Ethiopia’s skateboarding scene hits the fast track.
It’s weekday rush hour in Addis Ababa, and the traffic in every direction is moving at a snail’s pace. I sit sardined among six passengers in the four-seater row of a minibus taxi, considering hopping on one of the donkeys ambling past the window. All of a sudden, a patch of teenagers comes blissfully weaving through the congestion and careening past bumpers sideways like ancient Egyptians, as if taunting my immobility.
“We like traffic because it’s just a challenge. Something to get around,” says Yared Aya, 22, one of these fast-moving skaters whom I meet later at one of the city’s two incubators of Ethiopian skateboarding talent, the Addis Skatepark. Yared began skating in the U.S., in Maryland, at age 13 and has been active in Addis Ababa’s rapidly emerging skating community since he returned to Ethiopia four years ago. “Cars stop bumper to bumper, and we just slide right through the middle.”
Indeed, they slide on to join one of two groups of skateboarders, mirroring each other from across the capital in the Sar Bet and Shiro Meda neighborhoods. Together with peers in the cities of Hawassa, Bahir Dar, and Arba Minch, they and their mentors — under the respective umbrellas of Ethiopia Skate and Megabiskate — constitute Ethiopia’s nascent skateboarding scene. The Sar Bet crew hangs at Addis Skatepark, a 650-square-meter oasis of undulating concrete, while the Shiro Meda crew operates off Entoto Road in a compound bearing bright, aspirational murals.
Ethiopians society has come a long way in recent years with its attitude toward skateboarding; while many used to consider skaters death--wishers at best and outlaws at worst, parents now not only drop their kids off at the skate parks, but also stay to watch. Some skaters can even beseen in local TV ads for products as varied as beverages and mobile banking.
Skateboarding begins to soar in Addis
Back in 2003, Addisu Haile-michael, now 30, had tried just about every sport, yet he still sought after that thing. When his good friend came across a skateboard and passed it on to him, Addisu seemed to meet his match; in fact, he continued to patch it up for the next two years until his sister took pity on him and bought him a fresh one from abroad. As curious kids began gathering around Addisu, he soon connected with another solo skater, Abenezer Temesgen, who tipped everyone off to a parking lot near Sar Bet that was strangely deserted and perfect for flat-ground skating.
With a place somewhat their own, skating began to catch on fast in Addis — a capital teeming with youth looking for a challenge and a possibly lucrative way to use their time. “Most of the kids who saw us when we started were street kids,” Addisu says, who in 2013 officially co-founded Ethiopia Skate. The organization’s goal is to empower youth across Ethiopia by providing access to skateboard equipment and creating safe spaces in which to use it.
“They saw the skateboard as a sort of bicycle,” he adds. “At first, they would sit on it and push each other for an hour or two. Then they would try to stand up. They just loved the idea that they could be free, push from here to there and pass an hour. It uplifted their spirits.”
Likewise, Megabiskate, founded in 2005, started when Israel “Izzy” Dejene saw kids sliding down asphalt on strips of plastic and offered them turns on his skateboard. Since then, it has grown into a portable skate park — consisting of a wooden U-ramp that can be dismantled and reassembled anywhere — and an organization promoting self-esteem, ambition and community service in kids too-often fated to fall through the cracks.
“Some kids don’t have families,” says Izzy. “But we have each other. We love each other and, you know, that is the richest thing that you can have.
“With Megabiskate, we created a safe place where the kids can come,” he adds. “It’s a spot where they can excel in their talent and also feel like I’ve got a family here. Skateboarding is beyond riding the board.”
Over the years, Megabiskate has grown to a community of roughly 200 kids — and even attracted attention from international skateboarding legends. On the corrugated tin fence of the group’s compound, spray-painted autographs attest to a historic visit in January 2015 by such skating heroes as Nyjah Huston, Tony Hawk, Aaron “Jaws” Homoki, Matt Berger and Derrick Wilson. The dream team had come to Ethiopia with Nyjah’s nonprofit, Let It Flow, to build a new water well in the town of Kolecha, about two hours outside Addis. Hosted by Megabiskate, they also spent time charting new street-skating territory all over the city and, in collaboration with California Skateparks and residents of Shiro Meda, built the country’s first concrete half-pipe.
Addis Skatepark across town similarly resulted from the power of community and foreign involvement. A few years ago, as the grass-roots crew of kids that had accumulated around Addisu and Abenezer at Sar Bet began to grow, it too drew the attention of international skating enthusiasts — Sean Stromsoe among them.
Using photos that Stromsoe took of the skaters during the summer of 2013, the newly formed Ethiopia Skate connected with Make Life Skate Life, a nonprofit organization that builds free-of-charge skate parks worldwide. Three years, 250 crowd-funders and 60 volunteers from over 20 countries later, Addis Skatepark opened in April 2016. Now, upward of 100 kids skate their hearts out within the park from sunrise to sunset.
Hamid Alewi, 12, is among the groupies who can be found here most days, creating the whirr, clatter and slam of wheels that dominates the air. I meet him one afternoon while taking in the whole scene, and I watch with amazement as he rides the U-curve of a half-pipe with speed enough to propel him on to the cottony sky and over to the other edge, doing the ultimate 360 — flipping the board horizontally midair. His favorite trick, though, is the “ollie,” he says — best for flying over a set of stairs.
The kids at Megabiskate across town boast to visitors that Lydia, 13, is the best because she too can “flip” the board. She, however, prefers megfat, pushing the board as high as possible on the half-pipe. She says it is a basic move, but if you can perfect it, you can do anything.
Her confidence is hard-earned. “My first feeling was fear,” says Lydia. “But I didn’t stop. If I love something, I must do it.” She applies that same mentality to any challenge she meets. She has her own skateboard, gifted to her by Izzy and his sister Muluken, who saw her potential and dedication. Together with 19 other registered girls, she makes up the first-ever girl skateboard team in East Africa, led by Muluken.
The unifying power of the sport
Beyond feeding the addiction to sheer risk, skateboarding provides a gateway for the kids to meet new people, come out of their shells, even learn English. And the sport also cuts across social classes, as guys in suits, expat kids and those from lower-income families all come out to skate.
Ethiopia Skate co-ambassador Miki is passionate about this unifying power of skateboarding. “I see what it is doing with the youth of Addis Ababa, gathering children of different economic classes,” he says. “That’s a very attractive vibe.”
Toward that end, Megabiskate holds monthly “Dream Big” events, where kids perform whatever skills they have, and it also recently organized the first youth festival encouraging kids to try arts and outdoor sports. Both Megabiskate and Ethiopia Skate also emphasize the importance of giving back to their communities — whether that means organizing a day to clean up the youth center in the compound where Addis Skatepark is located or fetching water for a Shiro Meda neighbor.
One thing that appears missing among all this activity, however, is an Ethiopia-wide tournament. But considering the healthy rate of fukikir (one-upmanship) and the new incentive of skateboarding being added to the Olympics for 2020, such an event cannot be far off.
Based on his own observations, Yared, who is now one of Ethiopia Skate’s ambassadors, says that the country’s skateboarders set themselves apart by a trademark fearlessness — a trait possibly inherited from their warrior ancestors — as well as their tendency to err on the side of individual creativity over technical accuracy. A lot of kids pass through the park, he adds, but what distinguishes those skaters who are in it for the long run is how much time they choose to spend actually skating, with unwavering commitment, no matter what.
“You won’t really achieve anything rewarding while skateboarding if you don’t push yourself,” says Yared. “Once you land a new trick, you’ve got to do something harder. That’s the same in life. If you don’t try to achieve new goals, you won’t ever feel satisfied with yourself. We all have to try to progress and do more the next day, and skateboarding is the same.”
Fresh from the U.S. at 18, Yared says he was happy to find competitive skateboarders in Ethiopia pushing each other to learn new tricks. Now, he strains to keep up with young kids landing harder feats daily. He calls out to Hamid to demonstrate an “ollie” and a “shove-it,” and the kid, though relatively new to skating, does so with ease.
In fact, Hamid has already burned through his first skateboard — gifted to him by an impressed foreigner a year ago — and is now actually on his third. His outlook on skating is simple. “When you learn one trick, you tell yourself you have to try another one,” he says. “Before you know it, you’re a skater.”
During the rainy season, Hamid skates all day. Otherwise, he finishes homework in class and skates after school. “They do get mad at home,” he says. “They don’t want me to skate, but I do it anyway. I will skate until the very end. To be a professional and compete.” Like pretty much every skater here, Hamid wants to compete at the X-games, an annual international extreme-sports event.
As this dream is shared by his co-skaters across town at Shiro Meda, the kids from these two groups could be as likely to meet first at an X-games as in the capital. But no matter where they spend their time cruising, all Ethiopian skaters are familiar with a now-extant precursor of sorts to the skateboard called kushneta, which used to be fashioned from discarded ball bearings and a wood plank. Thanks to donated skateboards, dedicated skate parks and visionary mentors, kushneta are now a distant memory — as will soon be the beginners’ flat-ground tricks. Instead, Addis’ skaters are headed straight for “transition”: skating vertical.
“If you look at some of the obstacles on a skate park,” explains Yared, “the topmost point is vertical. We call it ‘vert,’ for short.” Currently, that point is barely an inch high on the obstacles at Addis Skatepark; someday, though, extensions will be added, reaching several feet directly up, to carry the skaters to the absolute, traffic-free limit: the sky.
Rebecca Fisseha lives and writes mostly in Toronto. She can last up to five full seconds on a skateboard.