On a hot Saturday in Accra, past a half-pipe set up in her house's front yard, Sandy Alibo is sweating over her kitchen's gas stove. She's preparing fried banana crumble for about half a dozen members of Skate Gal Club – an all-women skateboarding collective she co-founded in 2019 with her friend Kuukua Eshun. Sandy places each melting scoop of ice cream delicately on the side of the women's plates, as they sit around her large kitchen table, animatedly discussing Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement for survivors of sexual assault.
It's no accident that we're in Sandy's home in Accra's central Osu district – a diverse, bustling neighbourhood at the heart of Ghana's creative scene. Within these walls, she and Kuukua have created a central hub for Skate Gal, where club merchandise, from posters to fridge magnets, covers nearly every room. On a typical day, you'll find a handful of Skate Gal members gathered around her kitchen table, cementing the club's dual role.
In one sense, it's a place for women to learn board skills and kick flips, pushing back against assumptions of what a 'sport for women' can be. As she digs into her dessert, Kuukua tells me that "It's about building confidence." But seen from another angle, the club offers an open environment for members to talk about sex, work and being an African woman in a rapidly growing and changing country like this one. Sure, you can class Skate Gal Club as strictly a space for physical activity. But in real terms, its work on helping women cope with the knock-on effects of sexual assault and other trauma extends far beyond the half-pipe. Part of their ethos, Sandy adds, is to "teach women how to skate, to educate women about sports and to change the mindset that people have about women in sports".
Initially, Sandy and Kuukua aimed to bring women into the mix of a previously male-dominated sport. In 2016, Sandy founded collective Surf Ghana to promote surfing and skateboarding across the country, inspired by her background as an extreme sports event manager in her native France. She eventually teamed up with the Ghanaian skate crew Skate Nation, and in 2018, with the support of brands like Vans and Decathlon, they launched a nationwide tour. They'd hoped to teach more than 1,000 people how to skate, but failed to attract more than a handful of women. Sandy found that women were often intimidated about performing in front of crowds largely made up of men – a problem that Skate Gal is working to change.
So far, it's working. Through their community events, Skate Gal has taught roughly 200 women and girls basic skateboarding skills. Members find their way to the club in ways as varied as its remit. "For some people, it's just finding a place that they belong," says 22-year-old Sarah Nyarko, a postgraduate business student. She joined the group after attending a demo at the annual street art festival Chale Wote last August. "I went home and I couldn’t sleep because it was just so invigorating."
Harmonie "Blue" Bataka, a 24-year-old data analyst, used to be one of just two women in Skate Nation. She later joined Skate Gal after responding to an advert on Instagram. "Skate Gal is sort of a home," she tells me back at her house in the more quiet, middle-class Accra suburb of Spintex. "When I'm skating with the girls, we motivate and learn from each other. It took me three months to learn how to ollie; that one was frustrating. But you fall, you get hurt – it doesn't kill the fun."
The club manages to balance that invigorating fun with frank discussions on the realities of life as a young black woman in Ghana. A major part of these dialogues revolve around women's rights. Some in the group are survivors of sexual abuse, adding their voices to Ghana's #MeToo movement, and calling for abusers to be held accountable. Back in September, they joined dozens of women to march through Accra in protest against sexual violence.
Ria Boss, who says she was sexually assaulted by a close friend and by a former partner, describes how Skate Gal Club facilitates an ideal support network. "All these wonderful women created a space where I didn’t feel like I had to hide, or that I had to be ashamed of what I had been through," she tells me over the phone. "It goes beyond just meeting once a month and doing some cool tricks; it’s become this sisterhood where every single day I know that if I need to speak to someone, someone's there to pick up the phone."
In December, Ria and Kuukua took part in a Stand Against Rape walk supported by the United Nations. It ended with a bonfire outside police headquarters where Ria held a "healing session" for women to speak openly about the abuse they'd suffered. "I think breaking down those walls of shame is very important," Ria says. "I know in my situation it took me a while to even say to myself: 'you’ve been raped.'"
"The silence makes it worse," says Akpene Hoggar, a creative consultant Skate Gal member. "I didn’t even know that some friends around me had been sexually assaulted, and they didn’t know I had been either."
Skate Gal are currently crowdfunding the creation of Accra's first dedicated skate park, to avoid frequent clashes with the police, and some members of the public who see skating as a nuisance.
"That's why, for me, the most important thing that we can do now is to get a skate park," Sandy says. Kuukua brings up a time when "Sandy and some of the guys got attacked in Achimota [a town in southern Accra], for skating in one of the few places that we can skate."
The group are determined to keep finding ways to bridge the representation gap, and, most importantly, portray a different version of what it means to be a woman in Africa. "All over the world as black women, we've had to work twice as hard just to be able to represent ourselves, tell our own stories or change the narrative," Kuukua tells me.
"Our generation have really stepped up the game – my grandmother didn’t have the opportunities that I have at my age." Akpene says. "Ultimately, it's about creating a community where people feel can be safe to try anything, to explore – to learn."