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City youth dance, skate away trouble

By Séverine Koen

Breakdancing and skateboarding suffer from bad reputations as they are commonly associated with foreign influences in Uganda. Yet, they are now being used as forces for good by two groups, Breakdance Project Uganda and the Uganda Skateboard Union. A look at these groups and how they were formed provides a window into these non-traditional, but effective, vehicles for personal and community growth.

Formed in 2006, Breakdance Project Uganda is in the process of registering as an NGO. It already has more than 1000 members country-wide, from Kampala to Gulu to Mbale.

 

The Projects founder, Abraham Abramz Tekya, is a dynamic 27 year-old rapper and break dancer. Losing his parents to HIV/AIDS at the tender age of seven, he and his siblings were in and out of school and vagabonding from relative to relative throughout his youth. Abramz found a way of expressing and empowering himself through rap and began to teach others in the slums and towns around him. As he taught other people these rapping skills, he could see a change in them. Instead of turning to violence, these individuals could air their grievances and find freedom through rapping.

Abramz then decided to give breakdancing classes free of charge. At Breakdance Project Uganda, his mantra is: everybodys a student and everybodys a teacher, whereby everyone involved in the project gives back by teaching others for free. This mantra not only implies mutual respect and equality, but has also meant that the project has been able to sustain itself with few funds. From the very beginning, the project developed with the aim of creating social change, but not all successful projects are necessarily born with this intent.

Jackson Mubiru, co-founder and executive director of the Uganda Skateboard Union, a nationally registered NGO, admits the Union began without much interest in social change. a stake boarder himself, he initially thought he and his friend shael would build aramp to skate board on and be the only ones using it.

Yet, as he began to skate there, he attracted other kids who were eager to learn, and he decided to share his passion with them. Now, he told The Independent, during an interview at the skate park in Kitintale, My aim is to care about them, to give out boards, shoes, clothes [that people donate]. A soft-spoken man, he affectionately refers to the group of skaters as my kids.

 

Beyond merely promoting skateboarding, the unions website outlines the organisations social objectives, such as reaching out to Kampalas youth on serious issues like HIV/AIDS. Their website lauds skateboarding as a way of combating negative habits that arise from the youths boredom, providing entertainment to the community, and bringing a new development to Uganda.  Canadian co-founder of the park, Brian Lye, told The Independent in an email: I think that [the skate park has a] much stronger purpose than just a place to skateboard.  I also see it as a club of sorts, where they work together and come together to share their problems, help each other out, and discuss their social problems.

The kids at Kitintale Skate Park are of different ages and gender and come from different backgrounds, but all share a profound love for skateboarding. Sauda, one of the few girls present, has just completed senior six and started skateboarding. Nicolas, 19 years old, is a barber in his father’s saloon. He wants to be a professional skateboarder, as does little Bashiri, only 11. Although the chances of fulfilling their dreams might be low, they benefit from their passion through the sense of self-worth it brings.Â

Even the United Nations recognises the importance of sports activities for development. The UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace extols sport as a powerful contributor to improving health, providing employment, and generating social and economic activity. It also notes that “Sport can also help build a culture of peace and tolerance by bringing people together on common ground, crossing national and other boundaries to promote understanding and mutual respect.” In the case of the Kitintale skate park, for instance, skating has provided grounds for the youth to come together in a healthy environment that promotes dedication and tolerance.

Additionally, research in the US has found that prevention programmes (against criminal behavior) are most effective when regularly attended. Arts and sports programmes are effective in attracting, engaging and retaining even the toughest kids. Indeed, children self-select into these programmes, as joining is purely voluntary and free of charge. This means that members are driven and committed. Furthermore, these programmes not only teach the kids physical skills but also contribute to their personal development.Â

Talking to the young adults and children at Breakdance Project Uganda also immediately reveals the positive impact of the project. 17 year-old Rehemah, aka “Reymie”, an aspiring engineer, feels like the project has helped her use her energy positively to affect change around her.  Oscar, aka “Kmo”, also 17, was initially lured into joining the project through his love of breakdance, but has gained a lot from being involved: he has received sponsorship to pay for his school fees and teaches graffiti twice a week. This has given him a sense of responsibility and boosted his self-esteem. Younger children, such as Esther, 10, also benefit from the programme. She and other children of Breakdance Project Uganda were invited to Poland last year to perform and teach there, all expenses paid.

Individuals working for each of the projects also noted how beneficial they were in terms of prevention of crime, drugs and other negative social behaviours. For Abramz, “What our leaders here do is […] think that throwing someone in prison is the solution to the problem…I lived in these ghettos and I learned a lot and I got to know why people commit crimes.” He believes strongly that “to make someone drop their plan A, you have to give them a plan B.” Whether rapping, dancing or skating, these alternatives, or “plan B” often substitute for other negative habits.  Indeed, for Lye, the Kitintale skateboarding facility is an alternative for the kids; it “keeps them busy skating when they could be doing drugs, or getting into other trouble.”

Despite their successes, both these projects have not been given much public support. Breakdance Project Uganda, despite offering classes for free, must pay rent at the Nsambya Sharing Youth Center, where they hold classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings. The dancers deplored the floor they dance on, which is not an adequate dance floor. Concerning the Skateboard Union, for Lye, the local Ugandan authorities could work together with Mubiru to create the next public skate park, as the one currently existing is too small and has fallen into disrepair. This would also improve the safety of the park for the kids. Lye adds that the Ugandans authorities could also assist with tax exemption for the donated goods.Â

It is a shame such projects have yet to attract more support from within Uganda, as they are Ugandan-run and involve almost only Ugandan youth.

The Skateboard Union and Breakdance Project Uganda are giving youth the opportunity to be part of a wider community of skaters or dancers and to build a better future around their passion. Through skating and dancing they are able to communicate broader fundamental values such as tolerance and self-worth and address deeper social issues such as regular school attendance and HIV/AIDS prevention. Although the method may be unconventional, the results are plain to see in the enthusiastic smiles and positive attitudes of Bashiri, Esther and Oscar.

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