Story by LuAnne Cadd. Photos by Waves for Change.
In Liberia, finding hope can be an illusive dream for a population that has suffered unimaginable trauma, from an extremely brutal civil war to the recent Ebola crisis that brought profound fear and widespread death. Add poverty and crime to the mix and it’s no surprise that many people, particularly late teens and young adults, feel lost, depressed, and hopeless. One organization is preparing to address these issues through surfing.
Tim Conibear founded the organization Waves for Change in South Africa in 2011 for kids in some of the roughest townships in the eastern Cape, teaching them how to overcome fear and stress, how to deal with the troubles in their lives, and give them hope – all through learning the skills of surfing in a year-long program. It grew from five kids, a car, and some surfboards to 18 coaches and 250 children by 2016. Now, for the first time, the program is expanding outside of South Africa to Liberia.
After eight months of preparation via emails, Tim and his partner, Matt Mattila, made the trip to Liberia in the second week of February, to meet with their contacts at Tubman University in Harper, where the program will be implemented. Harper sits at the southern-most corner of the country on the Atlantic Ocean offering the necessary water, plus a university with students from the Peer Counseling program who will train as coaches.
“We flew from Cape Town to Monrovia, which took forever,” Tim describes. “In Monrovia we spent some time meeting with the Minister of Youth and Sports, then flew with MAF down to Harper. The other option was a 17-hour car drive, which we just didn’t have the time for.” In the rainy season that same drive can take days as the road turns to a muddy mess, often becoming impassable.
The South African Waves for Change program targets children from 11 to 14 years of age, but in Liberia it will be 15 to 20 year-olds. “We thought in Harper there’s a more acute need for the older age group because they’re growing up closer to the conflict and they’ve been more consciously aware of what the country has gone through with the Ebola crisis,” explains Tim. “Also, purely from a start point, the older kids are a lot stronger in the water. So just to prevent any issues, we said let’s start with older children who are more strong and water-safe.”
Many Liberians who live near the ocean don’t know how to swim due to a fear of evil spirits in the water that they believe will attempt to pull them under. Combating this fear by teaching them to swim, and water safety will be the first step, starting with the coaches and then the students. “The water traditionally is a scary place to go,” Tim says. “There’s a fishing community, but I thought in Harper it would be a much bigger pastime. Selling fish is a very easy resource, yet there are so few people doing that. We’ve had to do about eight months of work to convince the community that it’s OK for this program to take place, and they’re still very anxious. Sylvestine Gbessagee, the head of the counseling department, and all our contacts at Tubman University have actually facilitated that process. They’ve said ‘Look, this program is coming, and we’re going to make sure it’s safe.’”
Tim had to leave Liberia earlier than planned to fly to Monaco to accept the Laureus Sport for Good award, but was fortunate to get on the MAF flight from Harper to Monrovia at the last minute when a doctor and his wife graciously gave up their seats on the fully booked flight. “A lot of people in Harper knew I had planned to go back to Monrovia by car because the MAF flight was full, and pretty much everyone came up to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry!’ They advised that I take Dramamine pills because I would throw up. It’s 17 hours that feels like being in a box and being shaken.” Waves for Change plans to use MAF whenever they need to travel within the country.
“It’s really exciting because this is the first time the program has really been out of Cape Town area,” Tim says. “We were really interested to come to Liberia because it’s such a challenging place to work. So we want to pressure-test the model and see if it can be done here, and then basically it can be done anywhere with a coastline. It’s been an adventure.”
With 20 surfboards recently delivered to Harper, and coaches in training, the program is on its way toward bringing waves of change to kids who desperately need hope.