If 23-year-old Tanaka Maxwell Chembezi was stuck on an island and could only take one thing, it would be his skateboard. He is on a mission to expose skateboarding culture to as many young Zimbabweans as possible – and hopes to change society in the process.
By Tatenda Kanengoni
A small crowd forms gradually in a street in Mbare, located about six kilometres southwest of the Harare city centre, as three Bonelessons crew members take turns to perform different skating tricks. Then the crowd breaks spontaneously into dance as a favourite tune belts out of a speaker. The spirit of community is unmistakable.
The crowd looks on as 23-year-old Tanaka Maxwell Chembezi, leader and founder of the Bonelessons crew, approaches the middle of the street to present the “Boneless”, a key trick in skateboarding.
He twists, grabs his board with one hand and pushes himself into the air before landing back on the board.
“One of the tricks that I know anyone at any skate level can master in one day, is the Boneless,” he explained.
For Chembezi, skateboarding is a way of life. 12 years ago, when he first spotted an “interesting plank with wheels” in his neighbour’s yard while mucking about with his brother, he would have never imagined that the same piece of equipment might change his life.
Chembezi chuckles as he recalls the moment he first laid eyes on the skateboard.
“There was this lady who lived next door, she had a skateboard, but she didn’t use it. At one point we borrowed it… We would just push each other down the hill. For me back then it was just fun… I just enjoyed sitting on it and just rolling down the hill,” he recalled.
After a brief taste of the action sport, Chembezi took a break because he did not have access to his own skateboard. That was, until his sister who had moved to South Africa, got into the skateboard trade.
“My sister was sent two skateboards; someone had ordered two. The guy came and bought one, so one was left,” said Chembezi
He persuaded his sister to gift him the remaining skateboard for his 16th birthday, to prove to his schoolmates that he knew how to skate, after the embarrassment of a stunt gone wrong.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day. This guy came with a skateboard to school and I was like, ‘I used to have one of these, I know how to do it.’ So I tried the board, but it had loose trucks, then I fell and hurt myself. The following day, I came to school and my arm was swollen, guys were asking what happened… this guy was laughing at me [saying] ‘he fell on my skateboard’. That actually gave me the boost, that feeling of wanting to prove them wrong, like ‘I know how to do this, I have this at home,” he said.
Chembezi started following online tutorials on learning how to skate and quickly discovered a new universe.
“I went online, and I saw a video of people skating and I was like ‘you can do that?’ so I looked at the videos, tried to teach myself a couple of stuff.”
It dawned on Chembezi that skating brought on a sense of euphoria he couldn’t get through other activities.
“If I had a bad day, I would just go skate, I’d feel better. That made me start thinking, ‘what is this that I feel when I skate?’ And ‘am I the only one that feels it?’” Except that he did not know any other skaters in the area, to ask.
Chembezi eventually recruited a cousin as his skate partner and met another youngster who was interested in skating and they formed a small skating community. In 2019, they came across a poster calling for skaters to attend a skate session organized by the youth dance trust, Jibilika.
“I went there and saw other skaters and thought ‘we actually have other skaters? I can actually skate with other people who are good and have fun, feel this bliss?’”
Through interactions at the event, he learnt of a project called Skate Zimbabwe that was in the process of being established. Co-founder Mukudzei Nyamhamba asked if Chembezi would be interested in teaching kids how to skate, as part of the project. Chembezi quickly put together a team of skaters to serve as instructors, under the Bonelessons moniker, inspired by the Boneless trick. Soon, Bonelessons was working with Skate Zimbabwe to teach classes.
“We started doing these skate sessions, teaching kids how to skate and it was fun, as I got deeper into skateboarding, I started noticing the perks …For me, it was an outlet, yes we are doing skate sessions, but these people are improving their mental health,” said Chembezi
Chembezi started utilizing skating for social good, acknowledging the sense of community, brotherhood and social capital that developed during the interactions.
That a wide social skateboarding community is emerging in Africa is evidenced by Skate Africa, an online video “series of skate tours to meet and support the emerging skate scenes in the streets and parking lots of Africa,” hosted on Red Bull TV. Being selected to represent Skate Zimbabwe at the Goodpush Social Skateboarding Summit in South Africa in 2019 and interacting with fellow African skateboarders, solidified Chembezi’s sense of mission.
“It was a skateboarding summit where skateboarders from around the world discuss what change they are bringing about and helping each other develop…It was an amazing experience,” he said
A moment of camaraderie involving Zambian skateboarder Johnny Kalenga at the summit stands out for Chembezi.
“Skateboarders have this phrase called ‘one more try.’ This friend of mine called Johnny Kalenga was like, ‘I want to try to do a trey flip’, a manoeuvre where the board turns 360 and twists at the same time. Guys were like ‘try it, you know you can land it, it will just be 2 minutes.’ He spent two hours learning that trick, everyone was just being a teacher, [saying] ‘do it’, ‘one more try,’ until he landed it and everyone was so stoked, everyone was happy, he almost cried,” said Chembezi
Bonelessons now has five instructors teaching skateboarding in the Mbare community. In 2020, Chembezi recruited 21-year-old Tatiana Kondo, the crew’s first female skateboarder, to help teach young girls how to skate.
“We try to help the children express themselves in a way that’s fun and interactive. We’ve got quite a biased demographic in terms of gender, but the girls are slowly coming in,” said Kondo.
Co-founder of Skate Zimbabwe, Mukudzei Nyamhamba, commends Chembezi for the impact he is making in his community, through skateboarding.
“It’s been an amazing journey to see Maxwell grow from one level to another. I’ve known him since his early days of skateboarding. Apart from growing the skate culture, he believes whatever small contribution he can make, will make a huge difference. It’s great to see such a young man who is dedicated to his community and to improve it in any way possible” said Nyamhamba
Chembezi is also optimistic about his own future and pursues other interests including graphic design and content creation around different skate initiatives. He has seen what a positive attitude can do.
“Through skateboarding and through Skate Zimbabwe, we have managed to push our dreams,” he said.