How a single skateboard seeded Zambia’s state-of-the-art skatepark

How a single skateboard seeded Zambia’s state-of-the-art skatepark?

At just 21 years old, Johnny K. is the oldest and founding member of We Skate Mongu, a grassroots and youth-led organisation that is totally transforming the community in Zambia’s Western Province. A decade ago skateboarding was non-existent. Five years ago, there was one board – Johnny’s – which he shared between 30 kids. Today, thanks to the incredible work of WSM and its build partners Wonders Around the World & Skate World Better, Mongu has its own state-of-the-art concrete skatepark which, in the opening weekend alone, played host to over 1,500 young boys and girls.

THE SKATEROOM connected with Johnny and WSM back in 2019, funding 9,000 of 30,000 USD budget to make this monumental project happen, with the remainder supported by the United Nations Development Program. With the skatepark open since Saturday May 22nd, 2021, we’re keen to find out how Johnny and his team realized such a transformation. What’s next for one of the world’s fastest growing skate scenes?

Mongu – home to around 180,000 people – is far from being Zambia’s biggest town. In a country where “development is selective”, places like Mongu don’t get the support they need when it comes to, among other things, encouraging recreational and sports activities for young people. “In Lukasa, Zambia’s capital, a lot of stuff was going on, but where I’m from there was no activity at all.’ Johnny, only 21 years old, speaks with the wisdom of a long-standing pillar of his community; setting a good example to the next generation is clearly top of his priorities.

“Kids were just roaming the street with nothing to do. They got caught up in gangs. Nothing was working out here. Since skateboarding came about, many things have changed. Hundreds of kids started learning, and these bad vices reduced.”

When Johnny got his first board in 2014, he was the only skater. But just as a single seed grows many roots, this was enough to spark passion among the kids in Mongu. “I was riding around the town for two years on my own. Kids would see me, they’d want to try it out, so bit by bit, not knowing what I was doing, I started to teach them.”

Johnny was soon teaching upwards of 30 boys and girls on his single skateboard, and when that broke, he took it upon himself to raise the money to replace it. But something about this new community saw the youth taking matters into their own hands. “One thing led to another and pretty soon the kids started building boards themselves.” says Johnny. Planks of wood, roller-skaters, anything you could nail wheels to, all became legitimate boards. The group of 30 doubled, tripled, Johnny’s classes grew ever bigger, and with the birth of We Skate Mongu’s account on Instagram, pretty soon equipment donations started appearing from far and wide – inspired by the craft of the young locals in Mongu.

“We didn’t know what we were doing, it was freestyle, we could take it in any direction we wanted.”

With We Skate Mongu connected to the global skate community via Instagram, things changed fast. “For a while, every kid thought they were the best skater in the world, because they didn’t know what was out there. When I got a phone I started showing them how others were skating internationally. They thought only guys skated, but I showed them videos of girls skating too.” And it wasn’t just the skating itself that took a step up, this was Johnny’s opportunity to connect WSM to a broader social skate network.

Invited to the Goodpush Summit in 2019, co-organised by Skateistan, Johnny got to meet fellow projects who were fighting for the same thing as WSM – community and empowerment through skateboarding. “I had no idea there were others doing this.” He explains. “I didn’t even know what I was doing. But pretty soon I realised that whatever this is, it’s real. People are bringing about change this way.” This was a turning point. What was previously completely unimaginable – Mongu’s own skatepark – suddenly became possible.

Enter: Wonders Around the World & Skate World Better – two organisations who share a common goal: to build skateparks that will strengthen communities. Working together with Johnny on the ground, Mongu would be the site of their next build. Designs were drawn up by Wonders Around the World, a 600m2 concrete park which incorporated both street and bowl aspects, to accommodate many styles of skating. The budget, an estimated 30,000 USD, would see the completion of the park in just eight weeks. THE SKATEROOM is incredibly proud to have donated 9,000 USD towards this project, raised from the sales of our range of limited art editions, as part of our funding program.

So what does such an intense build look like, day-in day-out? For Johnny, “it’s been amazing. Everyone learned a lot from each other. We hired 15-20 local guys to help out, alongside the volunteers from WAW & SWB.” For the 21-year-old, the past weeks have meant a lot of running around sourcing materials. In a place like Mongu, finding concrete isn’t always possible, let alone easy. “We couldn’t actually hire a mixer. This 600m2 skatepark is made from concrete mixed entirely by human hands. Still, it feels like it’s all over too quickly.” But as one story ends, another begins.

“I’m sure, we have the biggest community in the country now. We have 300 kids at the park every day. I can’t wait to teach them all to properly use the park, to skate it yes, but also to use it for something better, to build our own culture and show people internationally that they can come and skate this amazing place. There’s more to the world than our little community, and that’s what I want the kids to see by others coming here.”

As WAW and SWB prepare to leave Mongu, Johnny looks forward to the local community and its future generations flourishing. “In 5-10 years, I’m sure many of the kids here will be skating hard, leaving the country for competitions and bringing back medals for us. For the WSM organisation, we want to keep building more parks around Zambia, and growing what we do so it’s helpful for the whole country.” Education, empowerment, equality, that’s what Johnny and his team are looking towards now, the skatepark acting as a bed for new seeds to be sown. The scene should be let to grow in its own way, guided by those who will carry this community their lives forever. “I want the kids to see that I’m not special. I just fought for what I believe in. If you love something, go hard – you can bring it to life.”

If you’d like to support We Skate Mongu, Skate World Better or Wonders Around the World, you can find and follow them below. THE SKATEROOM continues to fund organisations like WSM through our Art For Social Impact model – you can find all our limited editions online now.

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