Tamiru Zegeye stiffens his torso and swings his legs into the air with balletic grace. He is upside down now, his body balanced on a pair of spindly medical crutches, and then he runs. Legs in the air, hands placed firmly on the crutch supports, breathing steady, Tamiru runs; not with careless abandon, but with the precision, focus, and joy of a man who crawled for the first 15 years of his life.
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Last weekend, a small crowd at the national stadium in Addis Ababa watched Tamiru run 76 metres in one minute in an attempt to set the Guinness world record for the longest distance travelled whilst balanced upside down, on a pair of crutches. The record is yet to be confirmed, but for Tamiru the attempt is a milestone in an extraordinary journey.
Tamiru Zegeye was born in 1983 in a village in Welo in northern Ethiopia, not far from the famous rock-cut churches of Lalibela. His mother worked as a maid and his father, who came from a wealthy family, was married to another woman when Tamiru was born. The scandal of Tamiru’s birth soon turned to tragedy when his mother realised that his legs were deformed. Both families rejected him.
“They said ‘he is disabled, he is the devil’,” said Tamiru, adding that his maternal grandmother tried to kill him, “Only my [paternal] grandfather said, ‘he is just a human, he is created by god’.” So the child was named Fekadu, or “the will of God”. Young Fekadu was abandoned by his mother almost immediately but his grandfather took him in and sent him to an orthodox Christian school, where he was baptised as “Tamiru” or “Miracle”.
As a child, Tamiru loved to play but was often teased and discriminated against because he couldn’t walk. “I moved just like a snake,” he said. Then one day his grandfather got him a horse. “The children would say you are disabled and abuse me. I would insult them back and ride off on my horse,” he said, “I felt like I had four legs, it was very nice.” Eventually, the town people convinced his grandfather that it wasn’t correct for a disabled child to ride a horse, so the animal was taken away and Tamiru sent back to religious school.
For the next several years, he moved from place to place — sometimes crawling, sometimes hitching a ride from passersby. His misshapen feet meant that he couldn’t balance on crutches, so he pulled himself along with his hands, dragging his lower body behind him. At one point, his left leg was struck by an infection so severe that doctors advised him to have it amputated.
“I cried to god, I asked him why he was doing all this to me”, Tamiru recalled. “I just took all kinds of leaves and plants, ground them and applied them to my leg. I don’t know which plants worked” but the infection abated.
In the late 1990s, Tamiru found himself working as a shoeshine boy in the tourist town of Lalibela. He polished shoes and sometimes, to amuse a crowd, flipped himself up on his hands and walked short distances — a trick that earned him some money. He was only 15, but he was living by himself and sleeping rough.
“Disabled people never have a positive attitude because normal people discriminate against them. I was a very bad guy when I was 15-16 years old, because people insulted me,” Timaru said.
One day he was spotted on the street by a visiting American surgeon who offered to have him treated at a hospital in Addis Ababa. The town folk cobbled together some money and put him on the next flight to the national capital.
Fourteen years and nine operations later, Timaru can now walk unassisted over short distances, and is completely at home on crutches. He put himself through school and earned diplomas in tourism and information technology, but now works for an Ethiopian circus where he does a number of tricks including a handstand on a tightrope. His incredible upper-body and core strength allows him to balance his body in seemingly untenable positions for long periods.
This fall, he heads to Sweden to add to his repertoire of tricks.