The parking lot in Nairobi’s Central Business District doesn’t look like much Monday to Saturday: just a stretch of concrete surrounded by 1960s office buildings. But on a Sunday the space is jam-packed with rollerbladers. People of all shapes and sizes glide and wobble around a giant, car-free skating loop. Children whizz by gleefully, darting over the uneven concrete and tumbling to the ground. Twenty-somethings play street hockey on their blades in one corner, toddlers take lessons in another, and all the way around the edges of the rink lie battered pairs of rollerblades, lined up and ready to be rented out. Friends, parents and children sit on the walls surrounding the parking lot, taking pictures.
Among all this action, Samuel Ngara Kabundi stands out. At 24 years old, Sam, as he’s known, is easily the best skater in the park, and delights the cluster of kids around him with his smooth moves – crouching with one leg in the air, speeding backwards, dancing his feet one over the other to the beats of his stereo.
“I started skating in 2008,” says Kabundi. He saw a few guys skating on the streets of Kangemi, the informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi where he lives. “I thought, I want to try that. So I borrowed a pair of skates from my friend. I fell so many times! But bit-by-bit, each day a little bit more, I did it. By seven or eight months I got really good.”
Skating has been around in Kenya for many years, but the craze has really taken off in the last five years, according to Anthony Mburu, President of the Kenya Federation of Roller Skating. The country’s rising middle class have more money and time to spend on recreational activities, and Nairobi’s huge Gikomba market has lately filled with second-hand skates that have made their way across the globe from the U.K., U.S. and Canada – places where the rollerblading fad took off and died down decades back. (While “Rollerblades” is a specific brand name, it is also widely used to refer to any brand of in-line skates.)
The weekend parking-lot skate has mushroomed in popularity over the last few years, and bladers can now be seen all over Nairobi, often using the wheels as transportation. The skating federation has also been training more serious speed skaters for competitions as far away as Spain, in turn inspiring youngsters who see that the sport can be more than a recreational activity. “People realized it’s something that can take you places,” says Mburu, whose group is working to expand skating opportunities across Kenya. He estimates there are now 80,000 skaters in clubs and schools around the country.
With one in six young people unemployed in Kenya, Mburu says affordable recreational activities are a vital part of keeping youth active. “Once people start skating it’s a very addictive sport; any kids who skates has no time to get caught up in the TV and social media controlling our generation,” he asserts.
But for some enterprising Nairobi residents, like Kabundi, skating also brings in money. “I had a big sister with three kids but she passed away so my mum had to take care of the kids, plus me and my twin brother,” he says. “It was all so expensive so I had to leave college.”
Kabundi managed to get a number of jobs through skating: teaching kids at primary schools to skate, as well as distributing promotional leaflets and flyers for organizations around the city on his rollerblades. Kabundi says he makes about KES 1,500 ($15) a day from these jobs. “Skating helps me pay for the family,” he says. “I can’t just go home empty handed.”
In the run-up to the Kenyan elections in early August, Kabundi skated around Nairobi wearing a t-shirt for the Orange Democratic Movement political party and handing out ODM flyers. Kenya’s political history is famously turbulent, and in 2007 widespread violence broke out between tribes after a disputed election, killing more than a thousand people. Protests once again erupted this month after opposition leader Raila Odinga claimed election fraud. But Kabundi says canvassing for political parties doesn’t cause any issues among him and his diverse skating crew. “Me and my friends are like skate skate skate skate! We all come from different tribes like Kikuyu, Kamba, Maasai, Luo. All that matters is skating.”
Alongside of his work, Kabundi has, for the last four years, found time to teach the homeless street kids who hang around the parking lot for free. Mostly orphans, they sleep on strips of cardboard in the flowerbeds and rummage through garbage cans for food. “People treat them like outcasts, but some have lost their parents, maybe their father married another woman, their backgrounds are hard,” Kabundi says. When he arranges a time with them the kids arrive early, eagerly waiting for their lesson. In the future, he has aspirations of expanding what he does and opening up a club to teach these children to skate, and to also provide lunch and clothes. “I’d like to help the street kids to build their talents. It would be fun – without skating there’s no fun for them.”
Mburu, of the skating federation, worries that opportunity may not always be there for these kids. “The biggest challenge we have is that they’re planning to build a high-rise parking lot [on the current skating plot]. Once they do that we will have nowhere to practice.” With no government funding and no formal skating facilities, Mburu worries skating in Kenya will die out.
Kabundi says he can’t imagine a life without skating. Taking out his smartphone, he starts checking Instagram, watching videos from Singapore to learn and master new moves. “The passion keeps on rising because I keep on discovering new stuff,” he says, his face breaking in to one of his easy, cheeky smiles. “I keep falling and keep challenging myself.”