Photos by Sean Stromsoe
The images that most people outside of Africa have of it are of its tragedies. When one happens, it eclipses the continent and leads to rehashed, cookie-cutter solutions, while grouping it all as an “African problem”.
For many, the picture they have of Ethiopia in particular is that of Birhan Woldu, the malnourished child that became the face of the devastating famine of the ‘80s, and prompted Sir Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to pen a song that somehow transcended the West’s sometimes misplaced and patronizing intentions.
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you
A lot has changed since then. Ethiopia has become one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and is home of the Africa Union Commission. Simultaneously however, much still remains the same: the media is state-run and poverty is rampant in both urban and rural areas.
When you weigh-in the latter points, it’s hard for people to catch a break. Some are taking it upon themselves to not only create opportunities, but to also help change the way the world sees Ethiopia.
Addisu Hailemichael is one of them. When he discovered skateboarding, he was the only one he knew of in the country who was doing it. What started off as a hobby quickly evolved into something much more.
“It was difficult for everyone like me [in Ethiopia],” says Hailemichael, “but I consider myself very lucky. Despite the poverty and the problems I had growing up, I am thankful for the person I’ve become today, and skateboarding helped a lot [with that]. It changed everything for me.”
Hailemichael eventually met up with a then-16-year-old Abenezer Temesgen and American photographer Sean Stromsoe. Together they started to create the framework for what is now Ethiopia Skate: a grassroots initiative intended to facilitate opportunities for foreign and local skaters. The hope for Ethiopia Skate is that it will help grow and maintain Ethiopia’s youth counter-culture.
After falling short on crowdsourcing through their Indigogo campaign in February 2014 – they raised $14,900 of their $60,000 – the group received messages of support from around the world. Along with a strong social media presence, with followers including Tony Hawk and Stacy Peralta, they have been able to reach a large network of fans and supporters, despite the often-limited access to Internet in the country. With an army of skaters that has grown to about 50 members, their small project is surpassing even their own expectations.
“I feel like it was just perfect,” adds Hailemariam. “The right timing, right people, right friends. When you have the right motivation and when you have one goal, which, in our case, was to build the first public skate park in Ethiopia, everything else falls into place. It was just perfect.”
Unlike his Ethiopian counterparts, Stromsoe, being a native Californian, was always surrounded by skate and surf culture, growing up in the state that helped create and revolutionize the sport.
“I grew up in a beach town and skateboarding has always been a part of my [life]. Most of my friends are skaters or surfers and I spent a lot of time making little skate videos when I was a kid.”
Stromsoe didn’t know how far that influence reached at first. After traveling to Ethiopia for the first time in 2011 to shoot video for the Tropical Health Alliance Foundation, he came across a random group of skaters that piqued his interest.
“I only had three days notice before the trip and didn’t know anything about Ethiopia. It was eye opening being in the countryside that first trip and the next three return trips, but I [still] wanted to get a better sense of city life.
In June 2013, I met the kids skating in Sar Bet [a district of Addis Ababa], and we started hanging out every day. Abenezer, Addisu, and other friends really showed me local life in [the city] — now I feel like they’re my family and Addis Ababa is my second home.”
Ethiopia is made up of rocky terrain along the countryside that can be challenging for novices to skate on; and the capital is a growing metropolitan city with honking cars that whiz past while you play real-life Frogger trying to
cross one of many busy intersections. With new development projects being built in the capital, there are more and more paved streets making for ideal, but not always welcoming, skate spots.
The accessibility of skateboarding is also huge for those in the third world; decks are easy to ship and travel with, and are a cheaper mode of transport than bicycles — a big factor when you weigh-in how important bicycles have become in Africa for those who do not have access to motorized transportation.
“The sport has the potential to mean a lot in Ethiopia,” Stromsoe says, “especially in big cities — more and more pavement and places to skate. Looking around you don’t see many football fields or basketball courts, but everything is skateable.”
For many youth in the country, there can be a struggle to balance the traditions that are so engrained in the collective culture with their modern, western influences. Among elders, there is a fear that these influences will overshadow or replace the traditions they grew up with. With changing times, however, comes changing ideologies, and for Addisu, skating was a shift towards something bigger — a hope to open the minds of those in the country who may be skeptical of their “rebellious” intentions.
“Skateboarding teaches one to be patient, hard working, creative, determined… So if it helped me the way it did, and if it’s helping the kids the way it is, I say it’s very important for the youth and for the country.”
And they’re not alone. There is a growing movement of similar grassroots collectives that have popped up in recent years, including a dedicated magazine focused on highlighting Africa’s skate scene. These skaters are laying the foundation in their own cities while creating a network that is taking over more and more countries on the continent.
“The local skaters share a dream where, in the future, people around the world should think of skateboarding when thinking of Ethiopia… as opposed to running or coffee,” said Stromsoe, “They’re really going for it. With a few public skate parks, kids would have the opportunity to train, compete with each other and, with time, even compete in nearby African countries with growing skate scenes such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.”
Ethiopia Skate completed their first big project last year, building a mini ramp in Addis Ababa, giving the youth a dedicated spot to practice without worrying about being considered nuisances in other public areas.
“Our slogan is ‘we just want to skate’,” adds Hailemichael, “and I want to see [at least] four skate parks [around Ethiopia], more youth join the skate movement, and one day, of course, to compete at an event abroad representing Ethiopia through Ethiopia Skate.”
If their growth in the last year and dedicated following is any indication of their success, there’s a lot on the horizon for the group and skate culture in Africa. While challenges are inevitable for many of the youth in Ethiopia, this collective has planted the seed that there are still options out there that may not go along with the traditional ideals they are used to.
“The kids are so determined and dedicated,” ads Stromsoe. “They’re true pioneers of skating in Ethiopia and I think they know it.”