How Skateboarding Is Helping Young People In Sri Lanka

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Photo credit: Alex Muravey

“There’s not enough boards and the kids were fighting – I got hit with a slipper and punched, and they were fighting each other. Then we created a system where if they fight, they have to take time out from skateboarding. But now I have the ‘dream team’, who are like the prefects. They help the others to skate right, and make sure there are no fights. They have to uphold their status – then they can grow up to be mentors. That’s the goal”

It’s 4pm on a Thursday afternoon in June and I’m on my way to the ‘dream team’ meet. Manu hosts this group at his home, which has a large concrete slab in the garden. As I approach, the sound of skateboards rolling across concrete is unmistakable. I arrive to find half the kids testing their skills on a balance board, and half practicing on skateboards.

“We created a system where if they fight, they have to take time out from skateboarding”

The group – aged between nine and 15 – then gathers round the slab to watch Manu teach them a trick, before taking it in turns to practice for a couple of minutes each.

I chat to 15-year-old Aafil, who lives in the village and attends with his two younger brothers. He loves the sessions, but dreams of owning his own skateboard so he can practice at home, which is the general consensus among the group.

Credit: Cecilia Geroldi

With skating such a new sport in Sri Lanka, did Manu face any resistance?

“One kid’s dad was super sceptical,” he tells me.

“He actually pulled his kid out – he wanted him to work on the nets fishing, which is total understandable. I spoke to the dad and said, ‘I totally respect you on this but please bring him, it’s going to be very positive – we’re going to give him an education, teach him English and other skills. He’s going to be able to make a livelihood in another way, maybe he doesn’t want to be a fisherman – let me provide him the opportunity, then he can decide what to do with it.’”

“Eventually, I want to build a skatepark in the village, give the kids boards, helmets and protective gear”

As well as skating, Manu offers English classes, teaching the kids in fun and innovative ways, like word games. His goal is to nurture the kids so they themselves can become instructors, like the many locals who now make a living from surf coaching. He also wants to teach participants how to manufacture skateboards: “That could then become part of their livelihood.”

Sri Lanka is a pretty conservative country, and Arugam Bay is a predominantly Muslim area, so Manu was impressed when girls turned up for the sessions.

“I think their families felt comfortable seeing a woman was there too,” says Irene Segarra, a Catalan graphic designer and skater who’s assisting with the project.

“We had one girl, then one of her friends came, and then 10 girls showed up.”

Photo credits: Cecilia Geroldi (left), Manu Dharmarajah (right)

Manu wants to get even more girls involved: “Skating’s a new sport in Sri Lanka, so there are no boundaries – we want people to realise that their daughters can skate too, that it’s not just a boy’s sport.

“My inspiration is Skateistan, the biggest skating NGO in the world. 55% of participants are girls – it’s now the largest sport for girls in Afghanistan.”

Nine-year-old Fatima attends the sessions and has one goal: “I want to be better than the boys.”

Skate for Sri Lanka may be in its early days, but Manu has big plans.

“This season is about getting the groundwork done,” he tells me.

“We’re registering ourselves as an NGO, coming out with apparel where profits go to the project, starting an NFT project, launching a GoFundMe, and doing local fundraising events in Arugam Bay – just putting ourselves out there and seeing what we get from it.

“I always wanted to make a positive impact in Sri Lanka, and this is the only way I know how”

“Eventually, I want to build a skatepark in the village, give the kids boards, helmets and protective gear so they have that basic training, and then I can come back next season and see how they develop. I want to make our headquarters here and be able to employ people, so we can make it a year-round thing.

“I always wanted to make a positive impact in Sri Lanka, and this is the only way I know how.”

For more information on Skate for Lanka and how to help, visit https://www.instagram.com/skateforsrilanka/

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