Indigo Skate Camp
I was asked by Ian Wittenbur and Patrick Cummings of US online magazines Again Faster and Evolve to visit a little village in the Valley of 1000 Hills and experiance a fascinating project started by South African skateboading supremo Dallas Oberholzer that started with some skateboads and ramps and has blown up into a full on community enrichment project. Read on.
Driving through rural KwaZulu Natal is a reward in itself. Travelling through the rambling beauty of the Valley of thousand Hills comes with a boxer’s bob and weave type of driving through dips and around bends that are loaded with surprises from docile cows to 100 ton trucks.
A cool autumn day presents itself with fat little cumulous clouds floating toward the distant horizon. Colourful wild flowers line the narrow roads. I feel a sense of excitement at the prospect of the novelty of my intended destination of Isithumba village.
The Indigo Skate Camp is my target amidst all this rural beauty. The skate camp is the brainchild of Dallas Oberholzer, South African skate boarding icon. With the intention of giving back to a community that would almost certainly have never heard of skate boarding, over eleven years ago he put down some roots in the humble yet idyllic surrounds of the village of Isithumba, named after an imposing and impressive rock overlooking the life-giving Umgeni River.
Indigo Skate Camp has giant ramps and a ‘kidney bowl’ structure you would see at any urban skate park. The children from the surrounding area learn skate boarding and other life-skills brought to the camp by overseas tourists who come for a skateboarding holiday. Here the tourist is treated to Zulu hospitality of good food, story-telling and bush walks. Indigo Skate Camp was the beginning and now foundation stone to the Indigo Youth Movement (IYM) which is the road show, if you like, of what’s been happening at Indigo Skate Camp for years.
Driving into the deep valley toward Isithumba the road is lined with school children on their way home. Friendliness is one of the first things that greets an outsider. People smile and wave as you drive tentatively between goats, cows and curious pedestrians and potholes. I’m a little lost so I stop and ask some mischievous looking primary school children where Indigo Skate Camp is. “Lift, lift, can we have a lift?” The spokesman chances. I say “sure, just show me where Indigo is please.” My dinky Toyota which normally takes four adults is now filled to the brim with possibly as many as 12 under twelve’s’. We travel a kilometre or so and they stop me and hop out. “Is this Indigo?” I point to a driveway. “No” they chorus with shiny impish faces surrounding sparkling white teeth. “Indigo is that way.” They point to the opposite direction. Rascals. Every South Africa urban dweller’s nightmare is being hijacked. I’ll be able to tell my friends about the friendliest hijackers in the country!
Upon arrival at Indigo the impression is not of a scintillating establishment transplanted into the midst of poverty. Though the area is poor it’s neither derelict nor slumish. It’s rural, simple and peaceful. The ‘camp’ is reflective of the community in which it resides. A collective of the traditional Zulu rondavels and other out buildings around the ‘elephant in the room’. I refer to the enormous skateboard ramp, skate pool (kidney bowl) and other ramps. It’s totally out of character with the rest of the scene.
Wading through the long grass I see a slim, athletic looking man in his mid-forties. He greets me with friendly surprise. He introduces himself as Dallas. Hooray, I’ve caught the big fish in his natural habitat first try. Despite being very hospitable, Dallas is very busy with his financial advisor and doing financial transfers over the phone- not quite aware of the incongruousness of the scene of high tech business world juxtaposed to the rural African backdrop. My appointment is with G. But G is still on his way so I’m privileged to eaves drop on Dallas’ financial meeting cum skateboard lesson on one of the ramps.
I meet a couple of overseas visitors who’ve come to hangout and help-out at the camp. We chat casually about the camp and how impressive the structures are and how beautiful the area is. Helle is from Denmark and is travelling around South Africa to: “Get a feel of the place, to be exposed to other cultures and people.” Indigo welcomes her with open arms and puts her up for a few days while she helps with odd jobs about the camp. Surprisingly she has no interest in skating just learning about how another people live.
It’s now after four in the afternoon and seemingly out of nowhere emerge little bunches of children, some primary school age, other’s well into their teens. Let the skating begin! Some seem content at first to play with their own inertia as they use a little exertion to get their skate boards up one side of the ramp and then up the other. Then comes the madness, four or five kids on the big ramp chase each other in a circle up and down the curves creating a whirring that’s almost manic. Their faces a mixture of intense concentration and abandoned joy. One takes a tumble – the board flies in the air and smacks one of the spectators on the shoulder. He dives to the ground in mock agony, or is it? Everyone laughs as he waves his finger smiling, telling the culprit that he needs to learn to skate. There’s anuproar of laughter and gestures. Then everyone joins in the skating. It’s crowded and it’s difficult to see what’s going on- some kids are practicing tricks others seem content with the rhythm of going up and down at either end of the ramp. The girls look on.
I approach a stand where about fifteen girls sit. They come from the village after school to watch the skating they say. I ask them: “So why aren’t you skate boarding?” There’s uproarious giggling. “No, no, no not for me.” says a 13 year old. “How, I am too scared to do that” says another. They all laugh and dismiss my challenges to them as foolishness. I make a mental note to myself to ask G about this. While I wait for G to arrive I chat to one of the other leaders of the camp, T. T, short for Thabang, comes from the village and makes it clear that Indigo Skate Camp has provided him with a hope and future that he believes would not others wise be there. He goes on to explain that as many as 50 kids come and participate in the activities at the Skate camp. On a skating note T reckons that some of the kids have become so practiced that they are more adept than he is on the ramps.
With that I meet G who has arrived after his long trip by minibus taxi having had errands to do in Durban. G is a friendly easy-going young man, although when among the kids he has a very discernible sense of authority. He is naturally hospitable. We settle down under the canopy of some thorn trees upon some makeshift benches made from branches. I switch on my recording device and ask what I know people from outside are bound to want to know. There is an elephant in the room – a skateboard park in rural Kwazulu-Natal, what is that all about?
G nods and smiles, he knows exactly what I’m talking about. “It started with the skate camp in 2001 for the guys who came from the cities to come and visit Indigo, we used the tourism centre near the primary school where we used to have our skate camps during the school holidays, bringing the kids from the cities and different provinces to interact with the village kids.
We use skate boarding for social change to stop drugs and alcohol and to talk about life and also to learn more English. So Indigo, I can say, is a beautiful place and I’m sure you wouldn’t expect to find a skateboard park here. It is so beautiful, we are surrounded by the mountains of the valley of a thousand hills and the Umgeni River which flows into the sea and usually in January or February we have the Duzi canoe marathon comes past the camp.
From my side, Indigo made me what I am today. I have learned things in school but I can say I’ve learned more here because I’ve learned things from tourists and courses, learning how to communicate with different people and experience different things. For me, I am doing the right thing because I love the kids and I love being around the kids seeing them progressing, that was one of my dreams. Now one of the guys here is better than me, which is quite amazing.”
I asked about some construction work going on below us. G explained: “At the moment as you can see we are upgrading the place – we are building some chalets so that when we have a skate camp we will have more accommodation for our guests. “
Dallas had expressed to me earlier that day that he didn’t believe anyone could take what there is at Indigo and plant it, replicate it, elsewhere since what is here is unique. “So G how would you take the concept, at least, of Indigo to say, Tanzania?”
G is unfazed: “Well what I can say is that it is not about me and my ambition but it’s about the camp itself. You plant a seed and then the seed starts to nurture and becomes a tree. I feel that we need more youth leaders and role models because we are lacking in role models for the kids (in the community). Some of the kids drop school at an early age and some of the young girls get pregnant. We can’t wait for the government to do something, it is our village and we need to do something to make better lives. For my life it’s not about having fancy clothes and what, what, it’s about my village and making it a better place, that is my main mission.”
G then got pensive and shared his thoughts: “To go into Africa , I think it will be quite a challenge because first I need to get some connections with other people before I leave South Africa. Luckily we have another project, I think in Kenya, which is funded by the Laureus Foundation. If I can get connected with them, then maybe they can make a suggestion of where I can start a project for them. You wouldn’t know what you are going to meet along the way but as long as you are passionate about what you are doing then anything is possible.”
Wanting to get back to skate boarding for a moment I asked G if he was familiar with the concept of a Holy Grail. I likened it to surfer searching for the perfect wave or the fisherman and the fish that didn’t get away. “What is the Holy Grail for you as a skate boarder? Is there a moment in a skate boarder’s life when you say: ‘ah that was perfection.’”
G took me straight back to Indigo, as if trying to emphasise his main passion and the passion of Indigo Skaters: “it’s not about skateboarding but how skateboarding can change a life. This project started out just being about skateboarding but now it’s about changing people’s lives. To me it’s about people who get trained to build some life-skills, to up-grade peoples knowledge and of course the kids. Indigo up-graded my knowledge and now it’s time for me to give back to the kids. I feel that if I wasn’t skateboarding I wouldn’t be having the life I’m having. I was born in a township, not here, but I came here 15 years ago. Whenever I go back to that place I see life differently. I see the guys that I grew up with smoking and taking drugs. I don’t think they have a future. They used to be ahead of me but I thank skateboarding that it made me into a better person because I didn’t know what I wanted to be after matric. We’ve got people around, people who have done matric but they are doing nothing. There are fewer job opportunities and this is like bread to me because even at home I am the bread-winner, I am the one that is supporting and putting bread on the table since I do this project.”
I’m distracted by an ever-growing commotion behind us. Uproarious laughter, jumping up and down and very cheerful faces. T, is leading a group of about 30 to 40 children ages, ranging from 8 to 18, in a game of Simon-says Zulu style. Although in Zulu it’s immediately recognisable to me as the children squirm, straighten and flap in response to the key words. Everyone is involved, no one is on the side lines and those who are ‘out’ are cheering on and laughing with those who are in. The little boy in me immediately wants to play too, but instead I take photos and enjoys watching the action catching the vibe of the crowd. Apparently each day there are activities like this or something similar to include all the local children and not just skaters in the camp’s activities.
I chat to an older woman who is watching from the side-lines vicariously taking part. She introduces herself as Kosi. I know everyone calls her Mama Kosi. We chat about the children and she tells me that she was very pleased the day Indigo came to the village. She lives adjacent to the property. Mama Kosi gives me a wide toothy grin and tells me how she cooks for the guests. I ask what she enjoys cooking for the foreign visitors. She responds with no hesitation:” Mngqusho en Mbotyi,” that’s samp and beans in English, it’s a traditional Zulu dish. The samp is made from crushed mealie kernels and the beans are usually sugar beans. Mama Kosi is a lady of few words but clearly likes it when there are guests to cook for.
I call it a day and we agree to continue the interview tomorrow. I drive on up out of the valley under a grey sky but with a spring in my step as some of the spirit of the camp has rubbed off on me.
On day two of my sojourn at the Indigo Skate Camp I arrived on a fresh sunny morning with just the faintest wisp of cloud in the otherwise deep blue sky. The ramps are empty and quiet given that the children are all at school. The little collection of rondavels are not quite as silent as people are preparing for a day of work, smartening up the site and building the next rondavel.
G emerges and politely smiles and greets me. He is natural hospitality with a warm friendly face immediately putting one at ease. After some small talk I asked G if Dallas was on his own when he started this endeavour – or if there was a partner involved? G answers: “Actually, I can say that it was him (Dallas) from the start and I feel that I am living his dream I can say thank you to him for the partnership, because this is something that he wanted to do with the community and I think it worked out very well. He had to eventually get funds from somewhere; ‘Element’ and then we used to be funded by the sports trust ”Laureus Sports For Good Foundation” now fund much of Indigo Youth Movement’s road show as well as some of the day to day running of the Skate Camp. The skate camp ensures up to 40 people for the village receive stipends and over 50 local children are learning to skate. The activities also include life-skills, exposure to reading, music and dance too.
Aware of how one can’t just buy and build on land in rural Zululand I asked if Dallas had to get permission from the local authorities and the chief. G explains: “To get this piece of land we spoke to the headman of this village and after the headman agreed you still have to go to the Chief. They give us permission to build this park on the land because they know it is for the good of the community.”
Having read up on the net that 74 per cent of skateboarders are male I relate my questioning of the girl spectators becoming skaters to G, also how they found that an hilarious concept. G:”Ja, I can say that a couple of years back we had some ladies who tried on skating, and they skated good, it was just that they grew up and felt that they cannot skateboard anymore. So now we are just grooming these small ladies but we have a special day to teach them. We teach them how to balance and stuff– we’re still going to bring a balance board. It will take time but we’ll get there.”
I ask G if he has a story of someone who stands out for him that epitomised the Indigo Skate Camp?” G doesn’t hesitate: “There is, like my own story – I was born in 1988 in Mpumalanga Township and I grew up there as a township boy playing in the street and doing all those rough things. We didn’t have a chance as children, we were always on the street, running around, breaking the rules. But since I came here it was quite funny because we went down to the river and I didn’t know how to swim. I couldn’t experience what they had experienced. But strangely I gelled together with the life here and I think I came here at the right time because that’s the time Dallas came also with the idea of starting the skate camp and then it was easy for me to make new friends because we were all beginners by then. I knew about skateboarding but I wouldn’t have tried if he hadn’t come around here, I thought it was dangerous and I thought it was for white people only. I came here as a random normal child and they groomed me to be like a role model, but it wasn’t easy though, I had to go through some tough times. There will always be moments when you have to come out of your shell and share your experience with other people.
But when I look back into my life I think that if I wasn’t skate boarding I would be in jail because that is where most of my friends are at the moment. We all make decisions and sometimes it is hard to judge but I would like all of us to walk in the same pathway I am walking to try and change the world, although we can’t change all of it but to start from places like this valley of a thousand hills and then to take it to the next level.”
Many missionaries and churches and government programmes try to make a place for themselves, seeking acceptance in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. So I ask G what sort of opposition they have encountered from the community toward the camp.
G:”I remember about 8 or 9 years ago there was a guy who was good at skating and he was skating around here on the street and he had an accident and he was killed by a car so they wanted to stop everything. They couldn’t stop it though because we were passionate about it and we told them that we weren’t going to skate in the street and that it had been an accident.”
Dallas was telling me that he wants this to be more than just a skate park, that he wants more activities and programmes. I ask G about the life skills programmes.
G: “All I can say is that it’s not just about skateboarding but what we want is maybe like 10 computers in our clubhouse and teach some IT skills to the kids while they still young so that they can grow up with some knowledge. We do also have our own life-skills manual where we teach the kids to work amongst the people and to work together as a group. We talk about drugs and alcohol abuse.”
“We play games like icebreakers and we do these energizing things after stretching exercises, then we have a chance to include everyone. After lunch everyone can go crazy if it’s a skating day, everyone can do what they want, but if it’s the life-skills day, then after eating we will sit down and learn.”
“Normally, it’s not only me who does the life-skills we also have other skate coaches like T who also teaches life skills, I am good with the older guys and T is good with the younger kids. So we know what they want, and we know how to create fun amongst them, we know how to make them laugh.”
Matt: “What role do the people from overseas play – I see you have 2 young ladies here from overseas. How often do you get people here from abroad?”
G: “We don’t often get people from overseas, and my own dream is to have this place filled with people. These people that are coming here they have something that they have learnt back home and they want to take it to Africa. For example we have an art teacher like Natalie, she will be doing some classes with the kids soon. It depends on the interest that you have something that you want to teach the kids and then we will create some space for you and then you do it with the kids.”
I explain the impression I got from the website (http://www.indigoskatecamp.co.za/) that the Skate Camp offers a skateboarding holiday, experiencing African culture, the bush, the food. Did I understand the Website correctly?
G:” You’ve got it right but it’s something more like a day trip where people come from the cities or from overseas, stay in town and can come visit us. For example: you see if you walk along the river you can see over this hill – the village and we will talk about the village because you can see a big rock, which is called ‘Isithumba Rock.’ The village is named after the rock, and we normally have some interesting stories which we tell them. We introduce the visitors to the headman because he is living more like the style of the 80’s or the 60’s. Most of the guys are more traditional here. I have a friend who is a healer and I normally take them to him. And we tell them about the ancestors and why we have ceremonies where we have to slaughter goats and cows, that sort of thing.” Apparently skate camps are for kids aged 9 and 18 where they can stay for a few days at a time. There is often survival training and exposure to Zulu culture as well as visits to skate parks in surrounding towns.
I put it to G that skateboarding is perceived in South Africa as a pastime mostly for white teenage boys. What is Gs take on this? “Have you ever been under pressure from your peers to be spending time doing something more traditionally Zulu?”
“It doesn’t matter to me what I do, it only matters that I know my roots where I’m from. It doesn’t matter who I hang out with, I can go and stay in London, but so long as I don’t lose my culture, my roots and where I from. I know this mentor from ‘Laureus’. He’s like the African Project manager who runs the ‘Laureus Sports For Good Foundation’. He lives in London, but you can see he has never lost his roots, he knows where he is from, whenever he phones me he doesn’t appreciate speaking in English, and he speaks in Zulu. I don’t want to lose my ground and lose who I am, and when it’s time for my ancestors, I have to act traditionally, I have to act as I was born. I know that we have some different destination, and they (the ancestors) know I have a different destination and they understand and are happy that I’m doing this, they know I’m getting something out of it as long as I respect them and know that they exist and know that they are still around making sure that I always go safely and do what I ought to do.”
I can see G is eager to get back to work. Dallas arrives in his pickup with cement and supplies for the day’s work party. I can see that he too is in work mode and I don’t want to disturb his rhythm. We chat briefly. I can see everyone is motivated and ready to labour.
I catch up with Dallas later and he explains all the activity: “We’ve had a push for more accommodation, to develop more hospitality skills.” The intention is to build more rondavels for the planned increase in accommodation for visitors and similar buildings to facilitate Dallas’ drive for hospitality training.
Dallas is animated as he tells me how volunteerism is the key to the future of Indigo: “We need more volunteerism. Locals enjoy interacting with the visitors. It enlightens and encourages the locals and they are amazed that these outsiders show an interest in their lives. So the big push is going to be for more structured interaction with volunteers so that they can feel directly engaged in the community’s life. “
Then there’s tourism. Dallas is focused: “everything from day trips to month-long stays. I see us developing trails, mountain biking and so on. We’re more than just the niche market of skateboarding, we’re also a playground. We want to create a kind of park and play situation… to be a place where you can park your car, ride your bike, have food – we can spray down your bike and so on, to be a hub of outdoor fun.”
Looking further into the future, Dallas considers the English language, IT, Internet studies and communication playing a role. One of the buildings I see being worked on is planned as a computer centre where volunteers can train local children in computer skills. But language is a key component of Dallas’ dream: “We can create something unique. Some people want the African experience – lets create a unique destination where you can learn English, sitting among African people. I’m trying to find ways of benefitting the community and also to create another reason for a person to visit, creating reasons beyond just skateboarding. Initiating a language centre can do that.”
Asked if there are more ‘Indigos’ down the road, Dallas explains that the situation at Indigo is unique and not likely to be replicated, however he does say: “I might consider the whole model elsewhere in Africa. We have considered Mozambique or maybe Uganda. Of course we want to finish getting this thing (Indigo) running fully on its own. We want to see it generating its own revenue. I believe in two years’ time we’ll be there.”
Watching the skaters fly in the air and glide up and down the ramps I had to ask what the future holds for the guys who are just here to skate. Dallas offered these thoughts: “I’m sure a few of them will become standout skateboarders and a few will be the next instructors, some will run the facility. The skateboard community needs to provide jobs for skateboarders and skateboarders need to run the skateboarding fraternity. I’m on a mission to create jobs. Guys will never stick with skateboarding if they are forced to go and sell hotdogs at the race track. I’m trying to create jobs that will keep them in skateboarding. I couldn’t find a job in skateboarding. I created this place to create jobs and somewhere down the line guys will see me as a role model having created this entity. Skate and Create is what we’re doing, that’s what this is about -skating and creating.” As an afterthought he adds: “That should be the name of your piece!”