We get the inside story from a volunteer at Kabul’s pioneering skate 'school'
We briefly mentioned Kabul’s pioneering Skateistan in a blog post a while ago. For those who didn’t read it, it’s a unique skate park and workshop centre in Afghanistan that offers free lessons, training and practice to aspiring hopefuls in a sport that’s still incredibly new and relatively unknown in this slowly recovering country. We asked Jess, a volunteer in the organisation’s head office since early summer this year, to give us a first-hand account of what they’re all about, and how skateboarding is perceived in this war-battered country.
The origins of Skateistan
Personally, skating always has been my background. My professional and educational background is in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. The two came together nicely – I had travelled around the Middle East before arriving here and have been skating since I was really young. I don’t skate very well but that’s being remedied while I’m here as I have a skate park to skate in all day, every day.
The idea for Skateistan came about in 2007 when an Australian scientific researcher called Oliver Percovich came to Kabul. He brought some skateboards with him, but he didn’t have the idea of setting up a school or anything like that. He found a couple of spots around the city including an empty shallow fountain built by the Soviets in the Macroyan area. It
"Now you can buy cheap Chinese skateboards in the supermarket"
had no water in it, so he started skating there, and very quickly lots of the local kids that live and work in the area (including street-working children) took an interest and demanded to be taught how to stand on the board and things like that. He went back to Australia with an idea developing in his head and returned to Kabul in 2008 where he started holding regular classes three times a week at the fountain with some older Afghan guys who were really keen and a whole bunch of international volunteers.
As far as Oliver is aware, there was no skateboarding before he brought his boards. Now you can buy cheap Chinese skateboards in the supermarket. Four years ago it wasn’t known as a sport, like football or volleyball, which are considered male activities. I think this is one of the reasons for its success with young people – girls as well as boys. Skateboarding being so unusual… no one really knew what to think, so boys and girls could do it, and quite openly in public. Here skateboarding’s developed as just a sport, whereas elsewhere in the world there’s a whole culture, music and clothes and ideas, based around it. In Afghanistan, none of that existed, so it was literally just a physical activity that happened to be a lot of fun, which kids just naturally took to and fell in love with.
Educating and skating
As well as the skatepark – which is 1,750 sq m – we have a tiny wall, which was built in May this year, and a wooden multi-surface floor used to play basketball, football, badminton, volleyball and anything you can think of. When kids come, they come for two hours a week. One hour is spent in the skatepark and the other in the classrooms – or anywhere else we can carry out one of our workshops. So they have an hour of skating and an hour of workshops that tend to be focused on fun and creativity. Sometimes the skate brands call it a ‘school’, but we are more of an after-school club for kids
"Sometimes the skate brands call it a ‘school’, but we are more of an after-school club for kids."
In the past, we’ve done a lot of theatre, filmmaking, visual art, collecting trash around the local area to clean up and make sculptures from, stuff like that. Everything we do here is free; we don’t charge any fees or registration or anything like that. We lay on free buses for the girls – some of them come from quite far away and it would be difficult for them to travel alone. Without those buses, they wouldn’t be able to come at all.
Doing it for the kids
It’s always inspirational for us to see the kids that come. For many of them, it’s their first time somewhere different. It’s just about having fun, letting go and exploring their physical and creative potential. For the girls especially, who might be from a conservative family and may have never done any type of sporting activities before, to come and roll down a flat bank for the first time… you see the look on their faces. It takes a couple of weeks, but they gradually understand and realise there aren’t any rules (apart from safety) and that there are no expectations from them. There’s nothing they have to achieve; it’s just about having fun and expressing themselves. Certain individuals really take that to heart, and so we’ve got lots of young volunteers and members of staff who began as students here.
The girl in the short documentary ‘Skateistan Yak Daqa’ – Fazila, who is 14 now – used to work on the streets selling chewing gum with her sisters and comes from a very poor family who used to live in Pakistan until a couple of years ago. She was able to come to Skateistan when they were holding classes in Macroyan, which was near to where she was working in the traffic. Fazila immediately showed a natural ability for skating, and when the park opened in 2009 she
"Skateistan was inspired, and demanded, by these kids; it was their idea."
came along. By that point she was ready to become an instructor. Now she is able to go to school every afternoon after working at Skateistan during the day. We support her in her studies and with whatever we can. She’s gone from a lone child to a skateboard instructor. She recently went to Italy with some of the other Skateistan girls to represent us at the youth leadership event called We Free Week. It was the first time she’d been on a plane, seen the ocean and many other things. She’s a young woman now and it’s been a real inspiration to see her growth over the years.
Skateistan was inspired, and demanded, by these kids; it was their idea. The organisation is running as big as it is because of them and their enthusiasm. It’s as much their organisation as ours.
Action sport in Afghanistan
Action sport is still not something that’s mainstream here. There’s probably a massive proportion of society that wouldn’t know what a skateboard was if you put one in front of them. It’s currently something that only exists in Kabul, but when we open up our other facility in the north it will also become known in Mazar-e-Sharif. Generally parents react really well when they come with the kids for the first time to register. They see how it’s all set up and that we have different days for girls’ and boys’ classes. That’s something the girls actually asked for when we first opened.
Generally people in the street are amazed. Some ask if it’s magic – “How do your feet stay on the board?” They don’t have any preconception of what skateboarding is because there’s no culture of it around here. The reaction is just, like, “Wow”. We have community support in the area around the facility; I guess people around the area know who we are. And we do ‘Go Skateboarding Day’, a public event when we skate in the streets. It took place in June and we had 200 kids bombing down the road with a police escort to make sure everything was safe. The kids were having so much fun, and were wearing traditional Afghan costumes and really making it their own.
"Some ask if it’s magic – “How do your feet stay on the board?”"
The key aspect of internationals here is that we all start as volunteers; we’re not funded by the Afghan government. The national Olympic committee supported us by gaving us the land – which is the Sports Ministry of the Afghan government – and most of the funding comes from various European countries. We have good relationships with embassies such as the Danish, Norwegian, German and Canadian ones, so it’s mostly to international governments that we’ve applied for traditional grants and funding, which was what enabled Oliver to get going in the first place. These days, we try to diversify by having our own product line with co-branded products and in-house produced T-shirts and scarves and so on. We also do online crowd-source funding through CrowdRise or causes.com.
A plan for the future
The future for skateboarding here looks healthy. We are expanding – this new spot is designed to take twice as many kids as Kabul, where we can only take about 350–400 kids a week and where we are at capacity. Some of the instructors that we have are very passionate skaters; they as individuals will keep skating their whole lives and I believe other kids will too. I think future is very bright – just from seeing kids in the skatepark wearing their ‘shalwar kameez’ (traditional
"There’s definitely kids here that could give international skaters a run for their money."
clothing – a long shirt and baggy pants). There’s nothing about skating that clashes or contradicts with Afghan culture. It’s just a sport, and Afghans love sport. They’re crazy about taekwondo and football and all sorts. So as long as they keep making it their own I think it will have a very healthy future.
We had a visit from four pros in 2010. They came to visit once before the park was built and again after it opened. In that sense it’s on the map. There is massive potential for competitions. If people from outside have open minds and are up for it, there’s definitely kids here that could give international skaters a run for their money. We have several co-branded products currently on the market, which is part of our effort to be a little bit innovative in terms of fundraising, and to be sustainable. Our show sponsor is Fallen Footwear and we have a skate shoe designed by them out at the moment. We’ve also got co-branded safety equipment with TSG – you can see it all in the shop on our website.