By Mark Schaver
Ian Arzeni, a 34-year-old stabilization advisor for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, arrived at Embassy Dar es Salaam in February 2019. Working in the political section and coordinating the post’s efforts to counter violent extremism, Arzeni sought something to do in order to give back to the community while serving in Tanzania. He decided he wanted to volunteer to teach young people how to skateboard, a lifelong hobby of his.
Arzeni has always been passionate about working with kids. He had served as a youth development volunteer with the Peace Corps in Peru, and he has been skateboarding since he was 3 years old when he received a skateboard as a birthday gift. He picked up the sport by following the example of older neighborhood kids he admired back home in Green Bay, Wis.
“He wore it out,” said his mother, Diane DeClerc. “[At age 3,] he was going up and down with the 10-year-olds like a hotshot.”
Arzeni thought skateboarding would be fun to introduce to Tanzanian kids, because due to its limited exposure, it was a sport that most were unlikely to have an opportunity to participate in otherwise. As he considered the idea, Arzeni realized that he did not have a way to connect to local kids, a place to teach the classes, or skateboards to ride on. He researched the skateboarding scene in Tanzania on the web. On Facebook, he discovered a group of local skateboarders, maybe 15 or 20 individuals at most. He cold-called a telephone number he found and contacted one of them.
Some of the local skateboarders and Arzeni met at a local coffee shop, and he shared his idea of teaching young kids to skateboard. They liked the idea and agreed to help find a place to hold weekly classes.
The local skateboarders connected Arzeni to Father Michael Muia at the Don Bosco Recreation Center in the Upanga neighborhood of Dar es Salaam, who agreed to let the skateboarders practice on a basketball court.
The nearest skateboard shop to Tanzania is in South Africa (approximately 2,700 kilometers apart), so to find skateboards, Arzeni took to the internet again. He emailed approximately 30 skateboard companies, explained his project, and asked if they would be willing to donate skateboards. Only one, WKND Skateboards, a small, four-person company in California, responded. The founder and owner of WKND Skateboards, Grant Yansura, offered to send him 20 used decks (flat board that is stood on when skating). Yansura also sent Arzeni WKND-branded t-shirts and stickers. Arzeni paid to ship the donations to Tanzania using DHL, and he purchased the wheels and other hardware needed to make complete skateboards.
Yansura told Arzeni that he had never visited Tanzania and had no prior customers in Africa, but he was pleased to support this passion project. Every few weeks, Arzeni sends pictures to Yansura of the skateboarders riding WKND boards as a thank you.
“You can just tell how much fun they are all having,” Yansura said. “It looks like a pretty magical time for all of them.”
In the photos, Yansura also noticed that some of the kids did not have shoes. He put Arzeni in touch with a friend at Nike who agreed to donate 24 pairs of shoes. Arzeni’s mother and a friend also donated smaller shoes for the smallest kids.
On Saturday afternoons, Arzeni can often be found at the recreation center teaching all comers how to put their feet on the board, how to stand, how to turn, how to stop, and how to do tricks.
“He’s a good coach,” said Michael Benjamin Ngaga, a 19-year-old business student at Universal College of Africa who skates with Arzeni. “Now he’s my friend. He taught me how to skate. I was able to learn fast, more than with other people.”
Another member of the skateboarding group is Collins Felix Siriwa, an 11-year-old who goes to Muhimbili Primary School. Siriwa said his favorite sports used to be soccer and basketball, but now skateboarding had become his main focus “because it’s so fun.”
The kids sometimes call Arzeni “Coach” but Arzeni said, “I like to think right now I’m just the guy who shows up and skates with them.”
Arzeni pursued this project on his own time, aside from his embassy duties, but he does see his volunteering as an extension of his role as a representative of the U.S. government.
“While I’m not out there chanting ‘USA!’ the kids know where I’m from and connect me with the U.S.,” he said.
Weekend skateboarding classes have continued as the COVID-19 pandemic spread through Tanzania, albeit with smaller groups and face masks.
With money raised from family and friends, Arzeni plans to build a skateboard ramp at the recreation center in the coming months. Stabilization advisors typically work on short-term temporary duty assignments abroad. Arzeni hopes to remain in Tanzania beyond 2020 and continue with community outreach in his spare time.
“I’m content with my personal and professional life—working to counter violent extremism during the week and kicking and pushing atop four wheels on the weekends.”
Mark Schaver is a team lead in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, East Africa and Indian Ocean Division.