Interview By: Wongel Abebe
How was your childhood and growing up?
I was born and raised here in Addis, in the Shiro Meda area, specifically known as Hayasost Kebele. I went to a public school found around there. I grew up in the face of several difficulties and challenges. I grew up in a neighborhood and with conditions that made it hard to imagine that you could live to see another day; surviving today was uncertain. My family and I pushed through darkness each day. Although a big challenge then, I believe that it has shaped me into the person I am today.
At home, we were an extended family of 10. We had severe economic hardships. There were days where there was nothing to eat in the house. Other days, we were grateful for the one meal we got. There was a point where we didn’t have anywhere to live. It was hard for us to fulfil our needs starting from food, clothes and school supplies.
Starting from when I was 6 years old, I used to wake up at 3AM, get money from my father and walk far to buy bread. When I was in grade 8, I decided to drop out of school to support my family. I hadn’t told anyone. I worked at a bakery, delivering bread from one shop to another. So at home, while they thought I was going to school, I was actually headed to the market place to bring in some money. It was a good experience. I learned responsibility, how to work with others and how to earn a living. After one year, I resumed my education and joined high school.
But what kept us alive and positive was the fellowship and close relationship we had at home. We had a tradition of washing each other’s feet before bed every night. Everyone took a turn. Afterwards, my mother would read the Bible and pray for us. We had family devotionals where we worshiped and prayed. My mother, a strong woman of prayer, grounded us in the word of God. We went to Mekaneyesus Church, where we called home. At the time, we couldn’t really see how prayer was helping our situation. But looking back now, I realize that what has helped us get to where we are now are those prayers.
Lead us through your music career over the years.
It was my big sister who initially showed me my first song on the guitar, ‘Nuro Kegeta Ke Geta Gar’. Ever since that time, I completely fell in love with music. I also used to be in the Sunday school choir of Entoto Mekaneyesus church. There, I learned more about music and developed my skills. When I reached the age of 16, I was chosen by the church to play guitar for my choir. Also at home, on our Friday night family gatherings, my siblings and I always experimented with music. After finishing high school, I joined university at the Yared Music School where I majored in trumpet. When I was a sophomore, I worked for Mulatu Astatke, a legendary musician whom I learned a great deal from.
I have a big passion for ethnic and indigenous music. So I traveled a lot into remote and rural areas of Ethiopia, recording tribal group performances. I strived to make that kind of music available for the international stage. My brother and I started Bright Colors, a band that promotes the traditional music of Ethiopia. I love experimenting with music and producing music that radiates color.
How did you start Skating?
It was about ten years ago that I had a chance to travel to Europe for my music. A friend of mine had invited me to come and experience the different genre’s there. I was in Sweden when after a music session, I saw a guy skating. I was blown away. I had never seen anyone skateboard with my naked eyes before. I run to him and asked him to teach me. He agreed. We went to skate parks and skated every day. As I was skating, it felt like home, like I belonged there. After being introduced to skateboarding, I came back to Ethiopia. A friend gave me a skateboard so I continued to skate here as well with a group of friends; mostly at night when the traffic eased up. I love it. Skateboarding has completely changed my life.
Skating, beyond being an amazing sport, is an art that has the power to unite people. For me, skating symbolizes life. You just don’t get up one day and skate perfectly. You fall, you get up, brush yourself up and try again until one day you succeed. You need persistence. The same principle applies when pursuing other passions as well. You need to be committed and willing to work hard at it.
What is the hardest part about skating in Ethiopia?
There are different challenges we’ve faced here as skateboarders. One is the fact that there is no where you can go to skate in Addis. On the main roads, it is crowded with a traffic jam which makes it impossible to skate there. But since there is a lot of construction going on right now, I am sure that this will improve in the near future.
Another problem was due to lack of awareness about skateboarding. People didn’t know what it was so they took away our boards. Police would also prohibit us from skating because they thought it would damage the road. Time and again, I had to stop and explain that its tiers were made of rubber and would have no effect on the roads. It was very frustrating. But above all that, the biggest challenge remains to be people who try to take advantage of what we’re trying to do here. It is aggravating to see individuals striving to benefit themselves off the less fortunate they claim to help.
What is Megabi Skate?
Megabi Skate is a movement with the primary goal of creating inspiration, a positive atmosphere and helping people realize that they can use what they have in their hands to bring change to their communities. Skateboarding is the medium. Although it mainly targets the youth, anyone who is positive is welcome. Currently, it engages boys and girls from the ages 4 to 21.
Mind you, with Megabi Skate, I am not trying to make everyone a professional skateboarder. That’s not my aim. Rather it is to empower and motivate the youth towards their dreams. After our skating sessions in Shiro Meda, we store away the skateboards and gather at this little dirt place where we sit down to talk and interact with each other. There I shared my story with them. That created a safe atmosphere for the kids to open up. On that place where we gather, there is a little step that we use as a stage. We call it the ‘Dream Big’ stage. There, we talk about our dreams and ambitions for the future. Taking turns, the kids go on the stage and speak about their views, the problems around them and what they’re going to do about it. Whoever stands on the stage is referred to by his/her future title such as Dr. so and so or President…
Once a month, I invite friends from different professions to the Dream Big stage who are willing to share their stories with the kids. This has created a platform where successful people can reach out, relate and connect to the coming generation. This has highly motivated the kids to believe in themselves, no matter their circumstances.
What is the story behind the name Megabi?
When I was little, I used to wake up early to buy bread from afar for the family. My father, who was impressed and encouraged by what I did gave me the name Megabi, an Amharic word which means one who provides food, saying that I fed the family every morning. Recently, when we rebranded the initiative, it made sense to name it Megabi Skate. Beyond food for the body, Megabi Skate enriches the hunger in the younger generation with food for the soul, mind and spirit.
How was MegabiSkate first established?
When I came back from Europe and went back to Shiro Meda, the area where I grew up, my heart ached because I saw no improvement. There was no change in the living conditions of the community. That area is a really poor neighborhood with a lot of bars, where most of the kids are tangled up in different addictions. The young kids, exposed to nothing else but such realities, grow up in truly sad circumstances. I saw 11 and 12 year olds engaged in things that no one at their age should. It wasn’t because they chose such a life but because it was all they ever knew. Most of the kids had no exposure to life outside of Shiro Meda. When I saw them, I knew exactly how they felt and why they did the things they did. I was there and have been through the same thing. Whenever I went there, something grew heavy in my heart; I knew I had to do something about that place. I wanted to give back. I wanted to create a center where the kids could go to get inspired and to experience an atmosphere beyond what they see around the neighborhood. But I had no clue as to what exactly I was going to do. I kept thinking that I would need a lot of money to start up something. But I didn’t have much at the time. I didn’t know where and how to start. All I knew was I that I had to do something. The need was huge.
One day when I went home for our special Friday night prayers, I told my mother what I had been thinking to do. Then she started telling me about the story of Moses. After he led the Israelites out of Egypt and got stranded at the Red Sea, the people started to shout to him, and he in turn to God. But God replied to Moses saying, “Hey, I’ve already given you what you need. Use that.” God had given Moses a gift; his rod. He used that gift to deliver his people. That gift ended up being the solution to their problem.
After hearing that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My whole approach to the problem changed. I laid awake at night wondering what my gift was that God wanted me to use. What did I have in my hands? I had a skateboard. I knew right away that that was it.
So I took the one board that I had to reach out to the kids. They were very happy and excited. About thirty kids came. They lined up and took turns learning. The next day, they cut out some plastic tubes, placed it under their shoes and slid on the asphalt. They were very enthusiastic about skating. Encouraged by their zeal, I moved back to my parent’s house in that neighborhood to spend more time with the kids. As time went by, the project I had started with just one board grew into a movement that engaged several people.
Tell us a little about your relationship with Tony Hawk.
It was about four years ago that we met in LA through a mutual friend. A musician friend of mine who had seen the work I was doing here was stoked to tell Tony about it. As soon as he heard about Megabi Skate, Tony sent me an email inviting me to come see him. I went and visited him and shared with him the vision I had and my story. He was really interested in the movement here and was very supportive. Tony is a good person. Our relationship grew into genuine close friendship that was beyond mere partnership. He advises me on the work here and encourages me during hard times. We will be working closely with him, hosting events and expanding the movement to put Ethiopia in the map of the international skateboarding community. I believe world-class skateboarders will come out of Ethiopia and it won’t be too long before we host the X-games here.
What are the future plans of Megabi Skate?
We are planning to build a skate park with different rooms where kids can go to after skating to build on their creative skills. It will have art rooms, a library and computer lab so they can grow and develop their interests. I believe that this will materialize in a year’s time.
Can people get involved? How?
Yes, it is open to anyone who wants to be part of this movement. The only criteria would be that we want people with a good heart who seek to spread a positive atmosphere. People can partner with us in different ways. One is through volunteering. Megabi Skate provides tutoring for the kids three days a week. So anyone who would like to give back by helping in this regards would be appreciated. People can also join us at the center, teach the skills they have to the kids or help during community service program on Saturdays.
People can also partner with us by sponsoring shows and events. We would be happy to work with anyone who is interested and passionate in reaching out and giving back to the community.
You can learn more about Megabi Skate at: www.megabiskate.com or Facebook- Megabi Skate