Skater girls of Bo-Kaap prove why girls shouldn't be confined to their homes

The boys used to laugh at the girls skateboarding in Leeuwen Park, which they had marked out as their territory generations ago. Now they watch in admiration

26 August 2018 - 00:00

The grey clouds of a cold winter Cape Town hover over the Cape Malay Quarter. They seem to settle on its surface like a protective blanket, hiding Bo-Kaap from the intrusion of the rest of the city, its sprawling buildings perfectly visible from a tucked-away Leeuwen Park.
On the flat, tarred surface in what was previously a basketball court an eight-year-old girl cuts through the haze with the rattling wheels of a borrowed skateboard, worn thin from the feet of the skater girls of Bo-Kaap.
Every time they skate, they borrow a board. There's something poetic about a single skateboard among a group of girls. Skateboarding is not a stereotypical girls sport and so it's fitting that the poetry is tucked neatly into that old hip-hop adage: we ride together, we die together.
When she was in grade three, the now 24-year-old Kirsten Poking visited New York with her late stepfather, an American national. Strolling through the Jamaican Quarter of Queens, Kirsten found herself in the mess of a yard sale in the confines of a primary school.
"We only had three dollars each to spend," she says. "I've always been careful with money, still am. So I was extremely particular about what I would spend my money on, how far I would stretch those dollars, you know?"
Nothing sparked the light in Kirsten's eyes in that messy driveway so she ventured inside. She was looking for wheels. Anything with wheels. Specifically, a skateboard. You see, her brother had been skating for a while, and borrowing his board became a sticky situation, the way most possessions shared between siblings do.
There, in a tucked-away corner, lay exactly what she wanted. "It cost my whole three dollars, but it was totally worth it. It was an old-school board. You know, the ones made of thick hardwood, cut in a fish tale design but it had green wheels. After a while I signed my name on it. I guess doing that was a symbol of official possession. I was going to own being a skater."
We're on an oral journey through the history of her skating experience when we're interrupted on the concrete stairs of the park while we're watching some of the girls take turns on the board. The pre-teen is about nine years old. She's wearing Nike Air Max 90s, not dissimilar to the ones on my own feet.
"The other girls aren't here yet, Kirsten, they're at a jannazah at the Mosque but they'll come after," she explains. Kirsten nods in knowing support, the same way all educators do when they already have information.
Then Kirsten uses the break in our transmission to address the girls standing around waiting their turn. She assigns them a position and puts them in order. "You get four laps each and then it's the next person's turn," she says. No complaints from them, this is fair and fine.
We continue talking. "The youngest in the group is about seven, the oldest is 16. None of them used to be skaters before this and sometimes it's hard to teach them. Everyone's skill level is different, some of them find it more difficult, others can't wait to try ramps." The word ramp curves Kirsten's mouth into a smile.
"But at the end of the day, you have to let them fall. After all, you can't do anything, until you can."
In her spare time, she volunteers at the Bo-Kaap civic and ratepayers association. Her full-time gig, however, is diving instructing. She followed her dream to the bottom of the Atlantic to become an instructor.
"I loved the ocean, and I wanted to dive."
But in 2017 she crossed that ocean to spend a year in Joburg and work as a reporting clerk.
"I thought the money opportunities were better there," she says. "I also wanted to start my own business selling koeksisters. Bring that homely comfort of the Cape Malays to the people of Joburg, you know?"
But before spreading her syrup too far, Kirsten came back home where her mother convinced her to stay in Cape Town.
"Aunty Somaya runs social and early-childhood development workshops during the holidays." It's at the civic and ratepayers association that Kirsten decided to offer boarding to the kids.
"Skateboarding is such a great metaphor for balance in life. It's not just for fun. It's not just for tricks," she says. The winter wind sweeps over her words the same way she sweeps through town for transportation.
"The kids see me do this and it makes them realise how much a board can be a part of life and take you from place to place. Whether it's professionally or to run an errand."
The seven-year-old on the tarmac looks like she might take a long time to get to her "job". She's doing the crawl. Knees firmly on the board, palms rowing her along, but the dedication in her eyes is steely. One day she will stand. "I always say girls are like unicorns, they can do anything," and she smiles at me.
At first boys teased the girls when they saw them skating at Leeuwen Park. After all, they had marked that space as their territory generations ago. Now they watch in admiration.
"But working on cohesion among the girls has been a challenge. At first, they were against each other, but I explained there are enough challenges out there in the world that women confront - one of the obvious is sexism. So we need to be there for each other."
Kirsten pulls out her phone and searches her video folder for evidence of the change in mindset. The video is of a slightly older girl assisting a younger one. She's smiling at her and holding her hand the way adult women should be doing with each other through life.
"It's a beautiful thing to see that," Kirsten muses while a thought creeps into my own mind: "Even as a 34-year-old woman of colour, we have a long way to go in terms of supporting each other."
With the Bo-Kaap Skate Club, Kirsten is making a firm point in the community. Girls aren't just meant to be tucked away safely in the confines of their homes. They too can venture across to the park and dominate any "male" sport their hearts desire.
"The purpose of this exercise moves beyond skating. It's a way to encourage the girls that certain sports like playing pool or throwing darts aren't just for boys," Kirsten explains.
Opportunities for girls to be active in Bo-Kaap are lacking, Kirsten hopes the club offers a small window of opportunity to change the community's preconceptions.
"Parents tend to think of their girls as delicate but they're not. Just like boys, girls don't break when they fall."
Kirsten's words are filled with conviction and so they should be - the same conviction that I see in the seven-year-old, still crawling on that board. It's her last lap today, the first of many.

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