If you’ve traveled to a country where skateboarding has had limited exposure, there’s an unmistakable look on a local kid’s face when they borrow your board and discover the feeling of riding around for the first time.
Ben Hermans is part of an international community of skatepark builders who recognize that look, know the feeling and understand it’s meaning. He partners with organizations such as Make Life Skate Life and SkatePal who do the incredible work of bringing skateboarding to disadvantaged communities by building skateparks in them. It’s a proven formula – give the youth something exciting to occupy their time with, and they’ll build community and hope from it.
Since last August, Ben spent a long stint bouncing from build sites in Palestine, Ethiopia, Morocco and back to Australia where we had the chance to chat about how he’s made his way into such an interesting community.
Headline Photo: Emil Agerskov
Who are you, where are you from and what do you do?
Straight in! My name’s Ben Hermans. I’m from a tiny spot way out in the Australian bush called Clifton Creek. I try and do as many things as I can, but for the most part I travel to interesting locations to build skate parks, usually on a volunteer basis.
It seems like you really love to roam. We met in Paris last August and you were about to head to Palestine for a build. After that, you bounced straight to Taghazout, Morocco for another build. How long were you on the road for?
That trip lasted 7 months; I’ve got a pretty long-winded story to fit in there between Palestine and Morocco too.
After we had finished the park in Palestine, I planned on taking a month off to chill out, skate the park, travel around and not work flat out on a construction site. I received a call from a friend of mine who urgently needed more people to help with another skate park that was being built in Ethiopia. The day after the park opening in Palestine, a friend and I left the West Bank and headed to Lake Hawassa in Ethiopia, straight to the work site. Relative to the size of the crew and the local skate scene, the site had been laid out on a huge scale. We struggled with weather, availability of resources in the area and we had just about all of our power tools stolen. It got to the point where we were using hand saws, hammers and nails to build a concrete skatepark.
A week or so into the trip I contracted Malaria. It was initially misdiagnosed as a strain of flu and I was bed-ridden in a horrible hotel room waiting to overcome it. Malaria is fatal if you don’t treat it properly and I went back to the hospital five days later almost unable to walk. They were alarmed at my blood results and after a series of injections, I was given some medication and sent on my way. I spent the next 3 weeks watching the only English TV channel I could find.
Meanwhile the organisation, Ethiopia Skate, had run out of money to finish the skate park and left the site without putting the flat of the park in. One of the builders, Kim Iwens, was the only one with the determination left to finish the job so she started her own crowdfunding page and paid local labourers to mix concrete and pour the rest of the flat.
Do you come from a background of concrete work or building skateparks?
I come from a background in self-sufficiency which gave me the mind frame and skills to want to build my own stuff. My mum and dad built their own house and set it up so they could live fully “off the grid” in the Australian bush, something that I attribute to having the most impact on the direction of my life. Interestingly enough, when my grandfather immigrated to Australia from Holland, he began a concreting company which would pour the first concrete slab house in Melbourne.
How did you start getting involved with organizations like SkatePal and Make Life Skate Life then? What role do you play when you’re working with them?
I finished university and I didn’t really know what to do. I worked a shit job for a bit but didn’t find any appeal in working 5 days a week just to scrape by in an expensive city. Right around this time, I found Make Life Skate Life who had already completed skateparks in India and Bolivia which came to my attention through online videos like ‘Condensed Flesh’ and Troy West’s ‘Gypsy Life.’ It looked like so much fun. It combined all of the things I was interested in and it gave me a purpose to travel somewhere.
Three years and 10 skate parks later, I’ve kind of made my own niche and direction within this international community of skatepark builders. I try and conceptualise a unique obstacle I could build for a certain destination that ties in with cultural, scenic or even political aspects of the location.
It also differs depending on which organisation we are working with. With Make Life Skate Life, I really take a back seat because there’s so many professional builders coming along that really know what they are doing. With SkatePal, we work with a much smaller group and I’m happy to get the chance to take on more responsibility with managing the construction aspect of the project.
Where are the parks located that you’ve had a hand in building?
I’ll just list the interesting places: A few basic ramps in India, Asira and Jayyous in Palestine, Myanmar, Addis-Ababa and Lake Hawassa in Ethiopia, Kathmandu and Pokhara in Nepal, and most recently Taghazout in Morocco.
These builds have crew members coming from different parts of the world. Does the team stay the same for each project or are there new people coming in and out?
There is a core group of people who are always trying to make it out. For this, it feels a bit like a family and it makes for a nice reunion every time we get to go somewhere new. You form a pretty strong bond with people when you spend so much time living and working together in these places. There are also a lot of fresh faces every time which keeps things interesting.
Do ideas ever clash when it comes to executing a build project?
It’s pretty inevitable that you’re going to have clashing ideas about what makes a good skatepark. The best you can do is try and balance all the factors at hand and think like, ‘What do the local skaters want?’ At the end of the day, we are all skateboarders and we usually come up with a pretty good product that’s always going to be better than nothing at all.
These builds always take place in a developing country. Do you ever encounter the ‘white savior’ narrative?
I have never really felt that way. You personalise what you’re doing to the point that you’re only thinking about some ramps that you want to make because you love building them and you love skateboarding. It’s cool if some kids there want to embrace it, but its not shoved down anyone’s throat and no one is preaching about being the saviours. We have a personal joke like, “Oh yeah, I was just in Africa saving some kids’ lives.” which is obviously not the case. It’s just skateboarding, we don’t take it too seriously.
Being an outsider in these cultures and places, what are some important lessons you’ve learned about people along the way?
I’ve learned about the importance of public spaces and the infrastructure in places that lack them. I saw this returning to the first park we built in Palestine. When I visited the park on the weekends, it was filled with families to the point that you couldn’t really skate the park. It shows how even if these communities are disadvantaged, they can demonstrate their resilience by trying to live a normal life.
What’s the greatest reward that comes from working on these projects?
The relationships you make with people all over the world, for sure. That’s the most valuable thing. It gives you an alternative way of living also - travelling for free doing work that you love. I think it teaches you a good model for living.
Along with all the positive aspects, are there any negative things you’ve seen or faced along the way?
Yes, and like everything in life, it’s a compromise of positive and negative. I heard reports from the project we did in Pokhara, Nepal, where a street kid had injured himself and was unable to afford proper treatment in a hospital, and I’m sure this isn’t the only story like it. But I have also heard that the kids who used to come by the build site who were huffing paint have stopped doing that and have started skating. It’s pretty hard to weigh up the positive and negative effects. How much responsibility do you take for a kid hurting themselves? Maybe I should get public liability insurance.
What’s your favourite build you’ve worked on?
The most pivotal one for me was Palestine in 2015. It’s the most interesting place I have visited due to the complex political situation of the area, something which I knew very little about. On this project we arrived with 20 other volunteers and most of us had little to no experience. We were really put in the deep end and ended up managing to build a great park, which is still getting a lot of use today.