Uganda's skateboarders fly high

KAMPALA, Uganda — Kampala doesn’t lend itself to skateboarding. The roads are either potholed, traffic-clogged or dirt, the sidewalks are cracked and pitted with open manholes, the curbs broken.

But down a mud track that runs into the heart of Kitintale, a working class suburb of the Ugandan capital, is East Africa’s only skatepark.

The cement structure surrounded by chicken wire and banana trees is a labor of love for Jackson ‘Jack’ Mubiru, a 28-year-old known as the father of Ugandan skateboarding.

While watching an extreme sports show on ESPN one day, Mubiru caught his first glimpse of skateboarding. “I saw them flying and thought is this magic or what?” he said.

He too wanted to learn how to fly. Mubiru began skating on a borrowed board. He joined a handful of young Ugandans with old skateboards, rollerblades and rollerskates who meet at the car park next to the national stadium because it is one of the few areas in the city with an expanse of smooth(ish) tarmac and no traffic.

There he bumped into a couple of foreign skaters who taught him tricks as well as the basics of skatepark design. Mubiru worked hard and saved money then he and some friends got to work on the Kitintale skatepark.

Mubiru had a small plot of land that, following tradition, his father had given him: he was supposed to build a house for himself. Instead he built a community skatepark.

Now more than 50 youngsters use the park regularly, most are boys though there are currently five female skaters.

The best of the bunch is Douglas, a wiry shy 18-year-old whose face expresses determination and joy when in midair, a few feet above the lip of the half-pipe.

“I love the game, I love to fly,” he says, sweat on his face, breath panting with the exertion in the late afternoon sun.

Toddlers clinging to the chicken wire watch with rapt attention and some of the young skaters’ mothers squat on their nearby doorsteps washing dishes and wringing clothes. When asked what they think about all this skating, one replies, “It’s good, it gives them exercise, and something to do.”

Mubiru agreed that skateboarding gives the teenagers and 20s-somethings who congregate here something to do apart from loitering about the place or getting into trouble.

Mubiru has a day job and most of the kids who come to the skatepark go to school. “If it is time for school, we go to school. If it is time to work a job, we work a job and if it is time to train we train,” he said referring to the evening skate sessions.

“Morning hours you can find no one at the park until five when others are back from school or work,” he said.

This spirit of self-improvement makes Mubiru a far cry from the counter-culture gang of stoned Dogtown dropouts who created modern skateboarding in 1970s California, but the love of skateboarding shows that kids from the mean streets of Kampala share a fundamental passion with America’s early skate pioneers.

Mubiru’s efforts have attracted some international attention and donations which are important given the almost complete inability to buy skateboarding gear anywhere in East Africa. The Tony Hawk Foundation, a charity established by the world-famous skateboarder, is one of the major donors.

“We got really excited that these people had put together something like this, it was just an amazing story of how this community came together,” said Miki Vuckovich, executive director of the foundation and a keen veteran skater.

“What we saw was several young Ugandans sharing boards and skating barefoot. They’d only just started skating but were mastering the basic techniques and were learning the instinct and the skill of skating. The story inspired us,” said Vuckovich.

The Hawk foundation has sent dozens of pairs of skating shoes to the Ugandan boarders.

“They’re learning the thrill of defying gravity that got us skating years ago. A suburban kid from California and one from this poor Ugandan town feel the same thing,” said Vuckovich.

To get the donated shoes, boards and other equipment through customs tax-free, Mubiru registered a non-governmental organization. The Uganda Skateboard Union was born with the aim to “combat idleness and boredom among the youth.”

Mubiru is now the union’s director complete with business cards and a website. What he doesn’t have is his own home: having built a skatepark on his plot of land he still lives with his parents.