Ancient Laptop Fueling Dreams of Ugandan Skating Pioneer

Paved roads are hard to come by in Kampala, Uganda. Smooth paved roads--the kind you can skate on--are even harder to find. No wonder people thought Kampala native Peter Waswa was crazy when he declared his love for inline skating.

Peter Waswa with Mandela National Stadium in background

Peter was born in 1992 in Uganda’s capital city. He’s one of 8 kids (and a twin, interestingly). In 2002, 10-year-old Peter got the skating bug. “I was inspired by a few teens who I saw around Mandela National Stadium. I liked how they rolled on shoes with wheels. I fell in love with the sport.”

When he got home that evening, Peter asked his mom to buy him a pair but she laughed it off--they were far too expensive (~30,000 Ugandan shillings, or about US$10) for a working-class family of 10. “She wasn’t able to buy them for me but I said ‘I will buy them myself when I grow up.’”

He saved for years and proudly hit the pavement as an eager 16-year-old. “I was at the stadium with my schoolmates and we found a boy from our school who was learning to skate,” Peter recalls. “I befriended him so he would teach me.” The boy ultimately gave Peter his skates and off Peter went perfecting his craft on the dangerous streets of Kampala. “Uganda doesn’t have spaces where you can skate so I learned on roads.”

Peter’s love for the sport grew quickly but he had to overcome stolen skates and discouragement that stemmed from one well-earned stigma associated with skaters. “People in Uganda had a negative attitude towards us because many skaters misbehaved back then. Some had a tendency to grab on to speeding vehicles and they would sometimes snatch people’s phones, handbags and necklaces.”

Of course, Peter wanted no part of that--he just wanted to skate and be part of a community. “I used to go to the stadium just to watch people. I got to know a lot of the skaters; we did promotions for companies, giving out flyers and stickers, In 2011, speed skating was officially introduced in Uganda and I joined the VOF Speed Skating team.”

Now he was skating against top athletes from Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan. “I made many friends from those countries, especially in Kenya where skating is a big sport.” Peter won 2 gold medals at the East African championships and 3 bronze medals in other international competitions.

peter and friends working in his father's factory

These days, Peter works as a laborer with his brother and a few friends at his father’s factory, which makes tar paper used in house construction.

Sometimes he helps out at his mother’s salon. The rest of the time you can find him by following the pavement to where it gets smooth. “I still train four days a week in the evenings--twice on the weekend and twice during the working week.”

Along the way, almost all of Peter’s friends stopped skating, most due to the cost of training or lack of equipment. But Peter pressed on and, in 2015, he started teaching younger Ugandans to skate. “I decided to reduce my own skating time so I could teach. It is my passion to teach them what I love.”

Peter Waswa has now trained and mentored more than 300 skaters in Uganda, most of them between the ages of five and 16. “I provide wheels for those who can't afford to buy them and sometimes I give them free skates,” he says. “I like that this gives them a positive picture of the skating community.”

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it was a Lenovo laptop that initially connected us with Peter. A mutual friend--New York photographer (and frequent Kampala visitor) Tadej Znidarcic--told us about Peter and said he thought he’d seen him using an old ThinkPad. As it turned out, it was something even more unlikely. “I think I got this laptop in 2013,” he recalls, “when I was going to University and was required to have one.” He had assumed it was a 2013 vintage but closer inspection reveals it’s actually a Lenovo 3000, a value model we sold way back in 2006-08.

crowds gather when peter and his friends race

I ask him how it’s possibly still running. Hasn’t it been banged around a lot since he brings it out to skate practices sometimes? “Not too often,” he says casually. And what does he use the laptop for? “I mostly use it to show kids my skating videos. And I keep records on it as well as my pictures.”

Towards the end of the interview process--a start-stop flurry of Facebook messages volleyed over the course of a few weeks--I ask Peter if there’s anything else he wants me to know. “Oh,” he says as if it’s no big deal. “I am trying to become one of seven speed skaters to represent Uganda in the Winter Olympics.” Half a world away, I fall on the floor. Of course it's a longshot but still--the dream. In his childhood years--when just having his own skates seemed a bridge too far--did Peter ever imagine competing in the Olympics? “No!” he says with certainty.

With mentoring kids on his plate and Olympic dreams in his head, Peter ponders the deeper future. “I want to accomplish much much more. I want to do a lot for my country and for skating in Uganda and Africa. I want someone to be there and, because of me, manage to fulfill their dreams.”

Gavin O'Hara is Lenovo's Global Social Media Publisher.

Special thanks to Tadej Znidarcic and our friends at Viewfind for the beautiful photos that accompany this article.