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Skate For Sri Lanka | How Skateboarding Is Helping Sri Lanka’s Underprivileged Youth

Using skateboards to make a difference to the lives of young people in Sri Lanka

Featured image credit: Cecilia Geroldi

As much of the world returns to a semblance of normality, Sri Lanka has descended into chaos, grinding to a halt at the height of an economic crisis that’s been brewing for years, thanks to mismanagement ­of funds – and alleged corruption – under the (now former) Rajapaksa government.

This has resulted in a lack of foreign currency to import essential goods, like cooking gas, fuel, food and medicine.

“Food items are now 200-500% more expensive, making previous staples like lentils and milk powder unaffordable for many”

The island has faced daily rolling power cuts since the start of the year, due to a lack of fuel needed to run the country’s power stations.  On top of this, many food items are now 200-500% more expensive, making previous staples like lentils and milk powder unaffordable for many, with poorer families only eating one basic meal a day.

Gas and fuel prices have soared, and severe shortages mean people wait in queues for days, in the hope of getting their hands on some when a rare shipment arrives. Tragically, to date, a number of people have already died while waiting in line (13, at the time of writing). Roads are empty, businesses have had to close and people are, quite literally, starving.

Peaceful protests began across the country in March, calling for president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. While he did eventually flee the country and quit his post in July, there appears to be no end in sight to the turmoil.

Credit: Cecilia Geroldi

In December last year, 25-year-old local skater and fitness coach, Manu Dharmarajah, figured out a way to combine his passion for skateboarding with making a difference, founding community project, Skate for Sri Lanka. His aim is to make skating accessible to the country’s underprivileged youth, as an antidote to the heaviness of the current situation.

While skate culture is slowly on the rise here, it’s certainly not a common sport. Manu himself learned aged 12, at a skate camp, while on holiday in the US. On return to Sri Lanka, together with a few friends he made a name for himself in the sport, getting sponsorship from the country’s only (now defunct) skateboard company, Push.

Sri Lanka splits its tourist seasons between two coasts – you can find waves and sunshine on the east coast between May – October, and on the south from November – April.  Manu initially set up the project on the south coast in Midigama, at Bad Cobra café,  home to Midigama Skatepark. Manu used the south season to test the waters, hosting workshops for a small group of regular kids, before moving to Arugam Bay, a fishing village on the east coast, in May.

“Kids shouldn’t have to worry about stuff like that – they can come here for two hours and forget about it”

“I honestly think Arugam Bay is the best place to really make this project happen,” Manu says.

“Kids are less privileged here and they’re always looking for something to do – it’s better doing this than other bad things that they could succumb to.

“The government aren’t doing anything for the people right now – they’re focused on the protests and reducing backlash, but young people aren’t interested in all that; they just need help. Times are hard for people to make money and provide food for their families. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about stuff like that – they can come here for two hours and forget about it.”

Photo credit: Alex Muravey

For Arugam Bay locals who work in tourism, the last few years have been brutal – first, there was the April 2019 Easter bombings, which put Sri Lanka firmly on most countries’ travel red lists, and then, just as tourists started visiting the island again, the pandemic struck in 2020, halting international travel. Now? Many holidaymakers are scared off by the media’s portrayal of the protests, as well as concerned that their trip will be affected by the lack of resources.

The majority of villagers work in fishing or farming, industries that have also been severely impacted in recent years. With no fuel, fishermen can’t run their boats, and the price of ice, nets and bait has increased dramatically. With an ill-advised government ban on chemical fertiliser in 2021, many farmers lost their crops.

“Skating’s a new sport in Sri Lanka, so there are no boundaries”

It’s been a tough time for locals, but Manu is determined to turn it around for the kids. He currently organises three skate meets per week – a general meet on Wednesdays and Sundays, and an extra session on Thursdays, for the ‘dream team’, where 10 of the boys with most promise get a chance to hone their skills.

Manu found the perfect location for the main sessions, on a huge concrete stage at a cricket pitch in a village just outside the bay. At the first meet, he was shocked when 45 kids showed up – with only seven skateboards between them, and no protective gear or shoes, it was a nightmare.

“The first week was tough – I got hit!” Manu laughs.

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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