When I was visiting Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, Cambodia, I flipped a a 50-cent coin my mother gave me prior to leaving the States in June 2017. I used this coin throughout my Watson year to make decisions in moments, especially in moments of indecision or when I simply felt unattached to any one particular outcome. Stay in Asia? Or return to India and eventually South Africa? I’d already bought my roundtrip ticket from India to South Africa, but I second-guessed that decision because Cambodia felt like a place that deserved more time and energy for exploration. Heads, stay. Tails, go. Cautiously, I flipped the coin. I was sitting beside a tree whose wise white roots towered over me. Tails.
Looking back, I realize I had a choice to stay in Cambodia. What with Skateistan expanding its reach, I wondered why am I even asking the question of “should I stay or should I go?” That being said, I couldn’t help but feel a fateful pull back to South Africa. There was so much more to learn and I’d barely scratched the surface. This coin flip led me back to South Africa, this time towards Cape Town, where I spent almost three months volunteering with a local skateboarding non profit developing their girls programming and conducting ethnographic interviews through which I gained a deeper understanding of South African responses and resistance to women’s participation in skateboarding.
This period of my Watson year made me realize just how complex the topic of women’s skateboarding was in a country shaped by racialized and gendered social inequality and inequity. How do we get the rural Zulu mother of two to skateboard? How can skateboarding be used as an instrument of healing from apartheid wounds? What if women skateboarders could play a key role in the democratization of urban public space in South Africa?
South Africa marked my move away from the “global north” and towards a very different landscape both for girls and skateboarding culture more generally. There, I encountered relatively few women and girls, but there I thought a lot about how gender is performed, how certain identities (and activities!) are proxies for others (e.g. brown/poor, skater/lesbian, etc), the naturalization of patriarchy , less value on lives of girls (because they don’t pass on the family name, lineage, etc), and the complex relationship between sexism and colonialism.
Using skateboarding as a tool to teach life skills around self-esteem, healthy decision making, and goal setting with the skater girls of Kleinvlei over the course of 8 weeks evoked questions I started asking in Janwaar, India. What is the landscape of opportunity for these girls for whom drugs, violence, and lack of education are the norm? How can skateboarding help them expand their landscape of opportunity by offering them a transient zone of freedom in which they can be kids and temporarily experience their bodies outside of the racialized or sexualized contexts they tend to exist in? Why is it so important that we invest in our girls, period?
As skateboarders build our pockets of concrete paradise around the globe, we must also be willing to reckon with systems of power and oppression that shape our lives on and off our boards. In order for skateboarding to be used as a tool for healing, we must be willing to engage the root causes that cause the pain we seek reprieve from. Skateboarding in South Africa as a queer black woman forced me to accept the ways in which I am vulnerable. Yet my time working alongside Charl Jensel reignited my faith in allyship. The reality is that marginalized people can’t be the only ones fighting for our safety and freedom. A future in which people of all genders can skate freely and safely together requires all of us to do the intellectual and emotional labor of dismantling our internalized -isms.
In Cape Town, I met a girl named Kirsten Poking who rocked my world because of how she balanced fiery passion with a sense of peace and tranquility. I met her while skating at The Shred skate park and again when she joined the Indigo Youth Movement team in April. However, her time at Indigo was short lived. Dallas and Kirsten often butted heads over Dallas’s disingenuous “support” of female skateboarders. It was clear that he came from a long tradition of skateboarders who felt girls were “cute” for trying, but that they lacked skill and weren’t worth the investment because they’d never be as good as a guy. Kirsten did her best to maintain a positive thought, but she and I hit our breaking point in mid-May when we learned that Dallas wasn’t being transparent about the organization’s finances and witnessed him berating Charl, who is recognized by all as the heart of Indigo. Kirsten and I were tasked with developing Indigo’s girls skateboarding program as well as design its life skills manual. After about two months with Indigo, she decided to break off on her own and start building her own program in her neighborhood of Bo Kaap, a predominantly Muslim colored community near Cape Town’s central business district. Her ability to single handedly garner support from her local authorities and institutions to procure space, advertise her new program, and even convince Indigo to lend her some skateboards inspired me because they showed me just how tenacious and determined she was to realize her dream and provide for the youth in her community. Kirsten also introduced me to Moonlight Mass, a monthly gathering of bikers, skaters, and anyone with wheels to spend an evening exploring the city by wheels under the moonlight.
During a brief trip to Johannesburg in May, I stayed up late conversing with Alicia van Zeyl – a spunky 31-year-old graphic designer who founded No Comply Coven, an women’s skate crew in Joburg – about her experiences growing up during apartheid and balancing her socialization as a white person in South Africa with her position as someone who experiences marginalization within South African society. We cultivated a deep sense of camaraderie over our shared identities as queer, outspoken, artistic, working class skater women, which starkly contrasted with the sexist, homophobic bullshit we’d experienced while advocating for safer and more inclusive spaces for women to skate in Joburg.
During my three months in South Africa, I spent a week surviving and thriving and dancing in the desert, hiked across drastically and beautifully different landscapes, and worked towards building a future in which South African and African skateboarders generally were more deeply woven into the international skateboarding landscape. After almost three months, I felt completely involved in my life in South Africa. I’d fallen in love with powerful visionaries and dizzying landscapes, made friends with inspiring women such as Kelly [Murray], Alicia, and Kirsten, and stood up to Dallas by challenging him to confront his own toxic masculinity and become the man that deserves to lead a movement as powerful and meaningful as Indigo Youth Movement. By the end of May I was exhausted. I’d given so much time, energy, and resources to my skateboarding communities in the country. But I was ready to close this chapter and move onto the adventures that awaited me. London called.