The Kiwi Interview - Volunteering With Skate-Aid
Kyryl Baranov (aka “Kiwi”) is one hell of a human being. In many ways, he’ll strike you as a typical 24 year old skater, but there’s nothing typical about the last few years he’s had. We’ve heard bits and pieces of his travels from other skaters in Ottawa but weren’t entirely sure about the details. We bumped into him recently while out skating and his answer to our question “what have you been up to?” caught us off guard. “I just got back from building a bowl in Uganda.” Wow. OK. We had to catch up and learn more about how he ended up there. Bragging isn’t in his nature but he sure has a lot to be proud of. Read on and get stoked. Kiwi’s story will inspire you!
Take us back to the start of your journey as a volunteer for an international skateboard charity. How did it all begin?
After graduating from university in 2019, I was looking for a challenge and something fun to do. It was as simple as that. I got the idea one night to volunteer for a skateboard charity, somewhere outside of North America. I like to travel and it sounded like an adventure, so I emailed a bunch of international organizations. Skate-Aid replied to my e-mail and asked if I’d be interested in volunteering for one of their programs in Bethlehem (Palestine). I said “yes” and it was on from there! I did that for four months. It was amazing.
Damn. Talk about taking the plunge into the world of volunteering! What did you do in Bethlehem for four months?
There’s a skate park in Bethlehem built within an “SOS children’s village”, which is a massive international charity organization. They’ve established thousands of orphanages all around the world, and Skate-Aid has built a few skate parks within those orphanages. I spent four months there helping to run the skate program within it.
How was that?
It was pretty gnarly at first; I’m not going to lie. Being the only volunteer on site had its challenges. I kind of had to start from scratch because it had been a while since the last volunteer was around. It also took a second before the kids accepted me, which was to be expected. Some kid threw a rock through my window on the first day…
What? What were they bummin’ on?
I was just the new guy and I was coming in on their turf. Most importantly, I was in control of skateboarding within the orphanage. I would distribute and collect the skateboard rentals for the day and that kind of stuff. The kids would be asking me to take out the skateboards after “skateboarding hours” when I had to say "no". That’s what they were bumming on. We quickly became friends though and the connection I had with these kids is unforgettable.
That’s kind of hype though, that the kids wanted to keep skating…
Ha! Yeah, but somebody needed to keep things organized. There were so many kids and we needed to make sure that everyone had a chance to use the boards. Allocating equipment, supervising the sessions, and sometimes repairing the park…that was my job. It’s essentially an after school program that’s open to only the orphans within this little village. The skate park is not public, and neither is the program. It needs to be run internally by folks within the orphanage associated with Skate-Aid.
I was happy to enlist some of the older “graduates” from the orphanage to join in as volunteers. That helped to keep the program going after I left. To me, that is the most important thing about these programs. International volunteers come and go. They are great to get the wheels in motion, but it’s essential to get some locals on board to keep the momentum going. From what I can tell, the newer local volunteers are crushing it and the program is running smoothly!
Wallride in Palestine [o] Diana Musa
Where did the skateboards come from?
They come from Skate-Aid. They collect used skate equipment but also send over new stuff courtesy of NHS to their various programs. Santa Cruz, Creature, Indy, Ricta…a lot of the gear is simply donated!
Very sick! And you were strictly volunteering at this point? Not getting paid?
I was getting paid a little bit. I got half of my flight paid for, and a monthly allowance of approximately 100 Euros. It’s not that much but I was staying for free at the orphanage where I ate with the kids so it was all good!
That’s a rad attitude to have. What did you get up to after your time in Bethlehem?
Well Skate-Aid seemed to have been stoked on my work. They offered me an internship position at their headquarters in Münster, Germany. After chilling back home for a bit, I headed there for another four month stint.
I guess there really is no rest for the wicked…what did you get up to there?
I wrote country guides for new volunteers going out to the various Skate-Aid projects. They use them to familiarize themselves with their postings prior to arriving. The guides also tell them what they’re supposed to do once they get there. I was basically researching the countries where Skate Aid had ongoing projects. I’d call former volunteers and create little booklets to give newcomers a rundown of what they’re getting into.
Really? What countries did you create booklets for?
I did one for Namibia, Uganda, Rwanda, Syria, and Palestine. Palestine was easy because I had just come from there but the others were tricky. I was just calling up former volunteers like “Yo! What’s it like there? How do you get a SIM card there? Any advice?” that kind of stuff.
That sounds cool! What’s Münster like?
It’s sick dude. There’s a rad skate scene there with a profound history. Skate-Aid is founded by Titus Dittmann, one of Europe’s skate godfathers. He played a huge role in popularizing skateboarding in Germany and Europe. Titus also founded a chain of skate shops, which are present throughout Germany. They have this massive compound in Münster with a skate park, and a restaurant. It also houses the headquarters of Skate-Aid. That’s where I interned for four months.
Building skate parks in Africa. [o] Kiwi
Then COVID hit…
Right…so COVID threw a wrench into my plans. I was supposed to go straight from Germany to Africa to work on a few more Skate Aid projects, but had to go home instead. I saved up some money while at home and waited until they would send me to Africa. I got the green light in February of 2021 and headed to Namibia.
Have you visited Africa before this trip?
Never. Nope…but I had always wanted to go. In my mind it’s like “the last frontier”.
So what was the project in Namibia like?
Skate-Aid built a skatepark there in collaboration with three special needs schools, one for hearing impaired kids, one for visually impaired kids, and one for kids with cognitive disabilities. Our mission was to restart the previously established skate program there that shutdown due to COVID. Unlike in Bethlehem, the skate park in Namibia is open to the public, not just the students at the school…so there was an actual skate scene developing there! We had a few tasks on our plate to get the project back up and running.
Apart from teaching the kids, we had to set up a shipping container to house all of the gear. We also had to repair a few obstacles in the park. Most importantly, just like in Bethlehem, the program’s sustainability was on my mind. I wanted to help give locals ownership of the project so that they could continue its growth after we leave. While out there, we trained my homie Michael Kagola on how to run things, and he's been killing it! We eventually got him hooked up with some funding from Skate-Aid, too! Some money from Skate Aid obviously needs to be directed towards the international volunteers but I think more of it should be spent on the local skaters who can run the programs. The money means more there. Building a community from far away is tough…we try to just help establish them and then support it from a distance.
That’s a good call…properly teaching kids how to skate isn’t always easy but doing so with special needs kids must be even tougher! How did you manage?
It’s really not that difficult. As cliché as it sounds it really is like “Hey! You’re down to play on this toy…I’m down to play on this toy…let’s go!”
Haha. I guess I'm overthinking it. What about a language barrier?
Well with the hearing impaired kids, there was no language barrier. They don’t talk. It’s wild seeing them all skating at the same time because all you can hear is the sounds of their boards. Nothing else. I learned a bit of sign language but all in all, it was not that tricky. I just distributed the skate equipment and skated with them.
True! In my experience, apart from a 30 minute overview of the basics, “teaching skateboarding” is mostly just you skating with the youngins’ and having them learn by observing. Maybe there’s the odd tip here and there but that’s really it. Just skating with someone who’s better than you makes you better.
Without a doubt! What’s also important is to show them how much fun I’m having and that they too can have this much fun too if they stick with it.
Early stages of Uganda's first skateboard bowl [o] Kiwi
Teaching skating to the visually impaired kids must have been tougher…
It was a bit more work at first but just to get them set up. They needed to be shown around the park to get themselves familiarized, but after, they wanted to skate around without any help! They honestly rip too! I was so impressed. They didn’t skate with guide sticks like Dan Mancina. They operate based fully on “feel”. This one kid was progressing so well, getting hyped on when his wheels would go over the coping of a quarter! Just that feeling got him psyched! The kids would get to know where the cracks are in the pavement and what not. They have their ways.
That’s so sick dude. I love it! Did you get a chance to explore Namibia at all in your free time? What’s it like over there?
Totally! Namibia is actually one of the least densely populated areas in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s mostly just desert, and there’s no humidity filter between you and the sun. It’s just straight sun through air. It’s gnarly and unlike anything I’ve ever felt in Canada before. Namibia is also just North West of South Africa and the effects of the Apartheid era are still very present. The neighbourhoods are quite segregated and the wealth disparity is enormous. Apartheid ended in the late 90s so the hatred for colonialism is fresh and strong. It didn’t feel the same as when I went out to East Africa because they’ve had their independence since the 60s. White people are straight up way richer than the black people in Namibia and it shows. There are the slums, where you won’t see any white people whatsoever, and then the white neighbours with mansions that are sectioned off with barbed wire fencing.
That sounds pretty tense…
There’s a lot of tension for sure and it gets even more complicated. There’s tension between the white citizens who are the descendants of colonialists and the black natives, but there are also issues between the various tribes that make up the black native population. It’s tricky to follow, but from that tension comes crime. It seems like it’s just inevitable.
Damn. That’s tough. So you stayed in Namibia for 2 months and then what?
Off to Uganda for another 2 months! Namibia was described to me as a “mellow” introduction to Africa. I didn’t know what was meant by that until I arrived in Uganda. The difference was enormous! I stayed in Kampala which is a massive city that's super busy all the time. Everyone is outside nonstop. People are cooking outside, kids are taking baths outside… Life takes place there right on the sidewalks of busy streets! There's essentially zero personal space and no difference between private or public property. It's all fair game over there.
That mentality would work great for street skating! How was it over there?
Yes, it is but there are very few skate-able spots...and what IS skate-able is protected by security guards armed with AK-47s. The private business areas are the exception to what I just described. They are heavily protected by dudes who do not mess around.
Yikes! I wouldn't test my luck in those situations. What was the purpose of your visit to Uganda?
The purpose of my visit was to help build a bowl at an existing skate park in a neighborhood just outside of the downtown area called Kitintale. The park is run by Jack Mubiru who is such a sick dude. After catching a glimpse of skateboarding on TV years ago, Jack got sparked and decided to build a skate park on his property. He's very passionate about helping out the youth in Uganda. He's donated space for them to be creative and constructive. Resources are limited in this neighborhood and so is money...so what Jack is doing is really appreciated. Skating aside, the skate park area that he's created has simply become a social gathering destination. Hundreds of kids go there every day. As I said earlier, the city is so hectic, so the skate park acts as a little haven for kids to go and just chill out.
That's so rad! And how did the construction of the bowl go? Did you have much experience with concrete before?
Oh man. We encountered plenty of problems during the construction of the bowl, despite having the best project manager Gabriel Roma Santos, blueprints from an architect and the guidance of Arne Fiehl, an OG German skate park builder. It was rough. We hit water after digging 1 foot down, so we had to switch the plans over to an above ground bowl. We had to build the structure of a small house out of bricks, fill the inside with dirt, and then dig out the shape of a bowl. The roads leading up to the park are too small for trucks, so all of the materials were dumped a few blocks away. We had to finish transporting everything to the site with a wheelbarrow. I wheelbarrowed dirt and bricks every day for about two weeks straight. I had the gnarliest calluses dude, it was exhausting.
After that, though, it got even trickier. Getting the dirt transition to stay in place wasn't easy, but we dug it out as best we could. We hired a local welder to set the coping in just right, added the rebar and it was ready for concrete. Thankfully we found this old, yet still functional concrete mixer, otherwise I don't know what we would've done. It was also so hot and humid all the time which made it tough to get the concrete's consistency just right. Some days we'd work at it for hours but the concrete would just flop down. We'd have to start all over again. It was discouraging and super rewarding at the same time.
Doesn't sound like you would've had much time to relax or party...
Not really, no. It wasn't glamorous but it worked out in the end. Jack’s wife would cook for us on site. We had rice and beans every day. I carried a bottle of Tabasco with me to spice it up from time to time, but that was it. We would drink a bit after a day’s work, but I preferred to chew khat. It’s a juicy green leaf that gives you a buzz kinda like a super strong coffee. 50 cents for a small pack that'll last you a day. The locals got me on it and after work we'd just chill, listen to reggae and chew khat into the night.
So your time in Uganda was spent just strictly building that bowl?
Nah man! We took a bunch of little trips, one particularly memorable one was missioning out to the deep jungle to hang out with wild gorillas but that’s a whole other story! We finished the bowl and even got to skate it a little before I left. The only transition that Uganda had prior to this bowl was super janky so it was rad seeing the locals learn how to push around the corners and scratch the coping. My time in Uganda was awesome but also extremely exhausting...both emotionally and physically. I was definitely tapped out and needed to reset.
Yeah no kidding Kiwi, I feel like I need a nap after conducting this interview. Tell me you flew home after your time in Uganda...
I did, yeah. After a quick two week vacation in Kenya, I flew back home to Ottawa.
What a wild ride. What’s next up for you? A break, or right back to it?
Well everything is up in the air right now because of COVID, but the tentative plan is for me to go back to Bethlehem in September with Skate Aid. The plan is to start a partnership with SkatePal and hopefully open up the skate park within the orphanage to the public. That way everyone can enjoy it! I'm looking forward to that.
Thank you so much for speaking with me dude! The stories of your travels are fascinating and inspiring. They make me want to get out there and volunteer myself!
Sick! I'm glad and you should absolutely do it if you can. There's no better way to see the world and experience cultures as a skater. It's been a blast and I hope to keep the ride going.