Skating away in Addis

The first skaters and skateboarding emerged probably around the 1940s and early 50s in the US following the ocean surfing magna in beaches of California, historical records indicate. These documents also claim that skateboarding was born as a result of surfers wanting to do something when the ocean waves calm down in their part of world. Today, there are more than 10 million skaters around and it is has become a five billion dollar sporting industry. Nevertheless, skating is least know in this part of world; and especially in Ethiopia the potential danger and risk associated with skateboarding curtailed its take among the youth. However, recently, it looks like things are changing with the first skate park opening up in Addis Ababa, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

Who is Nyjah Imani Huston? For many Ethiopians this name might not ring a bell; one could even be considered an illiterate in the world of skating if he or she is not familiar with Huston.

Four Ethiopian skateboarders namely Michael Baheru (MD) (25), Eyob Desta (18), Gedion Wondwossen (17) and Jemal Mussa (17) are in agreement when they call Nyjah Imani Huston the Lionel Messi of skateboarding.

Considered as the god of skateboarding, Huston is an American professional skateboarder who won one of the most prestigious competitions in the sport: Street League Skateboarding Series from 2010 up to 2016.

This is a common knowledge among Ethiopian skateboarders who are enthusiastic about his skateboarding tricks. A few years back, Houston became the only skateboarder to perform a 270-degree kickflip lipslide on a rail, a trick that had never been filmed in the history of skateboarding prior to that occasion.

 Another giant in skateboarding, according to Michael and his fellow skaters, is Tony Hawk a.k.a. “the bird man” another American professional skateboarder.

In 2014, Fox Weekly labeled Tony Hawk one of the “most influential skateboarders of all-time”. He was invited to President Barack Obama’s June 2009 Father’s Day celebration and skated in the hallways of the nearby old executive office building at the White House. This marked the first time ever someone skateboarded on the white house premises with permission from officials.

The American professional skateboarder named Rob Dyrdek, who is celebrated for his hit MTV show The Ridiculousness and Rob & Big, is another giant in the skateboarding world.

These skateboarding stars are household names in the newly constructed Addis Skate Park, the first skate park in Ethiopia. Side by side with skating, The Park is also a place for extensive discussion regarding the skateboarding subculture and what it means to be part of Ethiopian skating community.

 Located in woreda three youth center behind Lafto Mall in Nifas Silk Lafto Sub City, Addis Skate Park is a 600 square meters wide concrete skate park.

Around 10:00 am in the morning, the park is already filled with teenage skaters. The view is mesmerizing. They seem to test the limit of the deck and their skateboards with a flip, slide, and jump tricks pushing themselves to the limit and testing their capability. They record each other’s moves with smartphone cameras.

A skater and a medical doctor, Michael Baheru is one of the ambassadors of the new face of Ethiopian skateboarding community. Michael, 25, who used to work as a medical doctor in both St Paul’s and Tirunesh Beijing hospitals, abandoned the his medical practice to pursue skating fulltime. A skate park usually contains half pipes, quarter pipes, banked ramps, full pipes, pyramids and other objects.

Four of the skaters sat together with The Reporter in the small café to dissect what they referred to as the science of skateboarding. The conversation started with various contemporary skateboarding tricks. Michael says that especially on Sundays, after skating sessions, there is always a heated conversation about new tricks, new skateboarding videos on You Tube and also new spots for skateboarding.

Eyob, a 9th grader, who has been skating for the past five years, is a daredevil who tries various tricks. Jemal and Gedion, on the other hand are both 11th graders, and agree that Eyob has the best tricks of all of them. But, they explain each of the skaters have their own signature moves and marks with which they can be identified.

Gedion’s signature move is a kickflip (a rider flips the skateboard 360 degree along the axis that extends from the nose to the tail of the deck). Eyob’s is the hardest kind of flip (it combines a front side pop shove-it with a kickflip) and Jemal’s is what is called a varial flip (a complete 180 horizontal rotation of the board).

They explain what each means using their skateboard. Flip tricks are a subset of aerial trick that are all based on an Ollie, a jump where the front wheels leave the ground first. Many skaters proclaim that an Ollie is perhaps the basics of any skating tricks. Apart from that, tricks like shove-it, a simple move where skaters make the board do a 180 spin under your feet, depends and builds on the basic move of an Ollie.

Things get a bit complicated as skaters progress to moves like the pop shove it which is a combination of an Ollie with a shove it, popping up the board as it spins 180 degrees in the air while the skater hover above it without spinning. 

Ethiopian skates are quit emotional as they explain the intricacies of various advanced skating tricks and moves. Taking skating as a lifestyle, achieving some of the skating tricks is also a goal they want to achieve.

Performing those tricks does not come easy; one can observe clearly that some of the tricks entail heavy physical damages to their bodies. Their arms, legs are covered with bruises and cuts from falling. “I look like a zombie,” Eyob says jokingly while talking about the magnitude of the bruises on his body. Michael actually asks him about the fractured wrist and he looks at his wrist and nods his head with the “am fine” look. Michael did not stop there and asks him again if he went to go to the hospital while Eyob looked at him strangely. “With skating, the pain is the beauty. If we fall we do not get mad rather we start from the scratch and repeat the same routine until we get it right,” Eyob says. Jemal and Gedion also say that they like the risk associated with the sport and getting injured comes with the turf. Skateboarding is evolving tremendously throughout the world introducing new protection gears such as helmets, wrist guards and kneepads. To the contrary, Gedion and Jemal claim that they do not feel free wearing those protection gears. Eyob goes to the extreme and says: “I feel like I am carrying someone. So, I drop everything and skate freely. Sometimes, I hurt myself but that comes with the territory,” Eyob says.

However, they do not hide the fact that the danger that is associated with the sport is something that exerts pressure on skaters. Skating is not viewed positively especially by parents and the community for its potential danger. A couple of years ago, it was common to see skaters around Sar Bet area doing a little bit of graffiti and also skating. One of the pioneers of skateboarding and a household name among the Ethiopian skating community is Abenezer Temesgen.

He single-handedly taught many students how to skate including Eyob. Eyob says that one day he watched Abenezer and his friends skating around Sar Bet and that he fell in love with sport instantly. After two trials he was part of the community.

Gedion and Jemal’s introduction to the sport came through a school friend who allowed them to try on his skateboard. After that they were hooked and it is been a year-and-a-half since they started skating everyday; spending all of their spare time on skating. Since they are teenagers their parents’ attitude towards the sport is big determinant factor to their future with the sport. The parents frequently oppose the kids’ keen interest in the sport for the potential danger it entails.

Jemal laughs and says that there is nothing that they (his parents) hate more than skating especially after his uncle told his mom that he skates on the streets. Now, when he goes out of the house, he makes up reasons such as he is visiting a friend or going to out play football. Eyob does not shy away despite the strong resistance from the family. “The neighbors always tell my mother that I might not survive one of these days. They always exaggerate and tell her that I jumped an ISUZU truck,” Eyob laughs.

Gedion’s mother actually made him swear not to try skating. “Recently, she watched me skate and she is now ok with me doing the sport,” he says. By looking at it, it might sound dangerous especially when they skate on the streets as they sometimes lean on cars or even trucks and skate holding each other. “It is not dangerous at all. We know how to balance. If the cars speed up we have a mechanism to leaving the car and skate by our own,” Eyob says.

Apart from treating it as a sporting activity, skateboards are also the preferred means of transport for these boys. Gedion says that if they are ordered to run an errand they do not bother to get into a taxi; they use their skateboards. Eyob cannot go anywhere without his skateboard and he actually even took it to Lalibela where he faced an incident skating.

Skating at different places is kind of a ritual for skaters. One of the favorable spots for skaters in Ethiopia is Entoto; Huston during his visit to Ethiopia skated around Entoto. When they heard the news, they went to Entoto but missed him unfortunately.

Gedion says that he remembers Entoto for another reason. He says this was the occasion that he endured one of the scariest falls in his career. He has a big scar to show for it; and Eyob comments his fall was like a 7D picture.

Nevertheless, encountering egoistic drivers, mean guards who grab their skateboards, harassment and unnecessary remarks from the community is in the day-to-day life of a skateboarder. Especially, for girl skaters, Michael says, the conditions are worse; and this limits the number of girl skaters. Michael joined the Ethiopia skating community two years ago and subsequently he gave up on his medical practice to serve as the community’s in-house doctor and a leader. He sees the true essence of a community in the skaters around him. “One skater recognizes another one very easily. With our outfit, bruises and also faded and brand shoes we easily identify one-another,” Eyob says.

Skaters roll with famous brand shoes like vans, Nike or Converse. But, most of these skating gears are donated to the community from abroad. According to Michael, Ethiopia Skate is a grassroots skateboarding community that works to promote skateboarding in Ethiopia and at the same time empower the youth.

He fell in love with the kids who are persistent in pursuing skating despite all the odds. This was also a good platform for him to work with the children. He figured out the only way to help is also through his profession which he made it a full time dedication.

When they started becoming visible on the streets, the resistance from the community also started to rise. So, they strategized in building a storyline. With struggling for existence they had a motto that says: “We just want to skate,” and started recording and documenting inspirational stories and moves of the skaters on the streets. Captivating images and footages started to come out from the community, and in consequence skateboard donations and support of other equipments has been forthcoming since then, according to Michael. They used social media extensively where they reached Instagram followers of 16 thousand. Mainstream media outlets such as CNN and BBC responded very well.

This narrative changed a little bit and now the Ethiopian society views the sport. Especially, one man, Sean Stromsoe, the original founder of Ethiopia Skate, who is from the Skateboarding California, has been creatively documenting their journey contributed to their recognition. In the meantime, the skaters were also skating in the youth centers on cements that were allocated for football players.

Their proposal to build a skate park was met with a resistance at first. They fundraised on one of the largest crowd funding websites: Indiegogo.com, by creating a webpage called addisskatepark.org. Their online fundraising reached USD 35,000 within one month. “Initially, we had to raise USD 25,500 and the fundraising surpassed our expectations. It was an euphoric moment for us,” Michael says.

Finally, Make Life, Skate Life, a non-profit organization that works with local skateboarding communities around the world, came following Ethiopia Skate’s call. According to Michael around 60 volunteer, builders from 20 countries including countries such as Jordan, Plaestine, Russia, Wales, Australia, India, England and the US built the park within 16 days.

The design was the collective effort of the Ethiopia Skate members in collaboration with the builders. According to Michael, the design considered the children’s abilities, future prospects, the size of the space and the amount of budget they had. The construction started on April 1 where they worked day and night. Even the surrounding community showed their support, Michael said.

Especially, the children learned on how to build a skate park. “The final day was filled with euphoria, clashes and falling down. For the kids, it was an emotional moment, it was a reality check also for the management team,” Michael says.

“It is our second home,” Eyob says and remembers how they skated away all night when it was launched. They fondly reminisce the day with details ranging from who won the race, the lighting, the speed and the different game they created that night.

Especially, for the girl skaters since the streets are not favorable to women before the coming of Addis Skate Park, the park changed the scenario. Michael says that the number of girls are increasing even parents who were scared of the street scene started bringing their daughters to the park. Ethiopia Skate has eight skate ambassadors; who are working on behalf of the community in the area of promotion, fundraising, training and other responsibilities. There are also 50 skateboarders who actually own the skateboards they use while some 20 are loaners and other hundreds just learners. It is not surprising, however, when one considers the market price of an ordinary skateboard which range from USD 250 to 400, according to the specific brand. This is price is quite high by all standards for the majority of the youth in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, it is dream come true for most skaters in Ethiopia just to have a home. “Now, it has become a relevant urban space where children can grow and create a sense of belongingness and a community through skateboarding. It’s a free space where anyone can come,” Michael says.

Although they feel gratitude for those who collaborated to make the Park a reality, the youngsters take themselves to be vital part of history as it was under their skating days that the first independent venue became a reality.

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