In 2010, 12-year-old Nathan Eyuso 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?’ ” Eyuso laughs. “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 Eyuso 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 Eyuso 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 non-skaters, 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 sub-style 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.”
Sean 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 skateparks around the world, they built the first one in Addis Ababa.
The skatepark 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. Nathan Eyuso 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 mom 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.