Until recently, Skateboarding was practically non-existent in Ethiopia. It used to be almost exclusively known to the elite portion of the society, who has some exposure to international scenes. According to a research done by Board- Trac and Action Watch in 2009, skateboarding fosters a global market worth an estimated USD 4.8 billion in annual revenue with 11.08 million active skateboarders in the world.
Ethiopia has always been,somewhat,of a homogeneous culture in terms of societal norms. In other words, ‘different’ has always carried a negative connotation because it implied a divergence from the cultural norm, and anything ‘new’ was seen as being more risky than enticing. But Ethiopia Skate is changing that common knowledge by introducing and popularizing this new and very popular activity.
What skateboarding is exactly depends on who you ask. Some call it a hobby, others call it a sport, for some it is a way of transportation, and for others it is a way of life.
“I don’t know what to call it. Hobby seems like an understatement, and transportation seems too technical. Quite frankly, for me, it is simply a way of life.” explains Addisu Hailemichael.
Ethiopia Skate was started in 2013 when two young men, Abenezer Temesge and Addisu Hailemichael,who have been skating for 3 and 8 years, respectively, run into each other. It became more official when Abenezer met Sean Stromsoe, a photographer and film-maker from California, US, who started filming them and the videos started going up on YouTube.
“About eight years ago, I was probably the first person to skate. I was just skating around my neighborhood, and even AB (Abenezer) heard about me when people rumored “There’s a kid around this and this place that skates.” When I first met AB, he did not have a board, and he came over and said ‘Can I try your board?” It is so cool how it all started” Addisu recalled.
“I was very happy to meet AB because it felt like I was the only rider and it was so cool that somebody else wanted to try this thing too. Then we linked up and started skating together,” Addisu says. “But it was difficult to skate on the streets so we started looking around the city for places. We used to skate around the whole city looking for the spots and that is how we came across the place around Saar’bet,” he said referring to an empty Taxi lot in front of Adam’s Pavilion.
The group does not have a requirement; anybody of any age that wants to skate can come and skate as long as they have the passion and curiosity.
“We had around four or five skateboards, and when new kids came we had to share the boards. We didn’t have enough helmets and younger kids have to use the ones their elder fellows didn’t need any more, because they had turned into good skaters. Now we have 50 kids that skate regularly and more are coming every week, and thanks to our donors we were now able to give every kid his own board.”
“The more kids join the group the tighter the spot became, so we started building portable ramps and grind rails the last couple months. We take the ramps and grinds from place to place to accommodate local skaters and we try to find better grounds in the meantime.” Carrying the boards and ramps with them, the skaters have been skating around Bole, Kassanchis, and Old Airport.
At the beginning, people did not welcome the group.”When we skated on the street, people gave us a very hard time. It’s not that they didn’t like skateboards; they didn’t know what it was. Had they knew something about the crazy tricks and dives, they would have adored it,” Addisu says.”They just believed it was dangerous, but it really isn’t [as precaution is part of the activity]. For example, all of our skateboards have a sticker on them that advises, ‘Caution: Skate and ride only within your ability.” Besides the public’s gesture of disapproval for skateboarding,some street codes are also disheartening. There is a law that prohibits the use of any device with wheels, that is otherwise used at home or as a recreational device for kids, on the streets. “Many people don’t know about this rule. And I am sure there are such regulations in other parts of the world too, but unlike those places, it is not really enforced here. I say this as I used to always skate to school and I was never stopped or told it was illegal. Without knowing this law, the police sometimes forces us to stop,”
Lack of suitable space for skating is more restricting for the skate group to develop further. The roads are not large enough to accommodate car traffic, let alone being comfortable to skate on. This lacking eventually ignited the idea of building a skate park.
“As it got more popular,we began to seriously consider the idea of a skate park. Then AB and Shawn created a page of indiegogo.com to begin collecting money to fund the skate park project.” Named “Ethiopia Skate Campaign” that started on 20 October 2013 guided by a humble and simple slogan: “We just want to skate”.
“We set the goal at USD 60,000 to see who was interested in skating, but by the time the campaign closed on 13 February 2014, we had raised USD 14,900” Addisu explained.
Still short of money to construct a skate park, the group has been skating at local youth centers for the time being. Five of the young men had built a big bamboo ramp at the youth center behind Lafto Mall. Although it was not a professional ramp, it is perfect for the skaters. Most of the skate group members come from underprivileged families. This situation constantly makes Addisu worried but the joy that comes from flying on the blades makes him forget that gloomy reality.”I worry about what is going on in these kid’s lives. You just have to come and see them skate once. You can see how happy it makes them.”
Although being part of Ethiopia Skate does not take the negative aspects of their lives away, it helps the members to have better outlook on life. “When we first met, many of my friends were very shy and usually have a negative attitude towards people and things. For example,they didn’t talk to Shawn because some were insecure about their English,but after some time they did talk with him for almost a year.”
Three years spent together, Addis witness that his friends are growing in skills and in life.“They have become better skaters, and out-going and confident, and their attitude became more positive not just in the way they skate, but in their daily lives,” he asserts the developments skating has done to the young men.
“It has a very powerful effect on their personalities. They have gained a sense of self-worth. They have realized that they have the ability to learn new skills, and that changes the way they see themselves and the world, making them more confident and out-going.”
The group’s effort to make skating a preferred recreational activity has not gone unnoticed. More support is coming in each day. A donation of skate boards and a huge discount on shirts and stickers were received and one benefactor named Ms Heather shipped them skate boards form the US. “The boards are held bythe Revenue and Customs Authority until we pay the taxes. The tax is 300% of the price. Big taxes have been an issue when we receive large deliveries because only two items pass tax free. The Youth Center at Lafto wrote a letter to the customs office on our behalf asking for reductions,” Addisu mentioned yet another challenge the group had to sort out.
However, challenges did not deter the skate fans. When asked what skating means to him, Addisu says, “I’ve played other sports like soccer and basketball, I even played basketball at a club level. I’ve done pretty much every sport there is, but skating – it’s crazy! I meet a lot of people every day and have so many genuine friends because of skating, and that makes me so happy. You make friends while enjoying what you do while, in a way, also playing a sport. That’s why it is a way of life for me.”
As Ethiopia Skate becomes known by many, Addisu gets happier and more dedicated to what he is doing. “I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. A decade ago, I was the only skater, and most people had negative comments regarding skating. And now,when I see how much people like it, the fact that more than fifty young men are skating, and how our culture is starting to embrace it is just amazing.”He even visualizes of building a second or may be third skating park in ten years time. Now Ethiopia Skate facebook page has over 18,000 likes and the count continues to rise. Many people in Ethiopia and abroad visit the website. Ethiopia Skate is in its prime days.
The group also plans to visit Hawassa, Bahar Dar, Mekele, and hopefully Adama in the near future. Who knows what will transpire from that visit- a sport or a hobby or a transportation meansor – for the likes of Addisu-a way of life.
Ethiopia Skate has brought with it a broader way of thinking and a new dimension of recreation for Ethiopian youth.