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Interview: Chuli Scarfe sports psychology student, girls’ cricket coach

18 January 2012

‘I’m trekking in the mountains and think, “My goodness! What am I doing here?”’

I’m a final-year sports psychology student at London Metropolitan University. It’s quite a new field in this country — not in Australia or the United States. I suppose it’s been going for about 20 or 30 years.

I was the CMS [Church Mission Society] area co-ordinator for the London and Chelmsford dioceses for nearly 15 years. I took re­dundancy when they moved to Oxford, because I wanted to stay in London. I’m still connected with Asia CMS as they develop a separate id­entity, based in Asia.

I wanted to turn my redundancy into something creative, and I had a background in psychotherapy. Com­bining that with sport was ideal for me — bringing together my first loves. Redundancy can be quite trau­matic, but I wanted to do something positive and creative.

My joke is that I was born young. I’m a mature student, but I’ve always been involved with young people in church, and youth work, and I don’t feel out of place. There are about three or four of us mature students [on the course], out of about 20.

I keep fit, and I did the gym-and-fitness qualification at the YMCA as part of my course. And, of course, life experience enhances your work in the psychological world.

Is sport just physical? It’s mental, too. Cricket is a mental game: there’s lots of things hidden within the sport. Psychology can enhance mot­ivation and confidence, especially in girls. Girls are very often self-conscious — many have issues to their self-image. This was the subject of my disserta­tion: comparing girls playing cricket in London and Kathmandu.

Our physical well-being is impor­t­ant, and it carries a mental aspect as well. Being physically active, whether it’s sport, dance, or housework, en­­ergises and motivates us. I know that sport is enjoyable for me; it helps my confidence and builds my self-esteem.

I went to Nepal in 2010 with CMS, to contribute to the South Asia Christian Youth Network, a network of youth leaders in South Asia, gathering to support and nurture their ministries. I led a group of youth leaders from the UK, and ran some workshops there. There were over 200 young adults, and some of them were involved in sports.

The Nepalese youth workers spoke to me about the lack of sport in their schools, especially for girls in sec­ondary schools, and one thing led to another. . .

The Christian Sports Fellowship of Nepal invited me to come over for a month. I spent time in Kathmandu and Pokhara working with sec­ondary-school girls, mostly early in the mornings and in the after­noons. The schools often have very few facilities for sports, and there is per­haps only one period of PE a week, if that.

The girls really responded and en­joyed the cricket. They had seen cricket only on TV, and thought it was just for men and boys. I’m really hoping the Christian Sports Fellow­ship will do the follow up.

Most of the girls were Hindu, and the dress code was not a problem. They would change into tracksuits, jeans, and trainers to play.

Some interesting stories came out. One group used to keep themselves fit by getting up at 5.30 a.m. to run to school — even though their school day was from 6 a.m. to 8 at night. They certainly heightened my level of motivation.

They were fantastic! They really enjoyed learning to bowl over-arm, especially spin-bowling. That’s why I’ve been trying to find some cricket clubs for them. I heard that Nepal has a female cricket team, but I’ve yet to find out how they recruit, because I couldn’t find any clubs for the girls. It’s a male-dominated culture, and everything is geared for them.

I am exploring various sports coach­ing jobs, when I complete my dissertation and viva, but I want to keep my options open. I de­f­initely want to go back to Nepal and work with Asia CMS to develop outreach through sport: cricket, athletics, basket­­­­ball, and badminton. It’s my pas­­sion and my dream.

I raised the money to go to Nepal by teaching salsa at various church functions. Salsa events are an ideal way to do outreach in churches. I learned salsa many moons ago in New York, when hardly anyone in London was dancing it. My aunt’s students, mostly from the Latino world, took me to a salsa club there. I had learned rock-and-roll and jive when I was a child, but when I saw salsa I thought: “Wow! I want to learn that,” and studied with a Cuban dance teacher in London.

Churches that are keen on mission could host an evening, cook Spanish or Latin American food, and dec­orate their halls, and invite the local com­munity. It was a privilege to dance with a 90-year-old Cuban at one of these events.

My family are all scattered around the US and Sri Lanka, where I was born. My mum died nearly 15 years ago, but my dad is still in Sri Lanka.

I’m married to an Englishman. I’ve had to work through all the cross-cultural stuff. When I’m in Asia, I want to be back in England, and when I’m in England I want to be back in Asia. . . I have struggled with my identity, and issues relating to belonging, but training in psycho­therapy, and having a personal super­­visor, has helped me to reflect on things.

My most important choice? Falling in love, I think.

I have a very independent streak in me. My joke is that I’m independent but also married; so when I travel on my own, I am troubled when I’m always asked at the airport: “Where’s your husband?” That’s the way they package you.

It was interesting how young people in Nepal reacted to that. They dress in a Western way, but in reality they are very tied to their cultural heritage. They found it strange that I was living and travelling on my own. Some young chaps would come and collect me to take me to schools on the bus. Yes, it’s very nice to be looked after, but there’s a limit, and sometimes I’d just wanted to hop on the bus and get there on time.

The hospitality was overwhelming. Sometimes I would invite them to where I was living, and we’d have a big salsa gig, and I would cook food — either Western or Asian.

I’m someone who always looks forward. Yes, I look back and reflect and evaluate, but no regrets. My good­­ness, I think I’m a go-getter!

Jesus said that he came to give life in all its fullness. I’d like it to be said of me that I lived life to the full — that I had empowered girls and women, too, not just in sport but in all of my life.

My mum and my aunt influenced me. Mum was a deeply spiritual person, but also loving and caring. I wanted to absorb her qualities and values, and she was a homemaker. My aunt in the US I always admired be­cause she balanced career, mother­hood, and spirituality. She has always challenged me, and we have a great rapport.

I go back to The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, again and again. It’s all about a toy being real, and it’s good to get away from all the psychological jargon. But I also re-read Donald Winnicott’s Playing and Reality.

I love 1 Corinthians 13, and read it in different translations. And the very vulnerable part of me likes the book of Jonah. I can identify with him — I want to do a runner sometimes, especially in another culture, when I’m trekking in the mountains or on a bus, and think, “My goodness, Chuli! What am I doing here?” I don’t really like the gory and violent parts of the Old Testament.

I love cities — I’m a city-girl, and get withdrawal symptoms when I’m away from them. Hong Kong, Mumbai, Poona, San Francisco, Durban — and New York, the city that never sleeps. I go back to that city and burn the candle at both ends, getting up to visit a museum in the morning and dancing in a club all night.

Kids dying of starvation and malnutrition and ill-health, when so much money is spent on weapons — that’s what goes deep into me.

I’m happiest when I’m with kids and young people. They stretch my imagination, and keep me on my toes with all the creativity they bring.

I would have chosen kids to be my companions if I was locked in a church, but when push comes to shove . . . I don’t like church buildings, and don’t like being boxed in; so there’s one person who might help me to cope in that situation — my dad. We’d have a good old argy-bargy about politics (my dad’s a journalist), travel, and family life, and probably a good punch-up, too; and then we’d end up with a sing-song, and my dad would play the guitar or banjo or ukulele, or whatever instrument that is lying around.

Chuli Scarfe was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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