We’ve all read or watched the horror stories coming out of Afghanistan. This remote and rugged land has seen more than its share of suffering during the Soviet invasion, the tyranny of the Taliban, and the chaos of the most recent decade. Whatever one’s take is on the current situation and uncertain future of Afghanistan, there lies optimism for its youth’s future. After all, 50% of its population is younger than 16, and 75% of Afghans are under 25 years of age—many of whom have not been scarred by the events of the past 30 years.
So what can be done to help build a stronger Afghanistan for and with its people, many of whom are weary of having foreign powers on their soil? Never mind the war: plenty of criticism exists over the billions of numbers spent on international development related projects. But there’s one place that uses social capital instead of financial capital to make a difference in Afghanistan—at a school led by an Australian, who includes a few skateboards in his kit. Let me take you to Skateistan, where kids and their skateboards rule.
Oliver Percovich arrived in Afghanistan with his skateboards in February 2007. His journey started at age six in Papau New Guinea, where he often found himself skating in an empty pool. After competing around the globe in international skateboarding competitions, he eventually built a career working on emergency management projects for various Australian government agencies before venturing to Afghanistan.
Last week I had an opportunity to call Oliver and learn more about Skateistan. He pointed out that one reason why international development projects often fall short in Afghanistan is that too many foreigners arrive in the country with very little understanding of the local context. Ideas that sound great in a conference room in Washington, Brussels, or Geneva often don’t work in practice once such projects hit the ground running in Kabul. Money is not enough: Social bonds and trust with the locals must develop. Meanwhile, Afghans are often not consulted enough in gauging what’s really needed on the streets, in the schools, and throughout the cities and countryside. Most irritating, international aid workers often do not bother to interact with Afghans to find out what tactics and approaches could help in building their nation.
That’s not to say a foreign sport couldn’t take root in Afghanistan. As Oliver and another Australian, Sharna Nolan, realized when they would drop their boards around Kabul, children of all ages became intrigued by their sport and wanted to learn how to skate. A small skate school soon emerged with the three boards Oliver and Sharna owned, and then the idea grew; by bringing more skateboards to Kabul, they could teach more children, and start impacting more of their lives—including often neglected girls.
Fast forward two years to the first skateboarding school in Afghanistan, occupying 58,000 square feet of land donated by the Afghan Olympic Committee. Oliver and his staff have accomplished some amazing feats:
- Engaging with children in a meaningful way: Skateboards have formed a unique way of interaction between students, their peers, and their teachers
- Educating youth using non-traditional means: Teachers at Skateistan have more of a facilitator role, often finding that discussions often end up being led and directed by the students themselves.
- Bringing together youngsters of different backgrounds and ethnicity: Rich kids as well as poor share a space and ideas, and of course, girls have an opportunity to shine and excel in school when few such options otherwise exist.
Currently Skateistan educates 300 children, and their operating costs are about US$10,000 a month. (You can donate here.)
Skateistan the Movie is soon to be released as well, which will cover the school’s construction, its students’ achievements, and a glimpse of what life is like in contemporary Afghanistan. Let me close with its trailer: