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 crowd-sourcing through their Indigogo campaign in February 2014 – they raised $14,900 of their $60,000 goal – 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.”