Two weeks in KwaZulu-Natal

Greetings from Durban, South Africa. I’ve been in South Africa for about four weeks and have so much to share with you all!

I arrived in Durban on the 11th of December, exhausted from the long flight from Barcelona but stoked to be back in the African continent after almost five months in Europe. South African pro-skater-turned-philanthropist Dallas Oberholzer picked me up from King Shaka International Airport and drove me to Isithumba – “Valley of a Thousand Hills” in Zulu home to his project Indigo Skate Camp.

Indigo Skate Camp: Stories from my Week in Isithumba

Dallas founded Indigo Skate Camp when he was 26 years old in an attempt to use skateboarding as an instrument for positive social good. When he started this project in 2001, South Africa was only 7 years out of apartheid. Dallas’s dream was to use skateboarding as a way to include rural and vulnerable youths and foster friendship and understanding between more fortunate (and predominantly white) urban youths with rural (predominantly black) kids.

Indigo Skate Camp inspired Indigo Youth Movement, the latter of which was born out of Dallas’s desire to spread the positive impact that Indigo Skate Camp had on one village to other communities across the country.

Check out these videos to learn more about what Indigo Youth Movement does:

I found Dallas through Isard Pindula of the Skateboarding Association of Mozambique (also known as Skate Moz), with whom I founded Mozambique’s first girls skateboarding collective, Meninanda, in July 2017. Isard’s hope was that I could work with Dallas to promote women’s skateboarding in South Africa as well as foster deeper connections between the skateboarding communities of Mozambique and South Africa. In addition to wanting to combine my passions for skateboarding and activism, I was also drawn to South Africa and specifically to Indigo Skate Camp because I was interested how legacies of apartheid would interact with gender paradigms in a rural Zulu village.

From the moment I stepped on this village’s rich soil and inhaled its fresh air, I felt at ease. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. The Valley of a Thousand Hills was just that – a dizzying landscape of green, rolling hills freckled with huts and replete with cows and goats roaming freely. Greetings of sawubona from curious neighbours and a stream of excited Zulu from the village kids who spoke to me assuming I already knew their language. After living in a country where I felt out of place despite being a native speaker of the predominant language (Spanish), it was a pleasant surprise to arrive in a new environment and have people assume I was already a part of their linguistic/cultural community.

I arrived at Indigo and to my surprise was the only volunteer – and participant – who signed up for the weeklong Indigo Skate Camp. It turned out that the summer camp, which was originally set for 11-16 December, was cancelled due to lack of participation. However, this information wasn’t communicated to me or on Indigo’s social media outlets. As a result, I showed up because I was dedicated to being a part of this movement. Though I was definitely disappointed – I wanted to see Indigo in action and expected to meet more volunteers and participants – I decided to embrace the unique opportunity to engage with Dallas and the local community on a one-on-one basis.

Some highlights from my week in Isithumba:

  • Tried ostrich steak for the first time at a hut braai at Indigo Skate Camp with Dallas
  • Went to a Zulu wedding and after party, where I witnessed people sacrificing and gutting mbuzi (goat), drank a local beer out of a shared basin with a bunch of strangers, got called “colored” in a derogatory way, had at least five people ask me to marry them, had little girls style my dreadlocks into bantu knots
  • Woke up at dawn almost every day
  • Befriended a baby goat and it’s mama after three days of cleaning their poop out of the skate park
  • Got mad at a little boy who told me that because I was a girl, I shouldn’t try a trick or skate the vert ramp
  • Ate shit (literally) skating downhills with Mandla, a local skater and builder from Isithumba
  • Engaging legacies of apartheid in skateboarding
  • Before continuing, I must also acknowledge that I am not South African; therefore, my perspectives on South African culture and racial politics come from an outside point of view and may not be aware of all the historical, linguistic, and cultural nuances. I must also clarify that there is a distinction between an individual and an organization.

    That all being said: it is impossible to talk about my experience in Isithumba without mentioned the legacy of apartheid in Dallas’s work in Isithumba. There is a plethora of movements and discussions currently taking place in South Africa regarding land repatriation, decolonization of education, and how to heal a racially, ideologically, and socioeconomically divided society. In the context of Indigo Skate Camp, it is clear that Dallas and the local community aren’t always on the same page when it comes to communication styles, power dynamics, or organizational structure. For example, Dallas doesn’t speak isiZulu even after over 15 years working and living part-time in Isithumba. Even though villagers have agreed to give him land, they don’t fully trust him because they are uncomfortable with what they feel is an imposition of a white man in a black community. How do we validate the villagers’ anxieties about neocolonialism while also holding space for privileged people to confront and heal from their own racist socialization?

    In addition to feeling overwhelmed by how tangible this tension felt, I also felt uncomfortable in my new position as “colored” – neither black nor white. In the USA (and most other places) I am black; in the Dominican Republic – the birthplace of my parents – I am an American of Dominican descent. Everywhere I go, I am neither here nor there.

    Asking the difficult questions

    One afternoon at the camp, I saw two villagers sitting with Dallas in what looked like a tense conversation. I remember making eye contact with one of them – I later found out his name is Amimi – and feeling compelled to join. My instinct told me to leave, so I decided to go spend the afternoon by a river instead.

    That night, Dallas was visibly disoriented and asked me for my thoughts on what I’d witnessed earlier that day: a fruitless attempt at conversation between Amimi and Dallas about the need for Dallas to change his leadership style and create more opportunities for youth to gain positions of leadership within the organization.

    After a few minutes of hearing his story, I was quiet. I took a deep breath before asking: “Dallas… have you ever heard of white saviour syndrome?” “No.” “It’s like inviting yourself into someone’s home, remodelling the interior, and then getting butthurt that they aren’t happy you came and changed everything without asking them if that’s what they really wanted.”

    It was a difficult conversation to have because I, as a black person from the United States whose roots are in a notoriously anti-black Latin Caribbean country (Dominican Republic), have experienced (and perpetuated) racism with/from/to people of all colours in the past. Just as it was challenging for him to focus on the impact rather than the intentions of his actions, it was difficult for me to validate his experiences of racism as a white person. Ultimately, it was an important conversation that provoked a lot of reflection for us both. In fact, in the car on my way to Durban after my week in Isithumba, Dallas offered me to work with him in Cape Town to help build his girls skateboarding program. He shared admiration and respect for my communication skills, claiming that no one had ever told him what I told him, and that it was hard to hear but important to learn. Both of us agree that there is a lot of potential in our partnership and friendship to grow as individuals as well as skateboarders who are trying to promote the use of the sport to empower women and youth.

    There is so much more I could say about my short but saturated time in Isithumba that I cannot share on a public forum, but I will say this: spending a week in this community is an experience taught me a lot about identity, history, and movement-building. It also showed me just how complex and painful the healing process can be. Community is a verb. The work is ongoing.

    Durban adventures

    One week after I first arrived at Indigo Skate Camp, Dallas drove me to Durban, where I would stay for a few days before heading towards Johannesburg. At the reception of Tekweni Backpackers, I was greeted by none other than Amimi, the guy I saw at the skate camp. We recognized each other right away and within 20 minutes were deep in conversation not necessarily about Dallas, but rather about his life story, the role that Indigo Youth Movement has played in his life and community, and how to promote healthy lifestyles for the youth of Isithumba. To my pleasant surprise, Amimi never once disparaged Dallas’s character or called him a racist or any other derogatory term. Though he admitted that he didn’t like Dallas due to his leadership style, obsession with ownership, and unwillingness to engage the local community on their terms, Amimi emphasized that his priority is the youth and making sure that all residents of the village benefit from the skate camp.

    One of the threads of our conversation comments that really resonated with me was skateboarding’s relationship to the legacy of apartheid. Part of why Amimi (who came of age under apartheid) doubted the efficacy of Indigo Youth Movement in Isithumba is because, in addition to a racialized imbalance of power and access to resources, black and brown South Africans must perform an exorbitant amount of emotional and psychological labour in order to decolonize their minds.

    The question remains, though: how do we decolonize our minds when apartheid (Afrikaans for “apart-ness” or “separateness”) is still ingrained in the structure of societies, cities, politics, psychologies, and even language? This question is extremely important because colonization and apartheid-type (read: systems of white dominion and institutionalized racial segregation) regimes are not limited to South Africa. For example, countries such as The United States are notorious for Jim Crow laws, targeted assassinations and incarcerations of prominent civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Brazil, the country with the largest population of afro-descendants outside of the African continent, was the last country to abolish slavery and as recently as March 2018 witnessed the targeted assassination of Mariele Franco, a prominent local politician whose upbringing in violence- and poverty-stricken Maré and identities as a poor, gay black woman led her to pursue a career in human rights activism.

    So how does skateboarding fit into all of this?

    Skateboarding is one of the few communities I’ve ever been a part of that actively promote unity while also celebrating individuality and diversity. It embodies the spirit of resistance to dominant paradigms that racialize, class, gender, and ultimately separate us in the name of preserving law and order.

    Though one can identify as a skateboarder, that identity is not static. To make a choice to get on a skateboard and push into the sun is an act of radical defiance, especially in a world where the color of your skin and other aspects of your identity can reduce your landscape of possibility to a slur, a limited set of options, or even a shorter life span. I believe that skateboarding has the potential to completely transform the landscape of possibility for millions of South Africans by encouraging people to reimagine public spaces, embrace non-motorised mobility, and build a more diverse, inclusive community. This toy, this piece of wood on wheels, can equip people from all over the world with the resilience and courage to transform themselves from passive subjects to active agents in their own lives and communities.

    Closing thoughts

    In just two short weeks, I’ve already learned so much about South Africa through my time at Indigo Skate Camp, conversations with folks at Tekweni, people on the street, and skaters at Durban Skatepark about everything from gender to religion to the Olympics to building regional solidarity among skateboarders in Southern Africa. My short time in this new country has reignited my spirit of adventure and discovery. It’s also produced lots of discomfort around how to promote skateboarding as an instrument for inclusion in what remains a deeply divided society.

    I’ll be heading to Johannesburg at the end of this week to interview Kelly Murray of Skateistan, connect with a new women’s skate collective called No Comply Coven, reunite with some of my friends from Mozambique, and ring in the new year at AFROPUNK Festival!

    Stay tuned 🙂

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