#11 youth
Frauke Meyn / Chansopheakna Rath / Alix Buck / Sarah Klein

Boards That Mean the World

Boards that mean the world – on wheels in this case. Since the 60s skating has been the epitome of youth sport. And while some of the skaters on the streets today may be greying at the temples, worldwide the skateboard is still one of the greatest symbols of youth culture.

Last year in our Sport issue we reported on Skateistan, one of the most successful development projects in and around Kabul, Afghanistan. In this issue we wanted to follow up and hear how last year's plans were coming along. So we spoke to Pheakna, a skate and classroom instructor from Cambodia, Alix, a Cambodia programs officer, and Frauke from Skateistan's Kabul office.

You started a project in Cambodia last year. Has the park since been completed?

Frauke: Yes! We officially opened the first indoor skatepark in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on September 28, 2012. We had already started holding mobile skate sessions there the year before. Our team visited different partner organizations or skated with kids in public spaces. Now that we have opened our own park, we can get more children involved and guarantee a higher quality programme.

What kinds of activities take place in the park?

Alix: In the beginning, Skateistan Cambodia only offered skateboarding instruction. Now though the Skateistan facility in Cambodia runs skateboarding classes along with creative art lessons, disabled sport classes, mobile outreach skateboarding sessions, and a successful youth leadership programme. Since September 2012, the majority of our activities have taken place at our own enclosed, covered skateboarding facility. Students come once a week for one hour of skateboarding and one hour of creative workshops taught by Cambodian instructors, all of whom are former Skateistan students.

How have the kids in Cambodia reacted to your projects?

Pheakna: I am a teacher and I am very close to the students. They are very happy to have the opportunity to skate. It is a new sport for them. They say that is it an activity they really enjoy. Many students have told me that they want more ramps in public spaces. They really want more opportunities and places to skate.

Do problems sometimes arise between the kids?

Pheakna: Since I have been teaching the kids, there have not been any problems between our students. We have strict rules: they are not allowed to yell or fight, and we try to advise them on what is wrong and right. We try to make sure that everyone always speaks nicely and politely, and we do our best to act like good role models.

Alix, you mentioned before that you also do creative art workshops. What do these involve?

Alix: In 2012, we explored themes involving Cambodia's natural environment, and Cambodian art and history using different artistic mediums such as painting, sculpture, music, stencilling and silk screening. Our curriculum for 2013 and into 2014 will explore the theme of community development through a variety of classes in the creative arts, including a community-mapping project and international media exchanges. This will culminate in the design and construction of a skateable public work of art created by students.

As part of the community development activities planned in 2013/2014, you are preparing a photo workshop called Ideal Phnom Penh. What is it about?

Alix: In this project, students will first learn the basics of photography, then take photos in their neighbourhoods in Phnom Penh. Afterwards, we will have a discussion about what kinds of changes they would like to see in their communities. They will be shown how to draw over the photos to show what their "Ideal Phnom Penh" would look like. This workshop mimics the "Ideal Kabul" student project completed in Kabul in 2012.

In Kabul you have done a lot of other activities in addition to the skatepark. What are you offering in Cambodia?

Alix: Skateistan Cambodia also provides skateboarding instruction at a skateboarding facility located at our partner organization and school Pour Un Sourire D'Enfant (PSE). These classes are taught by older youths involved in our extremely successful youth leadership program. Furthermore, we have begun weekly street outreach sessions in partnership with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Friends International. Here we use skateboarding as a "hook" to attract marginalized youths to their comprehensive health, education, and counselling services.

You've also been really active in Afghanistan: You opened a second skatepark in Mazar-e Sharif. It is different from the one in Kabul?

Frauke: The facility in Mazar-e Sharif is almost twice as large and has the capacity to serve 1,000 children per week. There is a skatepark, a separate gym and an "education" building that contains classrooms, workshops, the library and our offices. An outdoor skatepark is also currently in planning.

If I recall correctly, you also organised an exchange programme in Kabul with Native Americans. That sounds utterly unique: Afghans and Native Americans in one project?

Frauke: Yes, at the beginning of the year we started an exchange programme between Skateistan students and a skater group from the Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The programme was called "Connecting the Dots". Participants from both groups designed ten "blank decks" – rectangular sheets of plywood out of which skateboards are made. Students started by shaping the boards. Then they created a design for them and painted it onto the boards. These were the very first skateboards ever made in Afghanistan.

What was the idea behind the project?

Frauke: We encouraged the two groups to exchange ideas about and experience with their national heritages. Over a period of weeks five girls and seven boys met and discussed their ideas and questions. Skateistan students learned a lot about Lakota culture, symbols and colours in lectures. They came to recognise the differences, but also the similarities between the two cultures. This has helped them better understand their own, often forgotten Afghan culture better.

What does an Afghan-Lakota skateboard look like?

Frauke: The board designs were inspired by cultural symbols from the Afghan and Lakota cultures. They included things like the famous dream catcher that originated in the Lakota culture, animals native to South Dakota, and traditional clothing. The elements of Afghan culture taken up included mosques, traditional clothing and the Hindu Kusch.

What did you feel was the greatest learning effect from the project?

Frauke: There is a range of very different aspects: - First of all, both groups learned a lot about geometry from making the boards. The students improved their understanding and knowledge of mathematics.

  1. Then there is their active participation in completing an art project, which promoted their creativity and ability to see something though to the end.
  2. And finally, the exchange contributed to a completely new cultural understanding of two different cultures. The fact that symbols from both cultures are portrayed on one skateboard is proof of this.

What will happen to the boards?

Frauke: The first ten skateboards from Afghanistan will be exhibited in the USA, initially on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They may later have a chance to be shown in the "National Museum of the American Indian" in Washington, D.C.

Recently one of your instructors was given permission to speak in Parliament. It is pretty unusual to have a 14-year-old girl get up and speak to all the ministers. Who was she?

Frauke: Madina grew up as a street vendor on the streets of Kabul. She has been actively involved in Skateistan for a number of years. Right now she teaches classes – including skateboarding classes – which has made her a role model for many of the students. She was chosen on March 9 to speak at the third annual national Children and Youth Assembly in the Parliament. She drew the attention of around 100 members of the government to the problems facing Afghan's youth.

How did that come about?

Frauke: In the first two weeks of March, Madina and 20 other Skateistan students were given the great opportunity of participating in the national "Children's Shura". A "shura" is a traditional decision-making council, which usually includes community leaders and elders. The annual Children's Shura gives youth a voice. A total of 150 children participate in the Children's Shura and discuss local problems. Twelve of these children were selected to present the results at the final event in Parliament. According to the children, one of the greatest problems is that there are not enough places to play. That is a serious issue considering that 50% of the population of Afghanistan is younger than 16.

What are the next steps for Skateistan?

Frauke: At the moment the opening of the new skatepark in Mazar-e Sharif is our top priority.

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