Twelve-year-old Happy and 14-year-old Lucky are just that – happy and lucky. The two youngsters are learning to skateboard in the David Webster Park in Troyeville with up to 50 other kids from the hood, forgetting their troubles in what’s called Skateistan, a worldwide movement to encourage kids to learn a skill while learning much more.
It hit Joburg in March this year, and it’s making waves in the lives of these often hard-to-reach kids, judging by the patient queues to get on a skateboard to glide down into the skate bowl in the park. The bowl, the size of the large swimming pool, is painted cheerfully with the enigmatic words “Where’s the what?” and a street map. The streets surrounding the park contain random piles of burnt garbage, and crushed glass litters the paving in the park.
I spent an hour or so there last week, and watched as the kids were taken through the thrill of balancing and propelling themselves forward on four small wheels and a bit of wood, to whoops and smiles. Outside the bowl Ayanda Mnyandu was teaching kids obediently lined up to take their turn, and Kelly Murray, twice winner of the country’s only skateboard competition, the Kimberley Diamond Cup, was passing on her expertise.
Standing to one side, waiting for a turn in the bowl in between skateboarding sessions, were a bunch of young dudes, with roller blades on their feet, showing me the moves. It wasn’t just that you had to move forward on four small wheels under a blade, the test was to grind, so I was told. Grinding involves blading up to an edge, then gliding sidewards along the edge, a trick expert skateboarders do too.
Skateistan is an international NGO using skateboarding as a tool for empowerment, indicates the website. They work with kids from 5 to 25 years, and 40% of the kids are girls, and over 60% are from low-income households.
Skateistan’s vision is to “grow a sustainable organisation that is recognised locally and globally for changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of youth through skateboarding and quality programmes – creating leaders that change the world”. In the past five years it has picked up several awards, including the Peace and Sport Innovation through Sport award, and the Unicef Sport for Education award.
It’s a charming story. It started in Afghanistan in 2007, when Australian Oliver Percovich followed his girlfriend to Kabul, where she had got a job. “Bored, he would skate the beleaguered city, and became a sort of pied half-piper, attracting street kids who would follow him around and ask for rides.” He had worked at the Centre for Risk and Community Safety on emergency management projects for the Australian government, but more importantly, had been skateboarding since he was six years old.
The Afghan girls started skating with him, in their long dresses and head scarves, and he was struck by the fact that girls were not permitted to ride bicycles or do any sport but “skating was a loophole, it was so new that nobody had had a chance to say that girls couldn’t do it yet”, he says in his TEDx talk. “So I thought I’m going to expand this idea, I was really excited about it.”
It wasn’t long before he’d created the two largest sports facilities in Afghanistan, where skateboarding became the largest female sport in the country. Not only do girls there not do sport, but most don’t go to school. One of the girls was 14-year-old Hanifa, who took to skateboarding like a swan to water. She had been taken out of school by her parents so she could beg on the streets to support the family. When Percovich offered to give her a job teaching skating to other girls, her parents allowed her to go back to school, and the link been skateboarding and education was made. She explains what skating means to her: “I always like to go high on the ramps. When I’m up there I feel free, like I’m flying. I like that feeling a lot.”
Percovich created a small non-profit skate development school with an indoor skating venue, providing girls with a private place to skate. By late 2009 a skatepark and educational facility on donated land had been constructed, and today it hosts the largest female sporting organization in the country. Percovich is now based in Kabul, and Skateistan employs more than 50 people worldwide. It has also established a presence in Cambodia.
Joburg’s programme is run by American Leila Mzali. “The idea behind Skateistan's programming is to use skateboarding as a primary point of engagement. Because of their love of skateboarding, our kids keep coming.” However, there is a trade-off: an hour in the skatepark means an hour in the classroom, where the kids dictate what they want to learn through art and poetry writing along a theme – this week’s is peace. And to make sure girls are a special focus, Tuesdays are set aside for them exclusively.
With an office in Maboneng, Mzali is running a youth drop-in centre in the CBD, part of Let’s go Jozi, a council job creation initiative, where programmes include sexual health and gender issues, HIV awareness, help with maths and science, art and multimedia, and career help for older kids.
Mzali says she has secured a long-term, rent-free land lease from Propertuity near Maboneng, where they will be building a skate park and educational facility.
Mzali confirms that there is already a difference in the kids. “When we first started the sessions, kids we're fighting over skateboards, not following the set rules, and not able to do much on a skateboard. Now, especially in our four youth leaders, I've seen growth not only in their skate abilities, but their leadership skills, confidence, etiquette, and responsibility. I think this is only the beginning of the growth we'll see with the kids as they are involved in the long-term.”
Happy and Lucky are two of the youth leaders. They were composed and confident, answering my questions with certainty. Happy said: “We can learn lots of things, we are away from drugs and bad things.” She has been skateboarding since March, and is in the park every afternoon. “I am good but not that good, I still have a lot to learn.” What has she learnt besides? “To be nice to other people, to share the board, and share other things.”
Lucky says he enjoys the fun of it, and likes learning the tricks of skateboarding. “I have learnt to be responsible. I want to start my own club for skating,” he says with a big beam.
The two sponsors in South Africa are the Danish Embassy and the Tony Hawk Foundation in the US.
“The key is not skateboarding, the key is the power of sharing something that you love, and with persistence, it can grow into something quite unexpected and truly amazing,” says Percovich.
Mzali says of him: “Ollie has put his entire heart and soul into the project when he never meant to. He will be doing this for the rest of his life.”
And to make sure his message of targeting girls hits home, Tuesdays in Troyeville are set aside exclusively for them to hone their skating and so much more.