Roller skating in Rwanda has come a long way, and in such a relatively short time:
“A few years ago we used to pick up skates for free, because the sellers didn’t know what skates were for, but with time they realized what they were for, and started selling them expensively,” reminisces Abdoul Karim Habyarimana, one of the more prominent skaters in Kigali.
This situation was further complicated by the recent move by government to curtail the importation and sale of second hand garments in the country. Today, one needs about Rw f 30,000 to acquire used roller skates, and this will usually involve looking far and wide – in Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Born in 1990, in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, Habyarimana started skating at the tender age of nine.
“For the last twenty years that’s the best thing I’ve been doing, and the best sports I like to do. I started off as a student but now I am a student training other people how to skate,” the 27 year old reveals proudly.
Habyarimana is the founder of Speed Skate Kigali, one of the few skating clubs in the country. The group holds weekly skating classes at the rooftop of the Kigali City Tour. He reckons that the skating scene in the country is still in its infancy as compared to neighboring countries like Kenya and Tanzania where the sport has attained mainstream status.
He reveals that on average each local skating club has between 20-40 members, while his own club – the Kigali Speed Skate boasts thirty members.
After a local TV station screened a skating session featuring Habyarimana and his group recently, a Kenyan TV crew immediately set out on the hunt for the group. The crew then travelled all the way from Nairobi to film its own session which was then broadcast back home. For their efforts, Habyarimana and his skating club received a decent tip from the Kenyan TV crew.
But Habyarimana’s jaw-dropping skating skills were hard-earned. For starters, there were no real-life influences at the time he set out to learn the sport in Bujumbura in 1999. Instead, he had to rely on the only options available to him at the time, through films and on TV.
“As time went by I started getting more skills by watching Youtube videos. But I never saw a person skating in real life, let alone a skateboard or roller skates.” He adds that people that eventually took up the sport thereafter were either inspired or taught by him. Worse still, there was nowhere to practice from, and skating equipment was virtually non-existent on the market.
“I tried to get in contact with some of the rich people where I lived hoping they might have some spare skates or skates to sell but nobody did. I was only able to get into skating by making my own skateboard which I improvised by getting wheels off a used roller bag and fixed them on a board.”
For six years, he had to make do with these homemade roller skates, until a friend visiting from the US eventually furnished him with professional skating gear.
When I first met Habyarimana and his group, they were huddled into a movie rental in the Kisimenti area of Remera. They were taking a breather after a hectic morning of distributing promotional fliers for the movie rental.
Within two hours, they had been able to distribute thousands of fliers, traversing all nooks of the city, with others skating as far out of town as Nyamata in the Eastern Province.
Habyarimana soon revealed to me that promotional campaigns like this form the core of their activities.
“Skating is one of the best ways to publicize a business or event or anything for that matter. We’ve worked for different clients – be it corporate companies or individuals, and all the telecom companies in the country. These companies love the fact that when we’re skating we tend to pull large crowds of people instantly. We have also worked for government in different capacities and conveying different messages.”
But to him, skating is much more than just an income-generating avenue.
“At a personal level I’ve never known illness for the twenty years I’ve been skating. I’ve never known stress or been bored. Whenever I feel lonely or bored I just go skating. It’s also a mode of transport that is free, fast and flexible.”
I then followed the group to the Amahoro Stadium parking where I was to be blown off by their seemingly dare devilish moves. In one particularly bold move, Habyarimana simply skated towards a taxi moto stage and soured above the moto rider seated on his bike, landing on his feet at the opposite end. That was midweek and on Sunday, I visited his skating class at the rooftop of the Kigali City Tower in Downtown Kigali.
“This is a group, a club and a school at the same time,” he explained as I met his students. The first thing that struck me was the tender age of some of the learners –some as young as four.
The day’s class had about twenty learners. To be a part of it, one has to part with Rwf2,500 for a one hour session, and each session lasts between one and two hours.
“For kids it’s good to kill boredom and also to keep them fit. For people who need to lose weight it’s a good way of exercising, for people with back pain and joint problems it’s the perfect remedy,” he revealed.
“Kids usually learn about skating from movies and YouTube videos and tell their parents about it. So it’s mostly parents bringing their kids to me, and not the other way round. Some parents want to be sure about the safety of their children, so they personally drop off them off here. Children are the easiest to teach because for them all that is on their mind is the free ride and the joy and thrill of it, whereas for adults it’s a little bit difficult because the adult is thinking about falling and getting hurt.”
With a tinge of sadness, Habyarimana reveals that skating in Rwanda “is not yet as organized as in Kenya or Tanzania where the teams there actually participate in the Olympics. Our dream is to one day be in the Skating Olympics.”
Other challenges arise from the negative perceptions associated with the sport – reckless and dangerous pursuit in the opinion of many:
“When we’re using skates as a mode of transport – sometimes the police and other road users feel that what we’re doing is unsafe and a disruption of public order. For them it looks reckless because they do not understand the discipline and control that is involved in skating – otherwise you would be seeing accidents involving skaters all the time.
The other issue is motorists not respecting us as road users so sometimes they don’t want to give right of way because they feel we don’t deserve to use the road like anybody else.”
Another low point is the occasional accident especially during training that only serves to entrench the notion that it is indeed a dangerous sport.
“This (accidents) is not so common, but also not so uncommon. Children fall while skating and so do adults, but in most cases it’s just a minor shock on the arms. In extreme cases one may break an arm or a leg. For kids it’s not very bad because it’s easier for them to heal as opposed to the bones of adults.”
Habyarimana’s dream is to eventually harness all the local skating clubs into a federation to further popularize the sport.
“When I started out my main dream was to compete internationally but I did not get a chance due to various reasons and now I’m refocusing my energies on building a school that will train the best that Rwanda can offer so that they can compete where I wasn’t able to because right now it’s too late to do it at my age.
I no longer have the stamina I used to have as a young man. We need a skate park where we can meet and train, but most especially we need help to be able to meet with other skaters from all over the word so they can know that there are skating clubs here that are capable of competing internationally. We have a facility at the SOS Children’s Village in Kacyiru but it’s a skate board park built specifically for skateboards, not roller skates.”