Skateboard Diplomacy: Kenny Reed on Skateistan and Girl Power In Mazar-i-Sharif

Facilities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia teach community building, leadership, creative arts, and, of course, shredding.

Ever wonder what it’s like to go skateboarding in Kabul, Afghanistan? American pro skater Kenny Reed, whose passport reads like a tome, was one of the first to find out, back in 2009. He visited the country to teach local kids the sport in partnership with Skateistan, Afghanistan's first skateboarding school. In a sprawling facility that boasts a skatepark and classrooms, kids ages 5 - 17many marginalized, some disabled, and 40% girlsare taught community building, leadership, creative arts, and skating by international and local volunteers.

Today, Skateistan's programs have expanded to Cambodia and Pakistan and another center is under construction in the relatively "safe" Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. This summer Reed, with a group of Russian, German and American pros went back to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif to check on the progress of this innovative nonprofit and to skate the streets, and dirt roads, of Afghanistan. Reed sent these photos and GOOD caught up with him via a temperamental Skype connection somewhere between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan while he was detained at immigration en route to a bachelor party... but that's another story.

GOOD: What was your plan for returning to the country?\n
KENNY REED: This trip was going to be something different altogether from my previous visits. We wanted to find out if there were any local skaters or skate spots in the northern part of the country. We were in touch with the Skateistan organization and found out that their next project was underway: building a new skatepark in Mazar-i-Sharif - the main city we were already planning to visit. We came in by land from Uzbekistan, on a bridge crossing, which seemed as if we were passing a bridge in time and space. We literally went from seeing teenage girls in mini skirts to enigmatic burqas only 30 minutes later.
GOOD: What was Mazar-i-Sharif like when you finally arrived?\n
REED: Our first day of skating was at the main roundabout in the center of town where a crowd of about 50 people had gathered within 10 minutes of us warming up. Every 10 minutes following there were 50 more, until there was nearly 500 curious passersby stopping in the middle of the road to get a glimpse of foreigners practicing a sport never before seen there in public. I can't imagine how odd our presence there must have been.
It came to the point where our gathering blocked the main roads, and traffic police came to intervene. They politely asked us to move on because of the chaos. The massive crowd started to argue in our favor. Even though they wished for us to continue this alien entertainment and somehow take part in this shared, innocent playfulness, we had to get going -and fast - as any stir in such a number of people could easily turn for the worse.
GOOD: While there you met the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif?\n
REED: Yes. On the following day, the scene we'd provoked had made it by word of mouth all the way to the governor of the province who invited us for tea and an informal greeting. He asked more about the sport and expressed how our presence there had given him hope for the youth to be more involved in sports and cross cultural understanding. During our meeting in his conference room he mentioned that he'd made an effort to set aside a good lot of land where the new [Skateistan] skatepark was to be built.
He assured us that the project had been further along then he had expected: up to 70% of the foundation had already been set. We put on a small show of our talents for their entire entourage who included members of parliament and a massive militia of up to 40 armed bodyguards. I was totally in awe of his hospitality and enthusiasm he'd shared with us.
GOOD: How did you personally feel as an American being there?\n
REED: I felt okay. It's a difficult question. I was sure the presence of our group was a good thing because we were there for a different reason then most of the foreigners they normally see - or don't see behind the sunglasses, guns, armor, and tanks. We really enjoyed our time there and tried to respect the local’s customs and be culturally sensitive.
GOOD: Skateboarding is typically a male-dominated sport, but at Skateistan close to half the participants are girls. Have you seen this alter gender relations in Kabul, or even within the confines of this isolated project? \n
REED: On the street I have seen changes since I was first there three years ago. Many more girls are attending schools and I also heard there are other sports facilities for them to join including basketball and taekwondo. [Skateistan is] definitely helping the community a lot. They are doing all kinds of projects locally. It's not only about the skatepark and equipment for the kids, there's so much more.
Photos courtesy of Kenny Reed\n
via Douglas Muth / Flickr

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