BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 01 JAN 11
Featured in
Issue 136

Board Games

What a skatepark in Uganda symbolizes about African urbanity

BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 01 JAN 11

Yann Gross, the Kitintale skatepark, Uganda, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Kitintale, a modest brick-and-tin-roof suburb situated in a valley northeast of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, is home to an unusual architectural accomplishment. A squat structure set in a fertile domestic landscape, Kitintale’s skatepark – allegedly East Africa’s first – was conceived by Jackson Mubiru. You could say he was its architect. It all started 12 years when the Kitintale resident secretly roller-skated to Mbuya Army Children School in the nearby suburb of Nakawa. ‘I was risking my life skating on the road,’ says Mubiru (they are perilous in this part of the world).

Mubiru wasn’t the only roller-skater in town: on weekends he and some friends would take the train to Mandela National Stadium, to skate in the car park. ‘It was on a Sunday morning in 2004 – I went to skate on the streets around Kampala,’ he recalls, when he noticed a car following him. Its occupants flagged him down. Shael Swart, a young South African whose mother was a teacher in Kampala, introduced himself to Mubiru and excitedly asked about the city’s skate scene. Mubiru obliged, also telling Swart of his plans to establish a skate club. Swart suggested Mubiru build a half-pipe – a suggestion that he had to diagrammatically clarify for Mubiru.

In April 2006, a year after Mubiru first asked his mother about building a skatepark on a vacant spot of land she owned, she agreed. During construction tax inspectors from the city arrived. ‘What are you building?’ they enquired. ‘A crocodile enclosure,’ Mubiru replied, adding that the sloping surfaces of the ramps helped the reptiles sunbathe. ‘Oh,’ they said, never to return. The modest structure that now graces Kitintale hasn’t been included in any architectural surveys, in fact it hardly generated a buzz except amongst a few interested locals. This all changed after Swiss photographer and skate enthusiast Yann Gross visited.

Three years ago Gross was in Bunia, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, visiting his partner, Anne-Cécile Leyvraz. ‘We used to skate a lot together, and wanted to keep doing it anywhere,’ says Gross. Often seconded to Kampala, Leyvraz enquired where she and Gross could skate there, which led them to Mubiru. Over the past three years Gross has spent months rather than weeks in Kitintale, mostly skating with Mubiru, but also photographing his group of friends. In 2010 he self-published a photo-essay on Mubiru’s skatepark; its images aroused immediate interest. News journalists, photographers and filmmakers started harassing Mubiru, who only recently gained formal employment, with interview requests and proposals.

‘It was hard to deal with all these people,’ says Gross. ‘The suburb wasn’t meant to become a touristic place or a zoo: “Wow, Africans on skateboards, so cool!”’ Herein lies the rub. The story of Kitintale has an obvious feel-good factor, one that elides a number of issues around African urbanity and contemporaneity. Africa has been subjected to the spectacularization of its topography and the circumstances of its everyday pretty much since the invention of the camera, although one can trace the malaise back earlier, to mapmaking. During a recent interview with David Adjaye, we talked about this in relation to the architect’s ten-year project photographing African cities, especially how his vast collection of urban typologies chafes against clichéd notions of an African metropolitan identity. ‘I was born in a cosmopolitan condition amongst different groups of Africans, Indians and Chinese,’ remarked Adjaye, who was born in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, to a Ghanaian diplomatic family. ‘That is my beginnings, and it was in metropolitan skylines.’

The profile of Kitintale might not evoke the stock image of a metropolitan skyline, but it is, conceptually, little different to the suburbs of Milton Keynes or San Diego. In the case of Fredrick Gakuru, a Nairobi skater who goes by the name Fre Dý, the profile of his playground is more typically vertical. Skateboarding has only recently gained momentum in Nairobi. Popular hang-outs include Uhuru Park, Uhuru Gardens and Agha Khan Walk. Local authorities have routinely chased Gakuru and his companions from the former two parks, even after bribes were paid. ‘We have no skateparks in Nairobi, which is why we skate at parking lots and leisure parks,’ says Gakuru. Blame developmental politics for this condition. Urban projects constituted less than five percent of all World Bank projects undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa in the three decades before the new millennium; patterns of urban development leave disenfranchized urban youth to go it alone.

It is, potentially, a productive space to be functioning in. In a 2007 essay, Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher based in Johannesburg, argued the case of ‘Afropolitanism’, a post-Negritude position he characterized as ‘an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world’, one that eschewed ‘any form of victim identity’. At the heart of this ‘way of being in the world’, he argued, is the revival of ‘African aesthetics and cultural creativity’. Skateboarding might seem an unlikely marker of this resurgence – but only if you haven’t read Ian Borden. A British architectural historian and urban commentator whose theories of space and architecture centrally implicate the body, in 1996 Borden proposed that skateboarders ‘threaten accepted definitions of space, taking over space conceptually as well as physically and so striking at the very heart of what everyone else understands by the city.’

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.