Nairobi’s third places

In Nairobi, skateboarding provides an alternative space where consumption is not a prerequisite for entry.

The Skateboarding Society of Kenya after a contest at the Uhuru Park Platforms © Adam Yawe, 2023.

In 2010, a group of Kenyan skateboarders came together to formalize their community, through the formation of the Skateboarding Society of Kenya (SSK). This group was founded and chaired by skateboarder and architect Leo Kilel and was prompted by many years of trying to garner support for skateboarding in various forms but realizing that it would be next to impossible without a formal body.

The founders and initial members of the SSK were drawn to skateboarding because, in Kilel’s words, it gave them “a new family, where they are accepted, appreciated, and allowed to express themselves unconditionally.” Kilel saw this as a remedy to the problems he felt were plaguing the country at the time: ethnic division, unemployment, and the disillusionment of youth.

The main goal of SSK is to create awareness about skateboarding in Kenya, and to spread it to the furthest corners of the country. Various routes have been taken to achieve this including offering skateboarding lessons and filming and sharing skateboarding videos. Also of importance are contests and weekly skate sessions at Uhuru Park, a public venue located in Nairobi’s Central Business District.

These weekly skate sessions are where I first met George Gachagua, also known as George Zuko. Zuko is the current chairman of the SSK who, like his predecessor, is also a trained architect. His story defies convention; he abandoned a potential career in architecture to become a full-time skateboarder, making a living giving skateboarding lessons and working as a brand ambassador, all while sharing this journey on his Instagram page.

Zuko’s journey is reflective of the broader narrative of Kenyan skateboarding, where young people are not only carving a path for themselves but also reimagining the city. Scholar and architect Iain Borden describes the act of skateboarding as a “contemporary critique of modern cities.” While the metropolis is primarily seen as a space for “serious business,” skateboarding utilizes urban infrastructure, such as benches, pavements and bollards, as canvases upon which to express individuality. This action redefines the purpose of the city, transforming it into a space where visitors can craft their identities.

Skateboarders reimagine the purpose of the Uhuru Park Platforms. Screenshot via YouTube.

The Platforms at Uhuru Park, a set of pavilions often used to seat politicians and officials during political and religious rallies, acted as the gathering point for the initial weekly sessions of the SSK. However, during the time I spent there, I saw it host not only skateboarding but also several other activities: from choir, dance and play rehearsals, to preachers and food vendors. It could be argued that the act of skateboarding is what opened this structure up to public use, reimagining the purpose of the space and inspiring others to do the same.

But of greater importance is the space itself. Being completely open and unregulated, it allowed anyone to enter from any direction. Save for patrols by plain-clothed police officers, there was no barring of access, no guards or metal detectors to search you, no gates or high walls to prevent entry. This openness allowed the platforms to be, for many different types of people, what sociologists would call a third place: environments that are separate from work and home and that welcome informal social gatherings essential for leisure and community building.

During my second year studying engineering, I was met with my first lecturer’s strike, as happens often in Kenyan public universities. In these moments, there is no learning ongoing at the institution for undefined periods. This strike just so happened to coincide with an injury, meaning I had a lot of free time that I couldn’t spend skateboarding. However, this didn’t stop me from making my way to Uhuru Park from time to time, if only to observe the skateboarders, contemplate my path in life, and seek out new ways of being. It was during these contemplation sessions that I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer.

The space at the park known as the Platforms, where I was free to enter and exist merely as myself—where failure was welcomed and not ridiculed, and identity and intentions were not pre-defined as a badge that granted access to the space—allowed me to dream and project a new self-identity. This is one I could never have imagined in the rigid structures of home and school, where choices were and still are heavily dictated by expectations.

Uhuru Park Platforms rendered in 3D as seen in Zamani’s Pro Skater video.

Nairobi’s third places, like the Platforms, are waypoints, rest stops, and areas to recharge and refocus. Without these environments, the city feels like an endless in-between where one is only allowed to move through but never rest because you are not welcome to do so. This is what Nairobi often feels like; a space where you are not at home or welcome, only passing through, working and/or running errands; where spaces of rest require you to spend money to access them.

It makes me recall the kipande system used in the 1920s when Kenya was under British colonial rule. This early kipande was a metallic container worn around the neck, containing one’s personal documents, and was mandatory for all males above the age of 15. These documents stated your personal details and employment history and were a prerequisite for being in the city, ultimately restricting the mobility of Africans unless they served as labor. I felt  this legacy when stopped by police officers in Nairobi’s Central Business District and asked: “wapi kipande?” (where is your ID?).

In 2021, the Uhuru Park Platforms were demolished as part of planned renovations to the park, after which it has remained inexplicably closed save for an annual festival. Since then, the question “where are the third places in Nairobi?” sat heavily on my mind. One answer comes after a friend invites me to their graduation ceremony from Santuri, an electronic music academy. The academy is housed in the basement of a building aptly named “The Mall,” one of Nairobi’s oldest shopping complexes. Before the ceremony begins, we proceed to the student’s regular hangout spot on the rooftop of this arcade. We take the lift to the second floor, walk up the ramp onto the rooftop, and I’m greeted by a familiar feeling: the open, unregulated space takes me back to the Uhuru Park Platforms. While the rooftop is meant to be parking for the mall, more often than not it is empty, and so students, staff, and visitors come up here to take a breather.

The mall rooftop during Jua ni Kali skateboarding event.
The mall rooftop in 3D as seen in Zamani’s Jua ni Kali VR experience.

A year before this, I designed an artwork depicting “the gap” as a stained-glass mural. The gap is a space between the two central pavilions at the Uhuru Park Platforms, across which skaters would often perform tricks. Jumping over the gap was often seen as a rite of passage and depicting it in stained glass spoke to the sacred nature of the spot and its place in Kenyan skateboarding history. While on the rooftop of the mall, one can see a mesmerizing circular stained-glass mural, making me wonder about the poetic nature of this coincidence and what it could mean about the connection between the Uhuru Park Platforms and The Mall’s rooftop, especially because they are exemplars of Nairobi’s third places.

The Gap at the Uhuru Park platforms.
Stained glass rendition of The Gap at the Uhuru Park Platforms.

I continue to ask myself many questions about the city: where are more third places in Nairobi? What might it mean for a city to lack spaces where people who don’t find a home in pre-existing subcultures can craft and actualize their identities—spaces where consumption is not a prerequisite for entry? As my identity has begun to solidify, my life has become more structured and my finances a bit more consistent. At this point in my life, I have less need for these unstructured spaces. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is a need to craft them for those that do.

"Stained Glass at The Mall" alongside Zamani’s “The Gap” stained glass mural via YouTube.

Further Reading

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