The Future of Skateboarding in Ethiopia
Interviewed by Aida Solomon
Formerly known as EthioSkate, Megabi Skate is a non-profit organization founded by Israel Dejene based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a musician turned skateboarder that brought back his obsession with boarding to his neighborhood of Shiro Mede. HabeshaLA sits down with Dejene to discuss the future of skateboarding in Ethiopia.
HabeshaLA: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Israel Dejene: I grew up in Addis Ababa, in the Shiro Mede neighborhood. I went to Addis Ababa University and studied music at the Yared School of Music. I founded the Ethiopian Adopted Association that allows adopted children to come back to Ethiopia and find their roots and family. I later on started a tour company, where people can truly understand the culture [of Ethiopia]. I helped a group of doctors from the US help build clinics in rural parts of Ethiopia. I really love to be involved in the community, develop the community in different ways.
Nowadays, I’m focusing more on Megabi Skate. It’s a youth center, using skateboarding and empowering the youth through skateboarding.
HabeshaLA: How did you start Megabi Skate?
Israel Dejene: About ten years ago, my brother and sisters and I had a chance to perform our music in Sweden, so that’s the first time I saw skateboarding. Before, I [had only see it on the TV. I straight went to the guys, and said, “Can you teach me how to do this?” and they showed me. I stayed three months and I fell in love with it [skateboarding]. A friend gave me a skateboard, and I brought it back to Ethiopia.
I started to skate with a few friends around different parts of at night to avoid traffic. In the next couple of years I started teaching the youth in my neighborhood how to skateboard, and we slowly started to become a group. It became a big movement.
HabeshaLA: Skateboarding is not a common sport in Ethiopia. How did you get people interested to try it?
Israel Dejene: I remember the first time I saw skateboarding on TV, and how I was shocked to see how the skateboard looks like it sticks to their feet. I see the same reaction from the kids who join Megabi Skate. When I go skating and try to do an Ollie and other different tricks, and the kids come and see it and are amazed. They got so stuck. They asked me right away to show them how to skateboard. It brings people together. Back then, the only skateboard we had was the same one I brought back from Sweden. It transformed the community; even the police supported our movement.
HabeshaLA: Aside from the skateboarding, what other resources does Megabi Skate provide for the community?
Israel Dejene: We have this thing called the Dream Big Stage. Every month, we have a talent show where the kids can perform their different talents for the community. The other one is Make Somebody Happy Day, which is every Saturday after the skate session; all the skaters will go around the neighborhood and do something positive for one person and give back.
We started in my community, but now kids come from every corner of Ethiopia every weekend. When I was growing up, I saw a lot of kids getting into trouble, getting drunk.
I wanted to do something, build a youth center, where kids could come and be inspired, but I didn’t know how to start. One day, my Mom shared to me the story of Moses. Moses was bringing the people from Egypt, from slavery, taking them to the Promised Land, and he stopped at the Red Sea, and the enemy’s following behind them. That was the moment where he didn’t know what to do. God told him, “Hey, use the staff that you have,” and then he used that…
HabeshaLA: and parted the water.
Israel Dejene: My mom told me, “If you want to do something, you don’t have to look elsewhere. God has given each and everyone of us a gift. Look at what you already have.” That was the moment. I didn’t fall asleep that night.
I thought about what do I have? I have my music, and I have my skateboard. That was the spark for me. Now, every time I travel, I bring back skateboards. When I have friends travel to Addis, I ask them to bring me boards. Nothing else. Megabi Skate is a place where the kids can find their true talent and empower themselves. It’s about building their confidence no matter their circumstance.
HabeshaLA: There is a film being made about Megabi Skate. When can we expect to see it?
Israel Dejene: Yes, there are actually two documentaries that have been made. One is called Dream Big—Skateboarders in Ethiopia that was aired on ABC and ESPN. Tony Hawk, Nyjah Houston, and other pro-skaters joined Megabi Skate to help build a concrete half-pipe in Ethiopia. We are also filming a documentary over the last two years that we hope to premiere by the beginning of 2016.
HabeshaLA: What can we be expecting from you guys in the near future?
Israel Dejene: We are working with California Skate Parks to build another standard concrete skate park. We’re also including a music studio, computer lab, and library for the youth. We want to expand and build skate parks through Ethiopia, with a Dream Big Stage at each one.
HabeshaLA: Do you have any future plans in music?
Israel Dejene: Yes, I do. I studied trumpet and piano at the Yared School of Music for four years, as well as masinko. Lately, me and my brother and sister started making experimental music the last 10 years.
My dad is from the southern region of Ethiopia, Gamo-Gafo. They make polyphonic music, making their vocal chords go up and down. It’s so beautiful and unique. We thought it would be cool if we can make modern music using polyphonic sounds. We’ve performed in Europe in different festivals, and now are working on a new album. I also perform reggae music on the side.
HabeshaLA: Any last words?
Isreael Dejene: I tell the kids, that when we think of our dreams, we think of 10, 20 years from now and forget about today. The future is within you. If I take one step forward or to the left or right, each step is a step towards your destiny.