Photos by Arinzechukwu Patrick
The closest I’ve come to properly skateboarding in Ghana was in the beach town of Busua, where I found myself in an unfinished, abandoned beach-front building with a group of local, self-described Rastafarians smoking dusty weed next to a pile of water-logged ramps.
I’d left my skateboard a few hours away in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Though Ghana’s tropical and desert heat—or both, depending on which part of the country you’re in—are not ideal for skating, I still found myself packing my skateboard for this second trip to the country. A few years earlier, I came for the first time to work on a movie and skated a grand total of twice in two months—once in the driveway of a friend’s house and once, again, on the remaining foundation of a long-abandoned construction project.
This isn’t a very hopeful base for my second go at a Ghanaian spot hunt: long before noon the busy, dusty streets start to clear as people redirect themselves to much more level-headed activities, like drinking akpeteshie (or palm-wine rum) in the shade. I didn’t even bother bringing my board on this jaunt out of Accra, assuming that if there were no spots in a bustling metropolis there surely wouldn’t be in a quiet beach village. Which left me standing like a dunce next to some worn but perfectly skateable ramps ideally situated next to the ocean in a pot-friendly part of town with no skateboard. The hints were around me but, like the outsider I was, I had yet to make any connection with other skateboarders in Ghana.
That’s not to say skateboarding wasn’t heard of. A few people pointed me in the direction of what they considered to be some sort of skateboarding-adjacent activity. “There’s BMXers who meet in Jamestown. They’ve been in music videos!” or “I know a few guys who get together and rollerblade every weekend.” And you could rent surfboards on the beach. But, like many postcolonial countries with slowly developing means and lack of support from big manufacturers and outside nations, it was hard for Ghana to naturally develop a skateboarding culture or industry. While organizations such as Skate Ethiopia and Skateistan have started gaining popularity and helped to bring skateboarding to places such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa, Ghana had no such champion. As a result, they also have no official skate shops, parks, or brands. The ramps I discovered in Busua hinted at a skate world I had yet to uncover.
Concurrently, 3,000 miles north, a young woman from France was beginning to access the exact same world of skateboarding I was failing to uncover. Sandy Alibo has an interesting job description at Orange, the French mobile phone network. As a sponsorship manager, she manages a team of 15 athletes in the world of surfing, skateboarding, and BMX, all while organizing around 10 yearly promotional events using their talents to market the company. A surfer, she found herself on the beach in Ghana during a work trip, where she was excited to meet the locals. “I know a lot of surfers and skateboarders but, as Europeans, we are not very aware of people doing it outside of our countries, especially in Africa,” she explains. “I was in Ghana for work and met some Ghanaian surfers who were all basically doing it alone. They were not connected to other surfers around the world and didn’t have any places to get gear. I decided to come back to Ghana, not for work, with anything I could collect.”
That day on the beach she met Jacob, a surfer who also skates, and through him was introduced to an Accra-based crew that referred to themselves as “Skate Nation GH.” She soon realized they had the same problem as the surfers of Ghana—the will, passion, and drive to skate, but not the supplies. Sandy suggested that the skate crew start an Instagram to get the word out that there were indeed skateboarders in Ghana. She then returned to France and immediately got to work, collecting boards and product before returning to Ghana to distribute them amongst her new friends. On her return, she discovered a network of like-minded Ghanian skaters, surfers, and artists, who all bonded over their passion for spreading their culture. They set up a WhatsApp group to keep in touch. Surf Ghana was born.
In talking to Sandy, it seems she must be quite good at her job. Whether convincing someone to switch mobile carriers or why it’s worth investing in youth skateboarding, she is able to explain her goals, the means through which to achieve them, and their driving concepts in simple, easy-to-understand statements. When she talks goals, it’s in a slick, millennial mode of speaking that almost seems to hint at common capitalistic deceits; commodified trade as the measurement of a good idea; if more people are following, and therefore want a product, then it must be good. Thankfully, it only took a moment for me to realize that Sandy uses her professional background as the tool through which she most easily communicates her passion for Surf Ghana, like knowing which knife will filet a fish fastest.
“Surf Ghana was more about sharing our passion for surfing and skateboarding with Ghanaian locals than a charity to bring products,” Sandy expounds of her NGO. “I decided to use what I was best at—planning events—to organize a Surf Ghana event.” Through the Surf Ghana Instagram, Sandy was getting about 50 messages a week from people tagging themselves or just sharing their stories about surfing and skating in Ghana. She used this network to set up the first event, which was to take place at the Asa Baako music festival in the beach village of—you guessed it—Busua.
Sandy was surprised at how many skateboarders came to the event, surfing, partying, and skating at a local’s bowl (a bowl which I’m sure I could have sussed out for myself six months earlier, had I bothered to ask anyone). More importantly, they collaborated. Surf Ghana became more than just about the boards; it became a full-blown arts collective. They were invited to an even bigger festival held in Jamestown, Accra—the Chale Wote Street Art Festival. Some 30,000 people attend Chale Wote, and for it Surf Ghana organized a group of international artists to paint 25 skate decks on display in the Brazil House (one of the festival’s premiere indoor venues), in addition to hosting a contest and teaching skate lessons.
With the help of these events, Sandy’s hopes for a recognition of skating in Ghana began to come true. Barely a year after I had all but written off skateboarding there, I was regularly seeing it happen—but many Ghanaians weren’t. As a direct response, Surf Ghana hit the road, with Sandy lending her events planning expertise and corporate know-how to garner a modest sponsorship from Vans and embark on the “Skate Tour GH.” Again, she tidily sums up their new project. “The point of the trip was to discover Ghana through skateboarding, like the way tourist agencies give you flyers highlighting all the tourist spots in a place. All the places on our Skate Tour GH are famous places in Ghana that you’d want to go to for other reasons. The Tour is more than skateboarding, it’s to travel and discover the country and to have a discussion with the locals.”
In addition to two filmmakers, a journalist/photographer and two artists, a diverse range of skating abilities piled into the van: AJ, a native Ghanaian who was raised in Virginia, USA, who’d been skating for 16 years; Cephas, from a beach town named Tegbi in the Volta region of Ghana, who’d only been skating for two years but has been pressing his own boards under the name “African Board Company” (or ABC) for just as long; and Patrick, the journalist, who was from Nigeria and first picked up a skateboard a few months earlier when he became enamored with the crew at Chale Wote. “I used to be a rollerblader,” Patrick tells me, “but that’s just child’s play compared to skateboarding.” The two-week tour route, which began January 1st, 2018, snaked across the country through bigger cities like Kumasi and Accra to the oil derricks of Takoradi and the World Heritage site-listed slave dungeon of Cape Coast. Along the way they stopped at smaller, more traditional Ghanaian villages like Peki, Abono, Nzulezu, and of course, Busua.
A droll, decorated van full of youthful energy is a great way to cause a stir, especially in Ghana. Or, as Patrick puts it, “If there are organizations coming out of the woodwork with crazy ideas like a cross-country Ghanaian skate tour: Hell yeah!” He then took a more serious note, continuing “If you’re talking about youth development and encouragement for them to be something much more than the stereotypes painted about Africa by the media then an organization like Surf Ghana is needed drastically. Not just in regards to skateboarding and surfing but in any other form of expression or art.”
Sandy, Surf Ghana, and their WhatsApp group know this as well. “There aren’t any official skateboarding brands or associations that can organize and therefore develop and push skateboarding for Ghanaians,” Sandy tells me, which is why she decided to step in. “It is more than skateboarding: this project will help reveal the capacity of young Ghanaians to build together something special and unique and continue to evolve.”
For the skateboarders of Ghana, the next step is the same as it would be for any skateboarder: keep skateboarding. “Just getting to do what I love the most in this world—skateboarding—and giving others the opportunity to learn more about it,” is what AJ is going to do. Sandy is working hard with Surf Ghana and Skate Nation GH to facilitate an official skate park. “We will have an amazing skatepark soon. All the west African skateboarders, and even European skaters, will come and enjoy it,” she excitedly told me. “I think the skate scene will keep growing and in the next two or three years it will be at least in the the top three skate scenes in Africa,” adds Cephas. “Since I have learned to ollie I guess I’ll have to learn how to kickflip and then try to do daring hoodrat shit,” chimes in Patrick, “because the only way to live life… is to live.”
As for me, the next step is getting myself to that backyard bowl in Busua…