The Joys and Growing Pains of Skating in Mozambique and Zambia

"Something is brewing here. You can just feel it.”

14 april 2022, 7:45am

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Skateboarding is arguably one of the most public-facing sports in existence. Born on the sunny streets of California, it’s made to be practiced out in cities, in plain view of any fans and the general public alike. That’s why it’s great at making friends and building community: All you need is a board and a place to try your tricks. But in many parts of the world, people don’t have access to a safe space to practice and can’t afford the gear, which often has to be imported from halfway across the world. That’s why multiple NGOs, like Make Life Skate Life and Concrete Jungle Foundation, have popped up in the past couple of years to support local skaters wanting to establish their own scene.

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Among them is Skate World Better, a Denmark-based nonprofit launched by three friends, all of whom graduated from the University of Copenhagen’s master’s degree in African Studies, back in 2018. A year later, the organisation began building their first skatepark in Mozambique where Tomas Erskog, one of the co-founders, had spent time as a child and still had connections.

With the help of people he knew from his time there and other skaters from the local scene, the NGO managed to find a plot of land to build a brand new skatepark. But unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. After a year of pre-trip preparation and right before they were set to leave, they found out the owner of the land had passed away, and his heirs weren’t interested in selling it anymore.

But thanks to the help of local skater organisations, the group devised a plan B. Instead of creating one big park from scratch, they built a smaller park and restored another one that had fallen into disuse. Countless people from the neighbourhood and nearly 40 international volunteers helped to make the project happen, helping with construction, sourcing materials and negotiating with local authorities for support (which involved, unfortunately, some bribes).

Since then, the NGO has built another park in Mozambique and one in Zambia. They’re also currently drawing up plans for a project in the city of Mbabane in Eswatini, the country formerly known as Swaziland.

Youngsters sit and watch as the Skate World Better crew begins work on the park in Mongu, Zambia.

Belgian photographer Jonas Camps, 29, met Skate World Better co-founder Martin Loužecký, 26, in 2017 when the pair were living in Lisbon and before the NGO was born. Camps has since been on multiple trips with Loužecký and the volunteers, including their latest one to Mongu, western Zambia, which took place in 2021. “We hadn’t seen each other in two years, so everyone was very much looking forward to the trip,” Camps said. “When we arrived, it was pitch black but we started working straight away. The rest of the crew weren’t set to arrive for another ten days and we had to do a lot of preparation ahead of their arrival.”

For the skate park, Skate World Better chose a location on top of a nearby mountain. “Every time we needed to visit a store or go into town, we’d skate down the mountain in a group of 20 to 30 people,” Camps said. “Everyone was super excited,” he said. “More than 1,200 people showed up for the opening. It was wild.”

The city of Mongu (home to 180,000) lies 600 kilometres west of the capital Lusaka and is mostly famous for its carpet and basket weaving, fishing and rice plantations. It was chosen mainly because it already has a burgeoning skate scene, thanks to the tireless work of the local NGO WeSkate Mongu, which closely collaborated on the skatepark project.

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WeSkate Mongu founder, Johnny Kalenga, 21, who started the group in 2017, grew up in western Zambia and fell in love with skating at primary school. “I’d seen it on TV a couple of times before I saw it in person,” he said. “Then a friend from school got a board and I’d visit him to teach myself to skate. There was a gap of four years till I saw a skateboard again. Friends had them but I couldn’t afford one, so I learned using theirs.”

Johnny Kalenga, the founding father of Zambian skateboarding.

Kalenga’s new hobby landed him in trouble early on. “The moment I did my first ollie, I was involved in a road accident which left me hospitalised for three months,” he said. Doctors told him he’d never skate again, but he was determined to do so – so determined, in fact, that he forfeited his lunch money for an entire semester of high school to save up enough for his own deck. 

Other kids in Mongu saw Kalenga riding his skateboard and were instantly fascinated. They asked if he’d teach them and Kalenga accepted, despite having no formal training of his own – not that such a thing really exists for skateboarding, anyway. That’s how WeSkate Mongu was born. “We all loved skating and didn’t really think about what would happen in the future, we all just wanted to skate and have fun,” he said. “We were the only ones skating in town and this gave us a purpose. It made us feel unique and we made many friends.”

The organisation’s goal is “to make skateboarding accessible and enjoyable for every kid in the community,” Kalenga said, “and also to just show the world that we exist.” To this day, he provides children from the city with free skateboarding and dancing lessons, specialising in a Zambian street style dance called Chimwemwe. “By the time we arrived in Mongu, Johnny had built up a community of over 400 kids,” Camps said. 

Crowds gather in Mongu as a volunteer triumphantly brandishes a skateboard.

Skate World Better’s project was evidently appreciated by Kalenga and his band of budding skaters. “They have left a huge impact and influence on the kids from our communities, they really look up to them because, during their visit, they were kind to everyone and engaging with the kids,” Kalenga said. “What they did for us in Mongu is forever life-changing and we will always be appreciative for that.”

But of course, the realities of operating in a country where over 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line can complicate any project. The park built by the NGO and their donations of actual boards have helped “thousands of kids getting into skateboarding,” Kalenga said. The hard part now is keeping things going.

“A lot of kids still want to learn but we lack the equipment. Almost all of the boards stopped working and we don’t have anywhere to buy bearings,” Kalenga continued. “This has led to a huge decline in the number of participants. No one wants to come to a skate park just to watch others skate, or to share a skateboard with ten other kids.”

Despite the many challenges, Camps is still hopeful that this project might just be the beginning of something bigger. “The scene here will be booming,” he said. “Mozambique, Zambia – the people skating here are in constant communication with each other. Something is brewing here. You can just feel it.”

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Check out more of Jonas Camps’ photos of the emerging Zambian skating scene below. The following photos were taken during his most recent trip to the country in 2021.

Improvised skateboards like this are common in the Zambian city of Mongu.

Volunteers constructing the skate park.

poetry in motion.

Guillaume Canee, skater, wallriding in Mongu.

Locals from Mongu helping with the construction of the skate park.

Karima, an artist who has helped build parks in Ghana as well as Zambia.

Seppe Plasman, a friend of the photographer, skating a bowl.

Tagged:

Skateboarding, zambia, mozambique, Sport, VICE International, VICE Belgium

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