Martin Loužecký: We use skateboarding as tool to deal with ‘youth bulge’ phenomenon

Martin Loužecký is a long-time skateboarding enthusiast and a graduate in African Studies from the University of Copenhagen. While still a student, he and his friends established a non-profit organization called Skate World Better, which aims to support children and young adults in Africa through skateboarding. So far, they have built three skateparks in Africa and they plan to continue.

I spoke with Martin Loužecký just a few weeks after he returned from Zambia, where he has recently opened a new skatepark.

“The idea was mine, originally. I applied with the idea to an MA Programme in Copenhagen, which I have just finished recently. It was actually preceded by another project which took place in Mozambique in 2019. After having gained experiences there I decided to do another one.

Martin Loužecký | Photo: Czech Radio

“The reason why it took place in Zambia is that I always make a connection with a local crew or a particular leader. And I became a really good friends with a guy from Mongu, which is the third or fourth biggest city in the western province of Zambia. Since he fit my requirements, I started looking for ways how to carry out the project.

“Luckily, the Czech Republic and Zambia have a very good partnership. There are lots of NGOs from the Czech Republic operating in Zambia. There is also a Czech embassy in Lusaka, which moved here recently from Zimbabwe.

“So when I applied for a grant from the United Nations Development Programme, the likelihood of getting it was higher than in pretty much any other country in Africa.”

As far as I know Zambia is specific in that it has a very high population of very young people, people under the age of 16.

“I wouldn’t say it is only specific of Zambia. It is specific to the whole of Africa. It is a phenomenon known as youth bulge. The reason why we do this project is not to support skateboarding as a sports discipline.

“Skateboarding is a very specific discipline. It is an individual sport but it is collective at the same time.”

“We are trying to find a solution to the situation where there are many kids who have nothing to do and who, in the worst case scenario, turn into criminals or drug addicts.

“We are trying to find something that the kids can do that would be beneficial to their future.  Since I am a skater and I have been skating my whole life, I felt like it was exactly what we were looking for.

“Skateboarding is a very specific discipline. It is an individual sport but collective at the same time. People become friends through doing what they do; they support each other.

“It also teaches you that if you want to succeed in something, you have to fail a billion times in order to learn a trick. That is a skill that comes handy in all life’s situations. So we found skateboarding as a tool to do something with his phenomenon known as youth bulge.

Did you have to provide the kids with the equipment? Is there a skateboarding scene in Mongu and what did it look like before you arrive there?

Photo: Martin Loužecký

“As I have already said, I always look for a young leader who I know would be capable to carry on with our mission. Because we pretty much only kickstart the whole programme and then we leave it up to the locals.

“In Mongu there is a guy, whose name is Johnny. He had been doing an outstanding job before I even met him. He takes care of a group of kids and he also uses skateboarding as a tool. But there is no place to do it and all of these 200 or 300 kids have to share two or three boars.

“So I knew that if we kickstarted something there, it would work perfectly, because it was already happening even without our presence.

“What we do is that we come over, we set some rules and we build the park. From our position as a European NGO it is easier to get a grant to finance the entire project.

“And on top of that we obviously bring some equipment with us, which is fairly difficult because it weighs a lot and also, getting through the customs with hundred skateboards is not easy.

“Skateboarding teaches you that if you want to succeed in something, you have to fail a billion times.”

“You usually need to bribe somebody. So these are the stages of our project. But that’s only the beginning. The rest depends on the locals.”

How long did it take from the initial idea to constructing the park and what kind of obstacles did you encounter throughout the process?

“It would be around eight or ten months of preparation. Obviously the first step was getting the money. Once I got the grant, I had to figure out the logistic.

“I was bringing 25 people with me, from Japan, from UK, from Sweden, literally from every continent. Getting them during the Covid time took a lot of time and involves a lot of bureaucracy. So that’s the second step.

“Once you get there, it’s actually the easiest part. All of the volunteers I am bringing with me are professional skatepark builders in their respective countries.

Photo: Martin Loužecký

“So once we are there, I only take care of the material being on the location and the police not hustling us. So the construction phase itself usually takes only around five weeks.”

Was the Zambia project easier, having already had the experience from Mozambique?

“Definitely. Not only because of this experience, but generally I dare say Zambia is an easy country to work in, to live in and to travel in. All of Africa has a difficult history, but in Mozambique you can still encounter some nasty things and there is a lot of bribery.

“When we were in Zambia, whenever I mentioned that we were part of a United Nations project and that we were doing it for the local kids, everybody listened and they were very helpful.  Some people even did things for free, which was something unimaginable to me after the first experience.

“Definitely, having the experience from Mozambique, I was far more prepared than the first time. So the previous experience was definitely important.”

As you said, you graduated from African Studies at the University in Copenhagen. What have you learned about Africa during your stays there and did anything take you by surprise?

Photo: Martin Loužecký

“For me it is more important to have the actual empirical experience. So whatever I was taught in Copenhagen, the experience from Africa was much more important.

“Regarding corruption for example, it was an eye-opening experience for me. It actually made me more interested in the topic and in the fact that people are so used to corruption.

“Even local bakers in Mozambique are paying a fee every day to keep their business running. I eventually even wrote a thesis about that, which got published in Copenhagen. So it did open a whole new topic for me.”

It’s been more than two years since you opened your first skate park in Mozambique. What kind of feedback have you received since then?

“Here I need to add that we have actually built two skate parks simultaneously in the same city within the first project in Mozambique. The reason I am saying this is that there are actually two answers to your question. Because one of these skate parks turned out to be a perfectly running youth centre, which exceeded all of my expectations.

Photo: Martin Loužecký

“Just like in Zambia, we were supporting a particular leader, a guy called Franciscu. He really took it in his own hands and the project turned out to be really successful, and it was a great motivation to do the Zambia project.

“But then there is the other project we did in Mozambique, a far smaller one, and I need to admit that this project didn’t turn out that well. We tried to support another young leader, but he, for reasons of his own mental health, decided to shut it down.

“Everybody can still go there and skate but there is no loaner programme and there are no extracurricular activities. From my point of view, it is still a success. There is a skate park in Mozambique which was unheard of a few years ago. But it could have turned out better.”

Still, if I understand it correctly, the other two skate parks have actually turned into a sort of public meeting point…

“Yes, exactly, it works like a public hub. In Zambia for example there is a local hospital using the place to hold seminars against HIV. There is also a local craft shop doing some craft workshops so that the youngest learn something from their traditional history.

“So there are no limits, really, to how it could be used. The only limit would be no alcohol and no drugs. It’s a spot for children, so anything that is not for children has no place there. It’s as simple as that.”

So what are your plans for the future? Are you planning to build other skate parks across Africa?

Photo: Martin Loužecký

“I would say it’s an ongoing activity. As I said in the beginning, we do not necessarily have the ambition to do a project, build it, and then take care of it for months or years to come. Of course we monitor it, of course if we help with anything any way, we do it. And we stay in contact with the leaders and the entire crew.

“I would rather support more of these young leaders around Africa and see where the opportunities are and do what we are good at, which is getting either a grant or a sponsorship and carry out another project in another country, giving more people a chance to use it and learn whichever skill it is while using the skate park.”