Urban legends: the rise of skate and BMX in Cameroon

A new wave of street culture is getting its skates on in Douala. Florence Derrick meets the photographer documenting the city’s growing BMX and rollerblading scene

It’s 5pm on a normal weekday in downtown Douala, and school’s out. In the sleek Place du Gouvernement – the heart of the commercial Bonanjo district – the low thump of a lazy hip hop beat bounces off the trees and white-stone facades. In the centre of a gathering circle of passers-by, a handful of young, snapback cap-clad Doualans are performing tricks on rollerblades and BMX bikes. They start in a modest freestyle, kicking up dust as they spin in neat, practised circles – but before long, as the crowd gains momentum and erupts into whoops of applause, they’re balancing on the handlebars and hurtling off ramps at high speed, showing off the aerial moves they’ve been dedicating their evenings to, day in, day out.

This impromptu public show is known in Cameroon as a dérangeade (for which the tongue-in-cheek translation is ‘disturbance’), and it’s the beating heart of a thriving BMX and rollerblading scene in the country’s largest city. One local photographer and former BMX biker, Max Mbakop, stumbled across the emerging scene – which is a vibrant kind of mash-up between breakdance and sport – in 2010, and has been documenting its growth ever since.

“Douala’s BMX and rollerblading scene is becoming very well organised,” he says. “We have ‘rollers’ and ‘bikemen’ starting to organise competitions against each other, and associations are springing up across the city to promote it.”

In Douala, two forms of freestyle biking rule. Flatland BMX – an artistic form of cycling that involves balancing and spinning the bike on a flat surface – is the most popular, as it can be practised anywhere with a smooth patch of tarmac. Street riders, meanwhile, make use of public rails, stairs and other obstacles to perform their tricks. Both require minimal props – ideal for the Cameroonian kids setting up impromptu performances after school.

As well as in Douala, it’s a phenomenon that’s rolling out in Kribi and, even more notably, Yaoundé, where a collective of young BMX riders called 237BMX are hosting training and regular dérangeades in the hope of one day creating a national team to compete in the UCI BMX World Championships. Its 22nd edition was held in South Carolina, USA, this year and the medals tables were dominated by American and European names. 237BMX’s work is part of a scattered effort across Cameroon to rectify this by raising the sport’s profile in the football-mad nation – something that urban arts promoter Arnaud Nguenga also hopes to contribute to. He’s behind Yaoundé’s annual Festival National des Danses Urbaines (National Festival of Urban Dance), which is entering its fifth year in August 2018 and features BMX performances among five days’ worth of street dance shows. “Even though BMX is much more widely practised in Cameroon than other African countries, it’s not recognised by sporting authorities,” he explains. “It’s up to us to improve its visibility.”

Perhaps Mbakop’s documentary photography series can help. Rollers & BMX has been picked up by YaPhoto – Yaoundé Photo Network, a new online platform launched in September 2016 that promotes the work of Cameroonian photographers by publishing their portfolios. It’s the country’s only online photography hub and plays a crucial role in raising the profile of artists based there, both on the African and international art scene.

“There’s a lot of interest in contemporary African photography right now, but Cameroonian photographers are never represented in international biennials,” claims YaPhoto co-founder Christine Eyene – a French-born, Cameroonian art historian who’s been selected to curate the lead exhibition at next year’s Summer of Photography festival, held at the BOZAR gallery in Brussels. “We don’t have many art magazines or venues in Cameroon, so it’s difficult for talented photographers to show their work there. I wanted to support them.” The diverse projects displayed on the YaPhoto site range from vibrant fashion shoots to hard-hitting documentary series, conceptual fine art imagery to live music photography.

Eyene came across Mbakop’s Rollers & BMX series and immediately invited him to put his images on YaPhoto. “At first Max didn’t see his series as high art, because it’s not something that you really see in Africa. Urban street culture and photography is much more common in the West,” she explains. “But it’s important for local photographers to show their own reality, so that the images of Africa shown to the rest of the world are more nuanced than what people see on CNN. This project shows youths in a way that youths in other parts of the world can relate to.”

There’s also a touch of irreverence in the series that appealed to Eyene, reminding her of her own teenage years spent skating in Paris: “They’re very peaceful images, but they play on the fact that you don’t often see this kind of urban activity in that part of the city.” It’s the smooth tarmac and lack of traffic that draws Douala’s young rollerbladers and BMX riders to well-to-do Bonanjo. The chance to become more socially visible through celebrating urban culture is also an irresistible part of the appeal. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Cameroon’s most important cultural space, doual’art, overlooks the Place du Gouvernement square, where the bikers and skaters congregate each evening.

For Mbakop, too, the value of documenting Douala’s skaters and bikers runs deeper than promoting the activities for their own sake alone. “There’s a reason behind my need to document this alternative perspective to the city,” he explains. “Most of the kids on the scene are aged 12-25 and come from underprivileged backgrounds. For them, it’s a chance to escape the social issues that affect their lives every day. It’s not just a sport, it’s a community of young people who share the same passion.”

Rollers & BMX doesn’t just show this community in action, mastering the art of bunny hops, wheelies and jumps. It records the social bonding between the two different groups, whether they’re on roller-skates or BMX bikes; the coming-together of Douala’s disparate teens, and the interactions and friendships that play out until nightfall sends them home. And with YaPhoto working in tandem to provide the same support framework for the country’s growing pool of photographers – whose work has until now gone largely unknown – the future looks promising for both forms of young creative talent born in Cameroon.

“YaPhoto allows me to have a more critical approach to my work, and to be competitive,” concludes Mbakop. “It makes me strive every day to live up to the level of confidence and opportunity it’s given me.”

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