Yu sabi surf? Girl’s empowerment through surfing in Sierra Leone
“Yu sabi surf?” I am asked by a wiry, self-assured teenage girl. Krio, the lingua franca used by over 3 million in Sierra Leone, is not my mother tongue but this sentence was easy to understand – Do you know how to surf? The bikini-clad girl did not stick around for my answer, but flashed me a white-toothed smile and swaggered jauntily towards her peers.
‘Yu sabi surf?’ is a simple question but one charged with significance in Sierra Leone’s context. The coastal country is no stranger to tragedy, one of the only constants in Sierra Leone in the past thirty years has been impermanence. The ephemerality of life highlighted by the bloodshed of the civil war that ended in 2002 and the Ebola crisis that affected, and heartbreakingly killed, thousands in 2014-15. The ocean rollers that swell and break on the beaches of the Western Peninsula have continued to rise and fall throughout these events, perhaps symbolising the spirit of one of the most resilient nations on Earth. A nation of transience but persistence. Those that ‘sabi’ the sea, that really know how to ride its waves, are few. Scarcer still are women. Kadiatu Kamara, KK, self-declared as the only female surfer in Sierra Leone, and her little group of girl learners are rare indeed.
KK is as mentally tough as she is physically strong, she is an accomplished surfer with hopes of one day representing her country internationally. The strong rip currents of Bureh Beach, where Sierra Leone’s only Surf Club is based, are a gritty learning ground for surfers. Bureh is a small fishing village a couple of hours away from the capital city of Freetown. It was founded by community members to increase tourism by offering surf lessons, board rentals and hospitality. KK is the only woman surfing out of the club. For her Bureh is home. She lives with her mother, who supports her surfing, she says it makes her proud. KK ekes out a living in this small coastal community. Last year, still only in her early twenties, KK decided to set up a surfing group for young girls. She hopes that soon she won’t be the only woman surfing:
“My wish and my dream is to one day see girls coming from different places in Sierra Leone to learn. If they come, I will teach them. I am trying to build up female surfers. At the moment we are only eight in number, but we can be more.”
It is not easy for KK to nurture her dreams in Sierra Leone, the fragile tourist industry was badly damaged by Ebola. Tourists that had started to hesitantly return to the shores of the fondly nick-named ‘Salone’ prior to the deadly outbreak were scared away, Ebola casts a long shadow. However, KK epitomises the kind of stubborn determination of a nation that refuses to be beaten into submission, and her quiet but steely resolve to improve life for the girls of Bureh is evident not only through her words but through her actions. Surf lessons twice a week, and time with the girls to provide them with food, encouragement and sisterhood. KK’s little group of girls and teenagers are nearly all from very poor families, and without exception say they love being part of the group as it makes them feel happy, strong and brave.
The little surf group does not have the best equipment, relying on old boards and kit donated years before, and it does not have the best facilities, but it makes up for it with a genuine sense of community. Surfing provides the girls not only with a sport to learn but with a very real sense of kinship and acceptance.
KK hopes that others will recognise how important it is for girls to be encouraged this way and that she will be able to receive outside help so that she can grow her surf club to reach more young women. “I have plenty of dreams. Plenty. War is gone. Ebola is gone. Sierra Leone is good now. Now is the time for us.” KK acts not only as a role model for the girls, but as an ambassador for surfing in the country and beyond, black women still unrepresented globally in the sport. She said, “When I see the sea I want to compete. I want to be there learning new tricks. I want to represent Sierra Leone as a female surfer and I want other girls to get that chance too.”
Sierra Leone is perhaps not the first place people think of when they think of surfing, but KK and the girls of Bureh Beach are hoping to put the nation on the map and make their country famous for more than its tragedies. They hope that the question, ‘Yu sabi surf?’ will be one that comes more often than not with a resounding ‘yes’ as the answer from other women. They hope that the waves they ride will not only be the ones nature provides, but waves of positive change for their country too.
Find out more about KK and other inspiring girl/women surfers from Africa and the African diaspora on Instagram by following @blackgirlsurf. If you represent a surf company or sports finder interested in knowing me let me know and I can put you in touch with this worthy work in Sierra Leone.