Self-taught Ethiopian skateboarders and photographers gear up to debut their photography exhibition “The Streets, Our Playground”

Self-taught Ethiopian skateboarders and photographers gear up to debut their photography exhibition “The Streets, Our Playground.” The photographers are pictured from left to right: Ruel Desta, Bamlak Tesfa and Yared Gobezie.

Images courtesy of Yared Gobezie, Ruel Desta, and Bamlak Tesfa. Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi.

Ethiopia’s Skateboarding Community Sends a Love Letter to “The Streets, Our Playground”

A new photography exhibition reflects the lives, needs, and achievements of the country’s young skateboarders.

Self-taught skateboarders turned self-taught photographers Yared Gobezie, Ruel Desta, and Bamlak Tesfa are gearing up for the debut of the joint venture that gave them their chosen family. The Streets, Our Playground is a photography exhibition set to reflect the beauty and resilience of Ethiopia’s young and ever-expanding community of skateboarders. Just last year, the women-led cohort Ethiopian Girl Skaters gained international attention, for how organically and delightfully the community of young girls found each other through skateboarding. Now, the men representing this small but dedicated group of skaters have ventured into new creative territories to reflect the love and collective care they’ve been exposed to, sending it right back into the community itself.

A young boy jumps a skateboard in the street near some goats. "Our Streets Our Playground"Photo by Ruel Desta.

Skateboarding as a sport and cultural practice is relatively new to the East African region, with the first signs of the practice popping up around the 2000s. It has grown exponentially over the last decade, becoming popular among young Ethiopians across the gender spectrum. The Streets, Our Playground is in collaboration with Ethiopia Skate, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting skateboarding in the country.

None of the skaters featured in the exhibition think of themselves as photographers. The inspiration behind creating this exhibit stems from a genuine desire to capture their joyful experience of the new sport and share that with the rest of the community, which greatly adds to the experience. Gobezie and Desta are both decades into their skating careers and relationships with Ethiopia Skate. “I enjoyed it to the point where it grew into something bigger than skateboarding,” says Gobezie. “It became about community, a lifestyle, a culture.” For many, this chosen family is a refuge from painful and adverse circumstances on personal, social, and environmental levels.

In the early days, the group started taking pics of each other with their cellphones, before photographers and videographers began snapping images of them. This inspired them to expand their creativity. “I realized that we were blessed to be around this knowledge,” says Gobezie, “and wanted to expand on it.” He found a film camera at a thrift store and decided to take a shot.

It’s easy to see why skateboarding became so popular in Ethiopia. “It’s a unique outlet to express ourselves and be creative in our city,” says Desta. While a sense of freedom and community engagement rank high on the list, the lack of functioning and well-maintained infrastructure has played a major role in the sport’s growing interest, too. “With the roads still developing and the traffic getting worse, we use skateboarding as convenient transportation,” says Desta.

“It’s also an outlet where young Ethiopians can feel unrestrained,” adds Gobezie. “Sadly, I think in instances of poverty or other systemic problems, skateboarding seems to be a good way to gain your freedom. It’s the perfect getaway. It does something to people that is more unique than other sports.” They feel that because the group is known for being free of prejudice, the streets really can be a playground, as they see it, for everyone, regardless of where they’re from.

A skateboarder holds on to the back of a motorized scooter going down the road. "ruelllllll"Photo by Bamlak Tesfa.

A big part of the intention behind the exhibit is to bring skateboarders together, from all over the country. “I hope to honor skateboarding culture,” says Desta. “It’s not just a sport, but a vibrant subculture with its own style, art, and history.”

As a collective, each member is encouraged to share their unique perspective. “I’ve noticed that, sometimes, a photo is more than just a photo,” says Gobezie. “It’s a memory – it’s experiences; there are losses and accomplishments attached to [it].”

The photos are also a record of how skateboarding has changed in Ethiopia over the last ten years, with the help of crowdfunding and some funding from the government. “When we started, there wasn’t any infrastructure for skaters – most roads weren’t well done, and there weren’t any skate parks,” says Gobezie. “Nobody knew about skateboarding, and so we weren’t treated that well. We’ve done a lot of work to gain recognition. This exhibit shows how far we’ve come. You see adult skaters who were just kids when they started.” In this way, the photos also [show] how much the individuals taking part in it have grown, too.

While the Ethiopian community has displayed the beauty of collective power, there are legitimate and necessary ways the local government could lend its support. Building and maintaining Olympic-standard skate parks around the country, creating safe and accessible spaces for practicing and showcasing skills – these are just some of the ways Desta thinks they could help. “There’s financial support, grants, and resources to our local skate organizations to maintain facilities and support skating at a grassroots level,” he adds. For now, the skaters are the ones to continue the legacy. “It’s us – people that are from here – who continue to build, grow, and maintain the parks,” says Gobezie.

The Streets, Our Playground is on from November 25th to December 9th, at Studio 11 in Addis Ababa.

A photo illustration of a skateboarder imposed over a city skyline.

Photo by Yared Gobezie.