Living in Addis Ababa requires that one consider the lives of the injured, the sick, and the deformed. Action is optional, but you cannot spend time in the streets of Addis without imagining the lives of the handicapped and homeless. Lacking the mobility and strength needed for the day-laboring jobs so common in the workforce here, it is unlikely that these people will find a way to support themselves. If their family is unable or unwilling to keep them, these stricken people will end up on the street as beggars, congregating near mosques, churches, and public squares.
Of all the conditions on the street, some of most heartbreaking are the instances of people who have for whatever reason lost their legs or the use of their legs. Unable to afford wheelchairs they are forced to drag themselves along the sidewalk, often having fashioned a sort of sled out of cardboard or rubber to protect their lower torso from the rough, piss-stained sidewalk. Infection and disease are common and there’s nothing much they can really do about it. It’s their life and they know none other; many of them will spend their abbreviated allotment of days
However, sometimes you meet people who refuse to accept the position life gives them and somehow manage to go on and do things that stun even the healthiest of us. I recently met an Ethiopian man named Tameru. Tameru was born with a very serious physical deformity that immediately set him up for a tough life. Tameru could have easily ended up like the one of the countless other handicapped homeless, crawling and begging on the streets because there is no other choice. Now, at the age of 30, Tameru is a professional athlete, currently in pursuit of a world speed record.
Tameru was born in a village near Lalibela, the Ethiopian city famed for it’s ancient churches carved in one piece directly into bedrock. Perhaps due to the fact that his mother labored tirelessly carrying bundles of wood for a living during the pregnancy or perhaps because of something else entirely Tameru was born with severely malformed, twisted legs. He was ignored by his parents, ridiculed by others, and generally considered a useless human being by his community. Tameru relied on his hands and arms much more than the average person. He learned how to do handstands and eventually he learned how to walk around while inverted – a stunt which earned him a little attention and some occasional money. Tameru began to get very good at this and performed on the streets of Lalibela. He was noticed by a foreign doctor who had the skill set and resources to correct some of the deformities in Tameru’s legs. The surgery was successful and resulted in increased function and mobility in Tameru’s legs and he was able to walk upright, provided that he used crutches to aid his movement.
Despite the crutches, Tameru still found that he enjoyed walking on his hands. He took this a step further and eventually learned to swing himself upside down, doing a handstand on the crutches, and walk around this way. He got good enough at it that he could walk up and down stairs and even do a sort of handstand sprint on them. A lot happened in Tameru’s life between this time and the world record attempt discussed here (this could be another article entirely) but this practice of inverted athletics became Tameru’s passion and he literally ran with it.
Last weekend under the scrutiny of judges (including star Ethiopian runner Mohammad Aman), timekeepers, witnesses, and observers, Tameru attempted his record-setting feat on a steely overcast morning at Ethiopia’s National Stadium in downtown Addis Ababa. Tameru’s goal was to establish the record for the farthest distance traveled on crutches in one minute, without the use of legs, and have it recognized and published by the Guinness Book of World Records. This is a previously uncategorized record and Tameru is looking to create the event in the context of Guinness. Tameru gave it three tries last weekend at the Stadium, the best attempt measuring 76 meters.
Since most of us have never walked on our hands before, it’s difficult to understand how strenuous sprinting inverted on crutches is, regardless of the condition of your legs. It takes insane levels of body tension, composure, and control. This record isn’t something honorary that Tameru hopes to receive just because he’s overcome so much and is a great person with an amazing story. This feat is meant to stand by itself. This is a record to be tested. Tameru trains regularly for this and on his first attempt at the Stadium he fell three seconds shy of a minute, out of exhaustion. That’s how hard this is. It’s no mere stunt like juggling or drawing with your toes. This is a legitimate test of strength and technique and it puts a huge amount of stress on the shoulders and hands. Maintaining composure and balance requires a gymnast-caliber core. You can see in the photos how sculpted Tameru’s body is. My point is that no one’s letting Tameru have this one simply because he deserves it (like putting Rudy in for the final play of a Notre Dame home game). Tameru has presented a formidable challenge to any athlete.
I haven’t met many people like Tameru, but something that I hear a lot about people who have overcome serious birth defects or injuries is that if you talk to them, you wouldn’t even know that there’s a problem. They’ve made it their lifestyle and to them, there is no problem. Take Aimee Mullins, a double amputee who was able to turn her disability into a career in both athletics and fashion. Tameru is like this, though he’s not so much concerned with the fashion part. I spent just a short amount of time with him, but from what I saw this guy is as happy as anybody. But like I said before, there are countless people here in Ethiopia with malformed legs. Tameru’s the only person I’ve seen walking on his hands. Tameru isn’t awesome because of his disability; he’s awesome because he’s Tameru.
A few of us tried to replicate his on-crutches handstands and failed miserably, but were encouraged by Tameru to try again. I tired so hard that I fell on my face. “Look, you just need this,” said Tameru as he guided my hand over his abdominal muscles that felt more like bricks. I asked him how many pull-ups he could do in one go without stopping and he said fifty. Tameru really has a different mentality on restrictions than most. When Tameru was a teenager an unlikely, but charitable operation restored a lot of function to his legs. Today, Tameru can walk unassisted, though there is an obvious lapse in his stride and a lot of atrophied muscle. He chooses to keep training on the crutches because it has become a passion in his life. That’s true acceptance.