How Do You Say 'Gnarly' In Amharic? Ethiopia Gets Its First Skate Park

Jun 10, 2016
Originally published on June 13, 2016 5:32 pm

In 2010, 12-year-old Nathan Eyasu became one of the first skateboarders in Ethiopia.

He bought an old board off a guy on the street for a dollar, learned some tricks off YouTube, and proceeded to shock his neighbors like Marty McFly in Back to The Future.

"They'd be like, 'Is there a magnet in there?' " Eyasu says, laughing. "Nobody knew what skateboarding is."

Today, he has plenty of company. In April, Ethiopia opened its first skateboard park, on the grounds of a government youth center in Addis Ababa, where Eyasu lives. The country is hoping to one day take its share of the $5 billion skateboard industry.

But for Sean Stromsoe, a 22-year-old photographer from California, the park is also a return to skateboarding's roots.

In 2013, Stromsoe came to Ethiopia on assignment and ran into Eyasu and his friends.

"It was just 20 kids that were sharing, I think five boards?" Stromsoe recalls. He felt as if he was looking back in time — to an era when skateboarding wasn't as commercialized and competitive as it is today.

Watching these Ethiopian skaters, he says, "the thing I noticed was there wasn't so much judgment. Like some kid will be doing a handstand on the skateboard and everyone will be cheering and the next kid is going to do a tre-flip."

For nonskaters, a tre-flip looks like this, and it's a core move in street skating.

A handstand is one of a different category of tricks called freestyle.

In America each style and substyle has its own devotees and defenders. Whereas in Ethiopia, Stromsoe says, skateboarding felt more communal and fun, "like maybe 40 years ago [in the U.S.]. You don't see that so much back home. Because skateboarding has become pretty serious."

Stromsoe is still based in California but visits Ethiopia regularly. He co-founded a nonprofit — Ethiopia Skate — that raised money for new boards. With the help of Make Life Skate Life, another NGO that helps build concrete skate parks around the world, they built the first one in Addis Ababa.

The skate park will protect young skaters from collisions with cars (Ethiopia has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world). But there's more to it than that. Eyasu says that it allows young Ethiopians to experience a "clean mentality" and aspire to potential future income. "We're trying to keep them spending their time on skateboarding rather than doing other things," he says. Among the skaters are former thieves and street boys.

I also meet Feven Birhana standing next to her SUV, a mother watching her 8-year-old, Abel.

He's easy to spot — the only kid in the park wearing a helmet and knee pads. "It's only his third day doing skating!" she says.

In a country poised for skateboarding firsts, she's part of the mix: Ethiopia's first skate mom.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ethiopia's capital city now has its own skateboard park. And that's all NPR's Gregory Warner needed to hear before deciding to visit.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: You know that scene in "Back To The Future" when Marty McFly is escaping Biff on a skateboard, and this is at a time when nobody has ever seen a skateboard before?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) What is that thing he's on?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's a board with wheels

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) He's an absolute dream.

WARNER: Well, when he was 12 years old, Nathan Eyuso got to have that experience in real life when he became one of the very first skateboarders in Ethiopia. Some guy had sold him an old board for a dollar. So he learned some tricks off YouTube and took them out in the street.

NATHAN: When nobody knows what skateboarding is, even like the peoples on the street, they saw us. They'd be like, oh, there is a magnet in it, like, so crazy (laughter).

WARNER: Fast forward a few years to 2013. Eyuso's then 15 years old and skating with some friends in the parking lot when they happen to meet a 22-year-old photographer from California named Sean Stromsoe. He'd come to Ethiopia on a different assignment.

SEAN STROMSOE: It was just 20 kids that were sharing, I think, five boards at the time.

NATHAN: Yeah.

WARNER: What Sean saw in Ethiopia's young skaters wasn't a visit from the future but a nostalgic vision, a vision of skateboarding's past, what it used to be before it became so commercialized and competitive.

STROMSOE: They'll do whatever tricks they feel like doing. And some kid will be, like, doing a handstand on the skateboard. And everyone would be cheering. And the next kid's going to do a tre-flip.

WARNER: If you're getting lost in the lingo here, basically, a tre-flip, T-R-E flip, is considered a totally different style of skating than a handstand. And in America, every style of skating has its own devotees and purists and periodicals, whereas here, in Ethiopia, he says, it just felt more communal, more fun.

STROMSOE: Like, maybe 40 years ago.

WARNER: Stromsoe is still based in California, but he now visits Ethiopia regularly. And he co-founded a not-for-profit Ethiopia Skate that raises money for new boards. And with the help of Make Life Skate Life, another NGO, they built the first ever skate park in Addis Ababa.

The paint had not yet dried in the park when I visited it one Saturday afternoon last month. Some three dozen Ethiopian boys - all boys aged 6 to, maybe, 23 - in flat-brimmed baseball caps are skating its ramps and bowls and obstacles called volcanoes. Some kids are advanced. They hold up plywood just to make the steep ramps even steeper. On the side are the wobblier, newer skaters.

STROMSOE: This kid right here, he's probably just starting, like, today.

NATHAN: (Unintelligible).

STROMSOE: And now he just fell over, but he's going to get back on the board.

NATHAN: He's smiling, you see.

WARNER: If Sean's journey in Ethiopia led him backwards, back to a decade that he himself was born too late to live through, then Ethiopians tend to see skating as a forward leap, an investment in the future when Ethiopia might take its share of the global, profitable sport that skateboarding has become.

NATHAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, like, the cops come by and they just, like...

WARNER: Nathan tells me that this time he was arrested for skateboarding on the streets...

NATHAN: ...And we start begging, please give me my board, please...

WARNER: ...But when the cops came to understand that skateboarding is a global thing...

NATHAN: Oh, so you going to America (laughter).

WARNER: Even here at the skate park, respectability and rascality rub shoulders. Some of these skaters, I'm told, are former thieves and street boys. I also, though, meet Feven Birhana, next to her SUV, standing watch over her 8-year-old son, Abel.

FEVEN BIRHANA: There, the one with the red.

WARNER: He's the only kid wearing helmet and knee pads. I could tell, (laughter) the only one with a helmet had to have a mom here, too.

BIRHANA: (Laughter) Oh, yeah, even for my son it's his third day doing skating.

WARNER: Only his third on a skateboard, but, in Ethiopia, anyway, already ahead of his time. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.