Let It Flow: A skateboarding star is helping locals in Janwaar, Madhya Pradesh, access clean water

Skateboarding and Nyjah Huston are synonyms of sorts, considering what he’s achieved at just 21 years. The American is a six-time, X-Games gold medallist and a five-time Street League Skateboarding champion, and has a lot in store for the sport in the next few years, given his age.

But while taking his baby steps into the world of skateboarding through his growing years, life taught him a few lessons that made him realise the importance of water. And these days, he's giving back to the sport and to parched communities around the world alike.

There was more than one agenda when Nyjah made his way to a remote corner of the country on his first visit to India. Janwaar Castle is India’s first rural skatepark and was started about a year ago in the hamlet of Janwaar. Located about seven kilometres from the town of Panna in Madhya Pradesh, the livelihood of the people here depends mostly on farming, animals and the forest. That in turn means that rainfall is key for this hamlet, which is also scanty in these parts during most years.

Nyjah Huston. All images courtesy Shail Desai

Nyjah Huston. All images courtesy Shail Desai

A drought last year led to a number of deaths, since most depend on the accumulated groundwater for their daily needs. With few resources at their disposal, contaminated water and broken hand pumps made things even worse during the relentless summer months.

Nyjah may come from a different part of the world, but he knows a thing or two about these struggles.

Growing up in some of the most rustic parts of the world, time and again, water came at a price. During his early days in the Fiji Islands in 1996, his father took a motorboat across to the mainland to get gallons of water back for use at home.

“We once ran out of water and I decided to use sea water to cook some oats,” recalls Nyjah’s mother, Kelle.

“I boiled it for an hour and a half, yet the food was inedible. It was an awful situation and the first experience for us when it came to water,” she adds.

Kelle and Cody put up the Let it Flow banner at Janwaar

Kelle and Cody put up the Let it Flow banner at Janwaar

The situation was no different when the Hustons moved to mainland Fiji.

“The water from the faucet was brown and couldn’t be used. So once again, someone had to drive and bring back containers of water. We are family of seven, I had to ration the supply. It really made me appreciate its importance,” Kelle says.

When they moved to Puerto Rico in 2006, Nyjah and his four siblings had to fill buckets of water from a holding tank at the bottom of their property, and walk up to their home. Kelle on her part had the kids realise that there were people who had it far worse, and had to walk to a river or a well, all for dirty water.

“Nyjah was never happy about it. His back hurt and it was affecting his skating, which meant the world to him. But we really didn’t have a choice,” Kelle recalls.

It’s a memory that remains with the family. So, when Nyjah’s skateboarding took off, he decided to work on the water issue around the world through his charity, Let it Flow, a non-profit organisation started in 2008.

The villagers of Janwaar learn how the filter works

The villagers of Janwaar learn how the filter works

“Let it Flow means a lot to me. It’s about helping people in any way possible and spreading positivity. Coming to Janwaar made perfect sense, since we were not only helping the kids with skateboarding, but also the community with the water problem,” Nyjah says.

“Kelle reached out to us after she heard of a project that combined skateboarding and water.It was a major reason for them to come down and see how skateboarding had an impact on Janwaar and its water issues,” says Ulrike Reinhard, CEO at Janwaar Castle Community Organisation.

The water doctors on the Let it Flow team are brothers Joshua and Cody Barker. At Janwaar, they fixed a number of broken hand pumps that the households close by had abandoned, in addition to demonstration the use of water filters, which were later given out to the residents.

“The water problem is something that you always hear about, but then you think — I’m not really going to be able to do anything about it, especially when you have water at your disposal. You’re so used to it that you don’t realise that it would be gone some day,” Joshua says.

The villagers of Janwaar during a demonstration session

The villagers of Janwaar during a demonstration session

Cody was the first to work on water in 2010 via his bottled water company called, People Water. A part of the sales was used to fund water projects in Nicaragua and Ghana. They were also drilling wells where they would spend anywhere between $4000-12,000. So Cody decided to get into repairing the existing wells.

“At times, even that wasn’t enough since the water was still dirty. So filtration became a natural progression, which is a major part of what we do today,” Cody explains.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is the fact that water that tastes good isn’t necessarily clean. We spent a lot of time explaining this to the people of Janwaar, since they prefer the water from the well to that from the hand pump,” he adds.

The Let it Flow team has also carried out projects in Haiti, Ghana, Philippines, Ethiopia and Cambodia. There have been many moments that have touched the team — from the sight of a queue of buckets at the only well in Haiti to a community rejoicing when a defunct well was fixed after eight years. But for Kelle, the one in Fiji earlier this year was the most fulfilling.

(L) Nyjah interacts with the kids at Janwaar; (R) Nyjah and his brother Kiade fix broken boards at Janwaar Castke

(L) Nyjah interacts with the kids at Janwaar; (R) Nyjah and his brother Kiade fix broken boards at Janwaar Castke

“You normally associate Fiji with luxury vacations and fancy bottled water — the reality is very different as I had experienced it. On our recent visit, we went to remote parts where the water authorities were unable to service the people. They had just experienced a hurricane, so it was the right time,” Kelle says.

“When we went to a school, the principal was in tears since all they had was a little mud hole in the ground. The water was really bad, the kids were sick. It was a special trip for me, it felt so good to give back to the people,” she says.

To make water accessible to the folks at Janwaar around the year, which is a first for the residents, the Let it Flow team also donated money to fund a solar project. Besides, the panels also power floodlights at the park that make skateboarding possible after sundown.

Skateboarding of course remains the prime focus for Nyjah for now, especially after its inclusion at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, which will take the sport to other communities around the world.

“The sport has grown a lot in the last five to 10 years, which is one reason why it came to Janwaar. I think the efforts need to continue,” Nyjah says.

At Janwaar, the flow is sure to continue both on and off the skateboard in the years to come.


Published Date: Dec 04, 2016 10:03 am | Updated Date: Dec 04, 2016 10:03 am

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