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Young Ethiopians Find Freedom Through Skating

Addis Ababa, (or Finfinne) means ‘new flower’ and ‘fountain of hot mineral water’ in Amharic and Oromo respectively. The name is fitting, considering the capital’s cultural, economic and social bloom against the backdrop of political and civil volatility. An ever-growing middle class, heavy injections of Chinese ‘investment, and inter-ethnic conflict has resulted in civil unrest and the Tigray crisis- the effects of which have reverberated around the country. Accelerated globalisation has made Ethiopia the second most populous country in Africa, as well as one of the most important political and cultural metropolises on the continent and arguably the world, as home of the AU. Amidst all this upheaval and growth, a movement of young people in Addis Ababa is growing.  Where early iterations of youth organisation in Ethiopia were explicitly and solely linked to political causes, such as the revolutionary Ethiopian Student Movement (1960-1974), the establishment of a Federal Democratic Republic has forced them to evolve.Obvious issues like military junta dictatorships are no longer the issue, but there remains a vacuum for social justice and education. Instead, grassroots collectives by and for the youth are addressing issues of the time; lack of access to education, unemployment, social division caused by ethnic and political conflict, lack of urban commons in a sprawling city with a skyline increasingly punctuated by skyscrapers and high rises. One such organisation is Ethiopia Skate  - a homegrown NGO  by  young Ethiopian skaters  for  Ethiopian skaters, that are taking it upon themselves to mobilise the community they’ve built through skateboarding and providing education for young people. In order to understand Ethiopian society and why the work of Ethiopia Skate is so meaningful, one must understand the inter-relationship between Church and State and how it has influenced the deep social conservatism of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the oldest institutions of the world, having been declared a state religion in 330AD, making Ethiopia one of the oldest Christian countries in the world. In a country where almost 70% of the population are Orthodox Christians, religion undoubtedly plays a pivotal part in society today, even though it was removed as the Church of the state with the removal of Haile Selassie in 1974.  And so, it’s in the context of a civil war and a deeply entrenched form of social conservatism that skateboarding has blossomed into a tool for education and empowerment for young Ethiopians. The sport and art of skating is characterised by freedom, creative movement, and a pursuit of sensation (Glista, 2019) so it comes as no surprise in the context of limited freedoms that locals experience (travel outside Addis Ababa is strongly discouraged due to the constant threat of violence and robbery on the roads amidst inter-ethnic tensions), they’ve had to create their own freedoms. There is also limited space for anything that doesn’t generate income in a city with a population of 5.7 million that struggles to build infrastructure to accommodate them all. With never ending construction and development of roads, traffic can sometimes bring hundreds of cars to a standstill, add to that the public taxi system, which often causes queues of half a mile long to board during peak rush time at key stations. Skateboarding then appears to be the natural solution to the issues specifically faced in Ethiopia, where a lack of prioritisation of resources lends itself to the ‘DIY’, communal nature of Ethiopian culture. A core part of Ethiopian custom is togetherness, whether it's eating together from one plate of injera or raising children as a community by sharing the burden of childcare and housework.  Skate culture’s role as a tool of community empowerment is not unique to Ethiopia alone, however. All over the world,  youth are mobilising and organising, united by a common  love of skateboarding and culture but doing much more than that through their work. By carving out a safe space in a way that their governments either can’t or won’t provide for young people - in many of these instances, youth unemployment is high - they provide their own solutions to national issues. In neighbouring Uganda, the Uganda Skate Community  formed in 2012 was done as ‘a tool to unite and engage marginalised young people from all walks of life in Uganda’, and has since launched youth leadership and ‘back to school’ programmes aimed at skaters who might be marginalised from mainstream, formal education.  Skateboarding’s role as ‘a young urban counterculture that seeks to challenge power relations by questioning the privatisation of public space’ (Loukaitou-Sideris & Banerjee 1998; Urban Action 2001) makes Addis Ababa the perfect backdrop for community initiatives like Ethiopia Skate and off-shoots like Kushineta Skate and Desta that have carved their own space in Addis’ bustling creative scene. The city’s rapid development has seen its borders expand, with swathes of land once used for farming quickly becoming building sites for malls or condos. In this context, skateboarding is more than a past time often conflated with floppy haired teenage boys and baggy trousers, but rather a community built on empowerment and resistance by the youth in taking over the roads and spaces both physically and socially. Looking around at a weekly skate meet-up or an event at the newly opened venue Kebele Zero, (a promising hub for youth culture and nightlife in the city), the attire wouldn’t look out of place in an LA skatepark or Hackney cafe. The same cool, comfortable uniform of skaters worldwide has not avoided Addis, with baggy trousers and skate shoes galore.  Founded in 2013 with the mission statement to ‘build skateparks and run youth development programs in Ethiopia to promote health and well-being, access to educational resources, community development, gender equality and economic growth’, what lay ahead of Ethiopia Skate was no small feat. Twelve years from inception, they’ve built four skateparks in total across the country with dreams of building more across the Horn, from Asmara to Mogadishu, mobilising a cross-border skateboard community. With their first skatepark in Addis built in 2013 and completed after only three weeks with sixty volunteers and two hundred and fifty donors from around the world, it’s clear there’s a support and appreciation for their work. Ethiopia Skate have since gone on to build three more skateparks in Ethiopia; Awassa, Konso and another in Addis Ababa Kazanchis’ area. Every Sunday morning, on one of the twenty three closed, car-free roads of Addis Ababa, the community of seasoned skaters and novices alike, come together to practise and learn amongst like minded people.  However, Ethiopia Skate’s ambitions lie further than the skatepark - they’re intent on using their new office as a hub for the community as well as a safe space to inspire creativity and entrepreneurship . Having only moved in a couple of months ago, they’ve already set up a textiles station with sewing machines to design and create merchandise. Pointing to the likes of Thrasher  as inspiration, they hope to one day publish and print their own magazine for full circulation. Launching initiatives like a weekly ‘Skate and Learn’ tutoring programme, which aims to empower children by improving their English and Maths skills alongside art and skateboarding, they bring in volunteers. Speaking to founder Abenezer Temesgen, it's clear that the community initiatives are a natural evolution of Ethiopia Skate’s goals in reflection of community needs, “The goal was to build the first skatepark; that was done, we built another, and another and now there are even too many skaters!” he laughs. The initiatives, he stresses, are not a brainchild idea of the team but rather a direct result of their engagement with the very community they serve. “We asked them what they wanted, which is not something that happens often to young people. We listened and set it up- there is no lack of ambition or hunger to learn, only a lack of resources allocated to realise the ambitions.” In addition to the academic classes, there are further plans to introduce creative skills in photography, sound design  and filmography workshops to help skaters tell their own stories, in their own voices as well as equip them with skills to create further opportunities.  But that’s not all. Since Ethiopia Skate’s formation, members of the community have gone on to form their own initiatives, such as Ethiopia Skate Girls and Kushineta Skate. Born out of necessity, Ethiopia Skate Girls was formed with its parent group to cultivate a women-only group, one of the first of its kind in Ethiopia. Providing a safe space for girls to skate without the anxiety of sexist harassment, they enjoy exclusive use of the skatepark on Saturday mornings. With over 60 members aged between 10 and 25, it’s clear that the next  generation of Ethiopian women, although aware of the social conservative stereotypes that are imposed upon them, are ready to shun such expectations with relative ease.  Kushineta Skate, founded in 2019, combines social entrepreneurship with the collective’s community values, designing and selling original skater apparel as well as making and selling skateboards with a physical presence in a shop in Addis as of 2022. In the same vein of self-sufficiency that Ethiopia Skate was built on, Kushineta has designs on ‘setting the precedent for affordable,locally made boards in Addis Ababa … and [becoming] the main distributor of professional, quality slate decks in Ethiopia and East Africa at large’  - contributing to the local economy and  providing opportunities for young people as well as making skate culture accessible to the wider Ethiopian public. Ultimately, the work of Ethiopia Skate and it’s members who have gone on to launch related offshoots, has served not only a tool of modernisation to the conservative social values that heaven entrenched as a result of religion and culture, but also as an alternative form of community amidst the political and ethnic conflict and the civil war that follows it. In providing young Ethiopians with a third space to congregate, learn and upskill, they’ve used education as an outward and inward tool - empowering members of their community as well as educating the Ethiopian society.

Addis Ababa, (or Finfinne) means ‘new flower’ and ‘fountain of hot mineral water’ in Amharic and Oromo respectively. The name is fitting,...

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