Liberian surf therapy brings the stoke to Robertsport

Locally-led safe spaces using surf and social connections to boost well-being support mental, emotional, and physical health. We’re excited to be supporting the growth of these essential services through our partnerships work – a rising tide lifts all boats. 

Over the last two weeks, Waves for Change Liberia have – alongside W4C Partnerships Manager Ash Heese, from SA – trained 15 passionate local surfers in Robertsport, Liberia to build their own surf therapy service using the W4C 5 Pillar method.

The post workshop celebration

The W4C Liberia team were invited by the Universal Outreach Foundation, after seeing the programme in action in Harper and Monrovia. UOF supports holistic, locally-led community development, and is partnered with the Grand Capemount County Surf Association to develop a burgeoning surf tourism industry (surfing is considered one of the leading contributors to Liberian tourism, with Robertsport’s endless left-hand point-breaks placing it at the forefront). As part of this development, and in recognition of surfing’s popularity with Robertsport children, UOF felt this was the perfect opportunity to introduce surf therapy to the local population. Mami Wata, who are committed to supporting the growth of both African surf therapy and “Afrosurfonomics”, are raising funds to support the costs of the training as part of their investment in the Liberian surf community, while Provide the Slide have donated a range of surfboards for the club.

The Waves for Change Liberia Team

Waves for Change Liberia is a locally-run Waves for Change partner based in Harper, which has grown the local surf population from none to over 150 since starting in 2017, while providing an essential mental-health service and youth employment. The W4C Liberia team included Harper Slider’s Heroine Alice; Mr Ross, country manager; and Max, a former W4C participant-turned-coach (who is now training future surf therapy coaches).

Surf Therapy in action

 “I feel so happy about the training!” shared Max, who volunteered as a coach for a year after graduating from the surf club programme.

I was a student, and now I’m a teacher. Alice always told me if I pay attention, I will benefit from W4C. And exactly what she said, it came to pass. As a participant, I spent my time, my effort with Waves for Change – sometimes walking very far after school to be there. I knew I wanted to be a coach, so I had the courage to be a volunteer, because it would help me to become who I am now. And now, look where I am – even further than I imagined!

This is Max and Alice’s first experience training other organisations, and they’re excited about the potential of partnerships and collaboration to help grow mental health services in Liberia. “We are helping them to help themselves, and to bring up others. I’m not just impacting these 15 people; I’m impacting others – their family, their friends, their surf community, their future participants – through them. It feels amazing!” exclaims Alice with her characteristic enthusiasm and bright smile (which is considered one of the many reasons children attend the programme so regularly).

W4C participant-turned-coach, Max, supports the local coaches

The workshop focuses on building a shared, stigma-free understanding of mental health and well-being, recognising universal well-being needs and the impact on our health, behaviours, and community cohesion if those needs are met or unmet. The team uses this understanding, and protective factors such as connections with a caring adult, to create conditions which improve self-regulation and social connections which are key to well-being in youth.

Max has first-hand experience in the life-changing impact of a caring coach. He says it was caring adults like Alice who helped to change his behaviour, from “on the wrong path” to becoming a caring mentor himself.

Each time I left school and arrived at the programme, and the coaches embraced us, it made me feel valued. I felt cherished and celebrated. I thought, wow oh, I used to think I would not be anyone, but whenever I am here, I am someone. I think maybe I have value. I started to recognise what they see in me.

“We’re really excited by this training. It is exactly what we hoped for and what is needed for the club and the youth of Robertsport: they now have skills, knowledge, and tools the club can use as a group and individuals to address many of the emotional challenges faced by youth and young adults today. Everyone wants this club, community, and surf industry to develop in a healthy way, and the W4C training will help make that happen” shared Kent, co-founder of UOF.

I was the first surfer in Robertsport” shared local surf legend, Alfred Lomax. “I was all alone. I had just one surfboard. But I knew how surfing made me feel, and I had to share it. So, I called some people, and we shared my one surfboard… and now, there are so many of us out there. We are growing so fast. This training will help us to keep sharing in a stronger way, so we are sharing more than just a surfboard.

Taking 5, to feel calm and connected

The Mami Wata Collaboration

Both surfing and mental health are often dominated by Western narratives and approaches. All the partners involved share a recognition that this project is an opportunity to support locally-led, locally-relevant solutions which celebrate African innovation and people. “Our mission at Mami Wata is to be a creative force for good in Africa” shares Mami Wata co-founder Nick Dutton.

Surfing has a huge opportunity to play in African social and economic development. Part of that is helping people globally understand that African surf culture is original with its own history and stories, not just a Western ‘Californian’ sport that Africa is adopting.

Co-founder, Nick Dutton

Andy Davis, his fellow co-founder, agrees: “The history of surfing is complex and misunderstood, and because of legacies like Colonialism and racism, we tend to think of surfing as a counter-culture commercial lifestyle born in the 1950s in California and Australia and originally inspired by native Hawaiians. When in actual fact the truth is a lot more complex… The potential of surfing in Africa, the most vast, resource abundant continent in the world (which is) perfectly positioned to receive breaking waves along a vast 30 500 kilometre coastline – you can be sure that it’s going to be massive. And it’s going to impact and influence everything.

Mami Wata sees investing in surf therapy as fundamental to Afrosurfonomics.

Surf therapy is really the cornerstone that the idea of surf-inspired growth and development in Africa and beyond, is built on. Surf therapy strengthens communities centred around personal well-being and happiness, which is complimented by the life-changing inspiration we surfers derive from our connection to the ocean. This creates the perfect platform for further programs and initiatives that can address the more complex social and economic needs of the community.

Fellow Co-Founder, Andy Davis

The collaboration is a strong affirmation of the work W4C Liberia has done to date. It is a fantastic opportunity for the team to contribute to a growing Liberian network and develop in-country facilitation skills and confidence. It also allows the team to align to the W4C strategy to scale access to mental health promotion sport programmes through training and partnerships, with 30+ partners in 13 countries to date. This is aligned to the World Health Organisation’s recommendations that there needs to be range of responses to global mental health treatment gaps, including accessible and locally-relevant informal services that are low cost and easily scalable. The W4C Liberia team now have the skills to seek and respond to other opportunities to grow mental health services in the region.

“My hope for W4C Liberia is that it will grow wide and strong” says Alice, spreading her arms out wide as if she is embracing the whole country. “I want people to know they can rely on us. I want the government and society to know we have a good service to offer and that they can use us for good. I wish that if people are feeling things are difficult, they know they can come to W4C, and we can help them.”

Mami Wata has created a limited edition ‘Robertsport Surf Club’ collection to raise the funds to establish the program. The range, available online and in-store, is all proudly made in Africa. Help us to make it happen!