Q&A with the founder of a girls skateboarding team in Africa
When Israel Dejene decided to make a trip to Sweden from his hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 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 down the sidewalk on a skateboard. He was mesmerized by the ease with which this person was able to move through crowds of people on something that looked so unstable. He followed the rider and asked him to show him how to stand on the skateboard. Minutes later, the skateboarder gifted him the board, and Dejene went home with a newfound passion.
In that skateboard, Dejene saw an opportunity to reach the youth in his neighborhood back home.
He returned to Ethiopia and founded Megabi Skate, a program that engages youth through skateboarding. Also wanting to make a program specifically for girls, he started Megabi Skate Girls, the first African girls skateboarding team. The idea was met with some pushback because girls don't often play sports in Ethiopia, but the group was able to show the community how powerful skateboarding could be in providing participants a platform to believe in themselves. Megabi Skate provides training and equipment, meets five times a week and teaches the children how to skateboard, while also focusing on teamwork and leadership skills.
We spoke with Dejene about how he's using skateboarding to engage youth and the importance of empowering young girls through sport.
This interview has been edited for length.
espnW: Why did you decide to start Megabi Skate?
Israel Dejene: I decided to start Megabi Skate because I want to 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.
espnW: How did you come up with the name?
ID: The meaning of Megabi is derived from the Ethiopian word that 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, that's the way that I feel about how skateboarding gives life to these kids.
espnW: How are you reaching girls and encouraging them to skateboard?
ID: 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.
espnW: Can you give us some more details about the girls skateboarding team?
ID: 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.
espnW: What do the girls seem to love about skateboarding?
ID: 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 polka dots. She said it made her feel free, and several of the girls say the same thing. The girls love to skate together and support each other. It's created a sense of community with each other, and it's helping them see that they don't have to follow societal norms.
espnW: What about skateboarding empowers the girls?
ID: 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!
espnW: You played a big part in helping skateboarding be part of the 2020 Olympics. What was that like?
ID: It was a complicated and long process, but, along with several others involved in skateboarding, we 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.