively, this long-shot team’s achievement thus far has managed to lift its community from feeling marginalized and neglected. It has made the community feel part of the mainstream and filled local hearts with pride.
“This is the first time that Sakten has been in the news, not for yaks and nomads but for football,” says the Vice Principal of Sakten Lower Secondary School, Pema Dorji. “UNICEF support has done a lot for the Sakten girls football team and for the community by showing that we are not forgotten but cared for.”
For the visiting team too, whose members were experiencing highland living for the very first time, it was a “once-in-a-lifetime learning experience and a wonderful one at that,” according to the team captain Ugyen Wangmo.
“For us (the team), this is our first visit to Sakten,” she said. “Everyone here is well behaved and very respectful. But, most of all, everyone here is much deeper rooted in culture and traditions than we are in the city. We can learn a lot more from them than they can from us.”
She adds that they realize now that despite all the differences in the two teams, they are still very similar and share the same aspirations.