When Israel Dejene decided to make a trip from his hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Sweden in 2005, he never imagined how a chance encounter would end up becoming his life calling. While roaming the streets of Stockholm Dejene saw someone cruising on the sidewalk with a skateboard and he was mesmerized with the ease that this person was able to move through the crowds of people on something that looked so unstable. He had never seen skateboarding in person before, and he asked the stranger if he could show him how to stand on the skateboard. Minutes later, the stranger gifted him the skateboard and Dejene went home with a newfound passion. But in that skateboard Dejene saw an opportunity to reach the youth in his troubled neighborhood.
He returned to Ethiopia with a vision in mind, and Megabi Skate was founded. But he wanted to make a program to also specifically reach girls, and started Megabi Skate Girls, the first African girls skateboarding team. In a country where not many girls play sports, this was met with some pushback, but overtime people in the community began to see how powerful of a tool skateboarding was in providing these girls a platform to believe in themselves.
Megabi Skate provides training and equipment, meeting five times a week, teaching the kids how to skateboard, while also focusing on teaching teamwork and leadership skills. Dejene shared his story with espnW about the first time someone introduced him to skateboarding, how he’s using it to engage youth, and the importance of empowering the future of young girls through sport.
1) When were you introduced to skateboarding?
I grew up in the capital city Addis Ababa. I had never seen skateboarding before, except for one time on television. It was Tony Hawk, and I thought he had magnets under his shoes and I was so amazed. Then, in 2005 I traveled to Sweden for the very first time out of Africa. I saw someone skateboarding and asked him if he could show me how to ride and I immediately fell in love with it. That stranger gave me his skateboard, and when I returned home, I gave it back to the kids in my neighborhood, Shiromeda’, one of the forgotten neighborhoods.
The kids really seemed to love it, and I found it to be a positive experience as well, and felt something special could come of it. As I continued to share the love of skateboarding, I saw how it could empower the youth who are at risk on the street. It was that same year I started Megabi Skate.
2) Why did you decide to start Megabi Skate?
I decided to start Megabi Skate because I want inspire and empower the youth. By providing skateboards and a spot where they can be positively inspired and empowered, it can make a difference not only in my neighborhood, but in my country, and eventually the world. Skateboarding is helping them stay positive and find a new image of themselves.
3) How did you come up with the name?
The meaning of Megabi is derived from the Ethiopian word, which means someone that gives life to others. My father gave me the nickname Megabi at a very young age when I would wake up very early in the morning and walk to buy bread during some very hard times in Ethiopia when food was hard to find. The same way that bread was a life giver to us, is the way that I feel about how skateboarding gives life to these kids.
4) How are you reaching girls and encouraging them to skateboard?
From the beginning I have included both girls and boys at the same time, but it was hard for girls to come out because they have to do house chores and are expected to be home. Playing sports in Ethiopia is not something that is common for girls, but my little sister, Muluken, and I have pushed over and over again to have the girls get permission to come and learn skateboarding. We’ve even had people go and do the chores for the girls so that they can come and skate. My sister has also been so amazing and so persistent to help make the girls dream come true, and is our designated Girl Skate coordinator. These girls are a true example of how they can change the world. We’ve grown to about 40 girls in the program, which is tremendous.
5) Can you tell me more about the girls skateboarding team?
The girl skateboarding team is the first girls team in Africa. People made fun of them and didn’t believe in them, but they did and I believe in them. And over time they have started to shine and be an example for future generations. Skateboarding broke their fears and helped with their low self esteem, and they are no longer afraid of skateboarding not being a normal thing for them to do in Ethiopia. So now because of skateboarding, they don’t have fear. In every festival in the city they join and perform on their skateboard, and speak in front of thousands of people sharing their story and their love for skating.
6) What do the girls seem to love about skateboarding?
We had a 3 year-old, Yemar, say, “I am a birrabirro,” which means butterfly in Amharic as she was skating on the mini ramp back and forth in her dress with polkadots. She said it made her feel free, and several of the girls part of the program say the same thing. The girls love to skate together and support each other. It’s created a sense community with each other and it’s helping them see that they don’t have to follow societal norms.
7) What about skateboarding empowers the girls?
This is a new sport for Ethiopia and this seems like an impossible sport, and sometimes people resist unusual things. But people have begun supporting it immensely because they see how it gives the kids a good self image they make them feel that they can do anything. The joy on their faces after they master a trick, or their increased confidence to be able to do something challenging, is really rewarding for everyone who gets to witness it. The ultimate goal is to help them focus and put their mind together for whatever their dreams are and believe in themselves!
8) How important do you feel it is to empower young women?
If you empower young women you empower the coming whole generation. Period. Women are very good at multiplying, so if you empower the young women they will multiply it and give it back to their communities.
9) You played a big part in helping skateboarding be part of the 2020 Olympics. Tell me about that process and the
kids excitement of potentially representing Ethiopia in skateboarding?
It was a complicated and long process, but me, along with several others involved in skateboarding were able to successfully petition the Olympic Committee to have skateboarding be part of the Olympics. Gary Ream, President of the International Skateboarding Federation, really helped push along the efforts and helped lay out a clear picture of what skateboarding will look like in the future. The Megabi kids are very excited about the prospect of competing in the Olympics and are working so hard to be able to get there! We have a couple guys and girls that I think will be able to make it if they focus and continue to push themselves, and I’m hopeful Ethiopia will have Megabi Skaters at the Olympics.
10) Do you believe sports should be used a means in more communities to help reach kids, and if so why?
I strongly believe that sports should be used in more communities to help reach kids. For instance, Megabi skaters are known for their positive actions around our neighborhood and in the city, and other parts of the country. So every Saturday morning is a day of all Megabi Skate youth get together and share love, do community service. We call Saturday morning ” happy day” and we plant trees, clean up the neighborhood, help elderly mum’s who needs help with house chores, and we look after each other. This has grown so much and people appreciate the actions of these vibrant young skaters. Sports help us bring out the best part of us and help makes kids more disciplined, focused, and happier. Any way that we can help kids realize their potential and worth should be explored and supported.