Words: Letícia Nogueira · Images: Raisa Abal.
Up in the hills of Kampala, big mansions overlook the hectic city; but down in the valleys, the people live in slums. These dusty neighbourhoods of sand and scrap metal are filled with people going back and forth, selling jackfruit, sugarcane and matoke (big, green bananas); there are goats and chickens running around, children wave at us from the school windows and we peek into the churches where the people sing passionately. With no treated water source or access to improved sanitation, something tells me that the locals built these houses with their own hands and whatever materials they could find.
This is Kitintale; one of the many slums of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. But this slum is a bit different. Walk its dusty paths and you’ll find something unique: a skatepark!
But this is no ordinary skatepark. Alas, everything may be banal and ordinary in the West… but not here. This is where the community rises up to protect one another, help raise each others’ kids, create and build together. Here is where you can learn the true meaning of community.
But let me give you a little context… This is the first skatepark in East Africa, ever. Jack started building it back in 2005. He’s a legend: He first got acquainted with skateboarding when he was zapping on the TV and found Tony Hawk ollieing off his screen… He was intrigued by it since, eager to find out how to work that magic.
But things weren’t that easy; he had to wait for a chance encounter to bring a skateboard his way. On top of that, street spots aren’t really a thing here. Most streets are made of sand, so their o.g. street spot was a parking lot… Until Jack’s mom gifted him some land at the slum. And so he started building a skatepark — even though he had never seen or skated one! They made bricks from the clay available at the land and used only the materials they had, with the little knowledge they had. The result was a pretty sick park, with street obstacles cornered by steep ramps and a half-pipe.
It wasn’t long until the kids in the slum became obsessed with skateboarding. At first, they’d skate barefoot and share a board amongst everyone. Alongside the construction, Jack founded the Uganda Skateboard Union (USU). This NGO helped them get foreign aid from non-profit associations such as Skate Aid and improve the park.
Fast forward 17 years: it’s 2022 and the skatepark has grown in many ways. A bowl was built next to the street course, and so was a mini-ramp. To this day they’re still adding obstacles, but the richness and diversity of activities converging around the park might surprise you: besides the skating lessons at the park, there’s a bamboo workshop, as well as a tailor workshop where they make clothes and jewellery. They teach the kids to read and write, give them school support and even dance classes. The latest addition they just finished building is a library, right next to the park.
Afternoons after school, the park is filled with plenty of kids killing it, boys and girls. The children are having fun, playing, discovering the magic of skateboarding, whilst having a break from the usual chores and responsibilities they’ve been given at such young ages. This is a conservative society, where women have fixed roles from a very young age. A usual day in their lives consists of helping out at home with domestic chores, going to school, coming back home, doing some homework and helping out some more. Now, they get to meet up with their friends and be kids together. Skateboarding has given them an excuse to come out and play — a right every child should have.
It’s the middle of July and all the girls from the neighbourhood got together to build a new section of the park. Women of all ages, from age 8 to their 50s, got to put the concrete gloves on, grab some tools and build. The result: a new pyramid for everyone to skate! Together, we got to learn valuable skills, skate what we built and, most importantly, reinforce what we always knew: that girls can do anything.
We hope the girls of Kitintale remember this every time they roll down the ramp they built themselves. The impact of such things isn’t always visibly tangible, but we’re told that, after building the pyramid, more women have been involved in construction projects for the USU (like the construction of the library and further skatepark expansion), carrying out roles usually assigned to men.
Many things happen in 17 years — new generations are born and raised in the hood. The USU has been promoting the empowerment of the local youth in many ways and you can’t overlook the impact of skateboarding in the neighbourhood: there’s more security and less criminality; youth education and support; tourism, which generates business and entrepreneurship amongst the locals; foreign aid and an overall development of the area. It’s given the slum a public space for the locals to enjoy, thus improving their wellbeing, giving them more options for recreation and making the area more attractive to live in. The kids are getting busy playing outside, learning new skills and values every day and experiencing the joys of skateboarding.
The skatepark, once a man's dream, has gone from dream into reality; but it doesn’t end there. It went from someone's backyard playground, something created out of individual passion, to something that is there for a whole community to enjoy and grow at a physical, social and mental level — throughout generations.
Here at Kitintale, they didn’t just create something from scratch; they shared the passion of skateboarding with their community and changed it drastically.
Come on then, what are you waiting for? Let’s go outside and change the world!
***We would like to thank the FSPI (Fonds de Solidarité pour les Projets Innovants) and the French Embassy in Uganda, who supported this project (skateboarding and construction workshops with the girls and women of Kitintale). If you’d like to learn more about the USU or help Kitintale grow, check out these links:
Uganda Skateboard Union (USU) @the_uganda_skateboard_union