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  • Writer's pictureAlasdair Bruce

The female surfers of Liberia

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

Irene, or 'The Butterfly' as she is known, with a board given to her by Provide the Slide

Since the Brylcreemed barnets of Michael Hynson and Robert August set foot on the hazy shores of Dakar in Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer, African surf has ensnared the imaginations of the international surfing community. More importantly, though, there has been a rebirth of surfing in Africa. Within this Afrosurf revival, there is a new age of African women gliding their way onto the board–shaped stage. In the small fishing town of Robertsport on the northern coast of Liberia, a gentle ripple started to spread from an unlikely source. Now, that ripple is being surfed by later generations of women who are carving out a future in the sport of surfing.

Through The Endless Summer's wayfarered lens, the trio perceived and depicted their wandering wave-riding as something the locals had never, indeed could never, even conceive of. Surfing in Africa was merely explorative; a destination for westerners to visit and surf virgin waves before stunned crowds of locals. Their depiction was never one in which the history of surfing on these shores reached far further back than it did in the United States.

But these myths, that “the people, of course, knew nothing about surfing,” as Brown narrated, have since been dispelled. In Afrosurf, a book by South African surf brand Mami Wata, Kevin Dawson, a professor of history at the University of California, notes that different forms of surfing were independently developed in West Africa long before it was first recorded in Polynesia. When Hynson and August first paddled out to Ngor Right in the 1960s, they were already 320 years late for the first registered account of surfing in Africa.

Within this revival, which is dropping in on popular narratives of surfing as an exclusively western culture, like those depicted in The Endless Summer, there are more and more women inspired to push back against cultural mores by taking to the water.

Male African surfers have been having their time in the sun for some years now. The enigmatic elegance, both on and off the board, of South Africa’s Mikey February has garnered a huge fanbase, while the towering Chérif Fall of Senegal is throwing his boonie in the ring to become the first surfer from sub-Saharan Africa to compete at the Olympics.

It is the women who have yet to break onto the world stage, but a number of role models, big and small, are defying social expectations to inspire the latest generation of female surfers on the continent.

Irene taught her cousin, right, to surf

The story of modern surfing in Liberia has a short history. It all started with one curious soul, Alfred Lomax, watching a figure darting across the surface of the water. In post-war Liberia, a tourist was an oddity, more so one frolicking atop a board in the waves. Nicholai Lidow, a Californian surfer, had arrived to investigate the rumours of Robertsport’s sandy-bottomed points that he'd heard during his time as a volunteer in neighbouring countries.

Lomax had been taking to the waves for some time. During the war, the rebels left the port unfenced and unguarded, allowing desperate civilians to loot whatever provisions they could find. In the dark cavern of a shipment container, Alfred pulled out something that all the others deemed to be useless: a bodyboard. When Lidow met Lomax in 2005, he was still surfing that now-battered bodyboard. Lidow taught Lomax to surf and left with him the equipment he needed to carry on his favourite sport; this time standing upright instead of lying down. Fast forward a few years and the passion for surfing had sure enough spread; there was now a handful of young surfers willing to share the limited equipment they had. But these new surfers were almost exclusively young men: fishermen who already have an ease in the waves that lap and crash and grate their jungle-fringed beaches.

In 2011, however, Philip Banini, one of Robertsport's earliest surfing trailblazers, joshed with his friend Esther Teah about getting her in the water. Esther would watch her friend Philip from the beach but didn’t dare enter the water. “Philip said ‘Esther, you think you can learn how to do surfing?’ I said, ‘No! Philip, I am too scared of the ocean.’ He really gave me a hard time, for being so scared of the water, like a brother and sister.”

Esther's younger sister Patience, right, is continuing her sister's legacy

It was all a joke until Philip secretly signed her up for Liberia’s annual surf competition: one of two women to enter and the only Liberian woman. But surfing was running; first, she had to learn how to walk. So he started teaching her how to swim. Then, once the protestations had subsided, to relax in the ocean. When he told her about the competition, a range of emotions kaleidoscoped across her face before settling into a fearfully determined scowl.

When the competition came around, there was a confused hush when Esther’s name was announced. No one had ever seen her surfing before; she and Philip had been practising in secret. He walked her to the water carrying the board she’d be using for the competition. “If you make a mistake, I will be here waiting,” he said with a broad grin before dropping the board into her arms and slapping her on the shoulders.

The first set of waves rose with the inhalation of the crowd. A moving spine of water was approaching; from her training, she could tell it was ridable, especially on her big board, and decided to go for it. She straightened out and paddled hard. She gathered speed before the wave took over: Esther was on the wave and now was the time to show the stunned crowd that she could surf, that the behind-closed-doors practice had paid off.

She staggered to one foot, her trailing knee remaining firmly fixed to the board and her hands steadying herself on the rails. Heading straight for the beach, the slack-jawed audience anticipating her next move, she remained in this uneasy lunge for ten long seconds, knuckles whitened in a fearful grip, before she finally wobbled off with a splash. She had done enough. The crowd loved it and she was crowned Liberia’s first-ever female surf champion. But Esther’s inspiring, Eddie the Eagle-esque splash not only won the hearts of the crowd, it sent a ripple that awoke something in the minds and hearts of some of the younger girls of Robertsport that whispered to them: you, too, can surf.

Robertsport is a small town on the northern coast of Liberia where a series of pristinely peeling left breaks adds to the resources that the ocean already offers this fishing community. In Liberia, surfing remains a very male-dominated sport. Fishermen here, who are almost always men, learn to swim at a young age and develop a familiarity with and respect for this stretch of the Atlantic that they grow up fishing. Robertsport’s women, because of cultural pressures to fulfil more traditional roles at home, don’t develop the same swimming skills and ease with the waves as the fishermen. So Esther started by teaching these young girls to swim.

Irene ‘The Butterfly’ George, nicknamed for her graceful movements along the wave, was one of those girls who started surfing around the time Esther teetered her way to victory in 2011. She used to play volleyball and football on the beach in front of Nana’s Lodge, a small resort in Robertsport perched between ocean and jungle. Irene always watched the surfers at Cottons point break just below but never thought it was a sport, or even a hobby, that she could participate in.

“I used to see people surfing, but the first thing I thought was that it was magic or something only the white guys can do, that it was a white people sport,” she said.

When a white American ex-pat, Elie Losleben, invited her to try out surfing, Irene dismissed the idea: “Surfing is only made for you guys. How will I learn this, I can’t even afford to own a board?”

Elie’s persistent encouragement was eventually enough to get Irene into the water and onto a board. Now, she is Liberia’s longest-active female surfer and has won the contest three times. By speaking on local radio stations, she uses the small platform she has, encouraging others with a simple message: surfing can be for them, too.

Waves for Change, a surf therapy charity, held a program in Robertsport last year, during which the girls took up leading roles

Seeing someone like you performing an act, like surfing, is for many a first step towards self-efficacy. We connect with people who look like us, who could be us. The importance of representation is leashed tightly to the ethos of Black Girls Surf, a US NGO that is working to undo the narrative that the waves are a playground reserved for white men. By working with black female surfers, the organisation is increasing the participation and visibility of black women at higher levels in the sport.

One of the consequences of increased participation is increased competition. “When it comes to female surfing [in Liberia], there was no competition and no one was really challenging. It was always ‘Butterfly, Butterfly, Butterfly’. But I want competition to keep me strong,” Irene said.

But in Liberia, a willingness to participate isn’t enough. A lack of access to boards and equipment remains one of the biggest hurdles aspiring and current surfers face. Irene was lucky to have been given her first board by Elie, but others haven’t been so fortunate. In step Provide the Slide, a Swiss NGO that does what it says on the tin: they collect boards (slides) across Europe and ship them to West African countries that are surf-rich but equipment-poor.

“If you look at Robertsport, Liberia you have all the parts of the puzzle for a perfect surfing destination. Just one piece of the puzzle is missing and that’s the surfboards, the leashes and a little bit of knowledge about how to repair the stuff. Once everything is there it goes quite smoothly and that’s the charming thing about PTS,” said Valentin Janda the head of conceptual development at PTS.

In providing slides, PTS is not only giving communities access to the sport, but also people within those communities. Naturally, there is a pecking order for who gets equipment and boards first, so when supply is limited there is less chance that women will get a look in. Since its inception two years ago, PTS has sent more than 80 board sets to the surfers of Robertsport so that the thriving and growing group of surfers can continue using the wavepool that is this portion of West Africa.

Each of the points juts out from the green jungle in a serrated edge softened by picturesque sandy beaches. On smaller days, the surfers can be seen bobbing just off of Cottons, a point named after the colossal cotton tree that was said to be the first landing point of Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts - the town’s namesake. Shouts of Kwephuna - literally “ocean”, a local call to indicate that there’s a big wave incoming - punctuate the normal chatter that surfers share at the take-off spot.

Irene hopes that the competition among the women will continue to grow at the annual surf contest

On bigger days, Outside Cottons starts to fire; a bigger wave with a slower and gentler embrace that can even join up with Cottons on the best of days, becoming one long ride of the kind that surfers often dream about. Sometimes, it sweeps for hundreds of metres across the bay to Fisherman’s break. There is no doubting that this is a world-class surfing destination made better by its off-the-beaten-track solitude and charm.

Tourists and guests can often be heard saying that the locals have no idea how lucky they are. It’s a strange thing to hear when you see that fishing, a respectable profession in the community, is one of the only viable sources of income in a remote town in one of the poorest countries in the world. But in terms of surfing, it’s a valid point; one that the local surfers have started to see and intend to take advantage of.

A group of these surfers approached a Canadian NGO called Universal Outreach Foundation with a proposal to build surf tourism in Robertsport. Kent Bubbs Jr. and Landis Wyatt of UOF, also both surfers who have visited Robertsport for 15 years, understand the untapped potential that such an industry could hold for the young surfers of this community, not only as an alternative to fishing, but also in helping future generations of surfers improve through exposure and potentially even realise their dreams of going pro.

Four of these surfers, including Irene and Esther, were sponsored to attend hospitality school in Monrovia. Their skills are now put to use in the surf club’s facilities that were funded by UOF and a group of fundraisers including PTS. While this is not the career associated with surfing that someone might dream up when they first pick up a board, it’s one that they are wholly embracing and prepared to work hard for.

Now the 60-strong pod of surfers has a growing group of girls to galvanise those looking up to them and keep the water churning on this revival. These girls have taken on a leading role in the effort for Liberia to share with the world of surfing its unique offerings. Who knows, the Afrosurf revolution could usher in a start to African women being represented on the world stage of surfing; more butterflies gracefully flitting their way into a sport no longer the domain of white men.


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