|Riding on a skateboard|
|SKATEBOARDING has had an incredible impact on many young lives. A sport they used to watch with enthusiasm on television is right here with them. Esther Namugoji visited the only skate park in Uganda
Hidden near the reclaimed marshes of Kitintale is a little island of entertainment that runs on the endless fuel of adrenaline and sheer zeal.
Children from the neighbourhood gather along a chain link fence that surrounds a cemented floor flanked by curved walls on either end. Their attention is glued to the action buzzing within.
Swift as swallows, a number of youth zoom from one side to the other on skateboards, their speed leaving a blur of coloured zigzags in the air.
They ride up on the quarter pipe, reach the tip and titter dangerously for a moment before launching back down to the slant at the opposite end.
The children cheer their favourites and jeer when an attempted fete flops in collapsing boards and painful-looking, but safe landings.
We have read about the blade runners who have taken over Kampala streets with their roller skates. But here is a group whose passion shouts out, “Move over bladerunners, here come the skateboarders!”
They may not be as well equipped as some rich kids, but their skills are already awesome. They are too cool for the slum neighbourhood where the only skateboard park in Uganda, and possibly East Africa, is located.
Granted, it is only a small structure, but the potential for this extreme sport is not small at all.
Add to that the fact that it was personally put together by eager young people, and you have a winning story. No wonder the kids outside the fence are so hooked.
But if there is no audience to cheer them, the young skateboarders will do it themselves. “Nice Boy ajje?” Nicholas ‘Nice Boy’ announces his impending take off before he swoops down with showy moves that draw whoops of approval from his colleagues.
Should his performance fall short, quite literally, he will pick himself up with a huge grin and a chuckle. The playful jibes following him are taken in stride.
These boys are never discouraged. It is a wonder to see young boys go for complex moves without the added security of helmets, elbow or knee guards.
There are just a few sets to go around and so only the very young and inexperienced have the benefit of using them.
“Nabagamba bakole ku guardi ya kabina, tebawulira (I always say they should make ‘bumguards’, but they never listen),” one boy quips, while rubbing his sore bottom after a fall.
As for skateboards, thanks to donations from well-wishers around the world, like Birdhouse and Tony Hawk, there are quite a number.
About 50 youths are affiliated to the skatepark and I can imagine there is stiff competition for the equipment on full days.
The crew even had an end of year bash and a competition in March with a visiting friend acting as the judge. From the pictures they show me, it was quite an event.
Sasita, one of only two girls in the group, started the sport in December. She only practises during the holiday from Wanyange Girls School where she is in senior four.
After the more aggressive boys have had their turn, Sasita pushes herself for daring moves, as the younger kids also practise their skills. Jack tells me that no one below 11 is allowed to skate here.
But more keep coming, begging to be part of the action inside the fence.
It is what has brought this small club of ambitious young skaters this far and what will carry them further.
The mantle rests on the young shoulders of Jack Mubiru who had a persistent admiration for the sport he had only seen on television.
“I used to see them in videos and I longed to do the same. One day I found a skateboard on sale at Katumwa Sports Centre at sh30,000 and I decided to buy it using my brother’s money,” Mubiru explains.
Whenever he had a chance, which is rare in a town with very little smooth tarmac, Mubiru put his skateboard down and practiced zooming on it.
Places like Lugogo Mall and Mandela Stadium in Namboole became his haunts because of their spacious parking lots.
He would work very hard to master the skateboard on his own. Until one day at Lugogo Mall marked the turning point, for it was there that he met another skateboard enthusiast, Shael Swart.
The two were inevitably drawn into conversation about the ins and outs of skateboarding and thoughts on how a skate park would make things better.
Swart suggested that a skate ramp could be built if only the land was available. It was not hard for Jack to convince his mother to let him use a piece of land she owned in Kitintale.
She had long witnessed the boy’s passion for the sport and was glad to help. Swart, was a South African student of Rainbow Academy in Uganda at the time, but he used all the resources within his means to rally funds for the works.
Together they built the first ramp in April 2006. “Everyone was wondering what on earth we were up to. I first told them I was building a shelter to keep crocodiles,” Jack chuckles mischievously.
He had a complete story that seemed to convince them for a while, until it was finished. The community’s interest hit a high when they saw him and Swart using the ramp with their skateboards.
Then everyone wanted to join in and that is how many young people took to skateboarding like a fever.
Less than a year later, the first rump was suffering wear and tear, but there was another godsend in the form of Brian Lye, a Canadian volunteer.
He also caught the enthusiasm bug at Kitintale and stayed on to help with the construction of a bigger skating space.
Swart, Lye and Mubiru worked hard to raise funds and rally support for the project. From September to December 2006, a bigger ramp and quarter pipes were built.
The interesting thing is that most of these kids participated practically in the building of the park and it is like a well loved pet project to each of them.
Today, the impact on the young people’s lives is incredible. There is little room for idleness and boredom that would lead to mischief and antisocial behavior.
They get the peer support and the adrenaline high from the sport, rather than opting for delinquency.
The group also started a weblog which opens them to a worldwide audience. The blog has regular visitors from various parts of the world, all of them expressing surprise that there are skateboarders in Uganda.
Anne-Cecil, a social worker from Switzerland, was able to contact Jack easily through their website. A friend who knew she was coming to work in northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo informed her that she could go skating in the Kampala skatepark, which she made a point to do.
Without a formal organisation, it was hard for the group to receive equipment from interested donors. So the idea to set up an NGO came about.
Today, Lye and Mubiru are satisfied that Uganda Skateboard Union has a certificate of registration as an NGO. Still they are not exempt from paying taxes, so things are still a bit tricky.
However, that has not stopped them from aiming high now, with plans to build another skate park in Mukono. Mubiru says that some of the boys from Kitintale will be on hand to teach those in Mukono and he is convinced it will have a powerful impact there too.
Mubiru dreams of the day when skate parks will be all over the place so that more youth can enjoy themselves. He also hopes that corporate companies will use local skateboarders for their advertising campaigns.
“There is still a lot needed to make skateboarding popular in Uganda. I feel bad when I see adverts with skateboarders from other countries when we have our own,” says Mubiru.