Access to the ocean, surfing, and stoke along the South African coast is not as easy for everyone as you might assume, considering the wealth of beautiful waves and long history of coastal communities. In Nqileni, a small village which sits on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean, a local NPO is changing that by creating safe spaces on their local beach. Introducing: Thatha iLiza.
Thatha iLiza’s base camp is on the aptly named Wild Coast of South Africa. The setting is idyllic, the atmosphere relaxed, and the children playful; this doesn’t mean the programme is anything less than a high-quality and evidence-informed health service to the community – rather, these are intentional core ingredients of a programme designed to boost health and well-being.
Thatha iLiza means ‘take a wave’ in isiXhosa. The project is part of the Bulunugla Incubator (BI), a highly acclaimed South African NPO with a strong focus on being community-led.
The programme was started in 2019 by Ryan Banks in response to water safety issues in the village and to promote environmental awareness through surfing and beach activities.
As the programme grew, the objectives evolved, explains Ryan. With the growth in surf therapy and mental health awareness, we expanded our objectives to include teaching mental health techniques and skills as one of the main outcomes of our sessions with children.
Once everyone has pulled on a suit, the team heads to the edge of the lagoon mouth. Older children and coaches help the younger surfers either swim or paddle their boards across the lagoon mouth, to the protection of the long, golden beach on the far side. Every session starts with a warm-up run before participants gather in a large circle to check-in with each other. For many children, articulating feelings is a new experience – almost as new as surfing. The ritual of the routine of checking in, and the attention from their caring coaches and peers, helps them relax into this new practice.
In spaces and experiences often associated with learning something new, risk, and fear (including the vulnerability of sharing feelings), the role of the coaches, Samora Dodwana and Dali Maleyile, is paramount.
Ryan initially ran the sessions himself.
For the programme to take on a more meaningful role where participants were effectively engaged in (their) mental health, a clear line of communication was required.
Ryan describes how this meant the programme needed coaches with clear skills in communication and leadership, but also compassion and empathy.
Samora and Dali fill these roles with amazing confidence. They both create a space that is safe and comfortable for all involved.
The ability of the coaches to make participants feels safe – emotionally and physically – is key to the success of the programme. K*, one of the Thatha iLiza participants, isn’t sure he would surf without his coaches. “The coaches make me feel so good. I am often late because my school finishes later than the others and I must walk here from quite far. They always welcome me even though I am late, and always help me and cheer me on. They look after me. I wouldn’t surf or swim alone, I’m too scared, but when they’re there then you can’t stop me from going in the water.”
The Sharing of Resources and Tools through Partnership
Before Sam and Dali started coaching, only participants who developed a strong passion for surfing would attend. Then Waves for Change shared, through the Wave Alliance, some of the tools and understanding to include mental wellness in the programme with the team. A change in attendance was sparked by the combination of local coaches and an intentional focus on well-being.
Attendance and enthusiasm has boomed. Rain or shine, we have the programme running at full capacity. Significantly, we have a number of participants who aren’t yet comfortable in water. They join us for the mindfulness and other aspects of the programme. I believe this is because of the inclusive and supportive atmosphere that Dali and Samora have created. They’ve honed their delivery of the Waves for Change curriculum and practices to ensure a safe space where everyone learns coping skills for stress and self-regulation of their behaviour, including beyond the programme.
It really feels like I can make a mark in my community as someone who can help or acknowledge the youth, says Dali. Sam expands on this: Most importantly I am creating a safe space, building mental strength, and creating awareness about looking out for each other within the team.
Ryan explains, “For me, seeing the passion with which Dali and Samora care for each participant, and the impact of this, has been deeply moving. It has made me see the importance of delivering a programme that is not only about having fun in the water, but also about creating a space that is comfortable and supportive.”
Ryan and Sam both attended a Wave Alliance workshop in October 2020 where they could contribute and learn from a growing network of community-focused surf therapy programmes based along the South African coast and globally.
Ryan describes how skills taught through the curriculum have helped him understand the importance of mental health. He believes these skills should be shared with as many people as possible, in particular with youth, who live in an increasingly complex and stress-filled context. “The topic of mental health and maintaining one’s mental health is often neglected, particularly in under-resourced regions like the Wild Coast. Practices such as surf therapy balance this out by promoting good mental health and teaching skills necessary to do so in an accessible and effective manner.”
Before heading into the water, everyone – even those who have chosen not to surf or swim – line up on the beach and check the conditions, with a focus on wind, waves, and currents.
I used to be uncomfortable in the water, says Sam, but now ever since I started surfing, I started feeling safe and brave. I’m comfortable and getting to know the ocean very well… before, surfing wasn’t common here and we don’t have any local surfers.
K* echoes the challenges around trying something you haven’t ever witnessed. “I first saw surfing in a movie, not in any of the places I lived. I remember thinking it looked so exciting… then my mom told me there is surfing here in the village, and I moved here to this high school so I can work hard but also so I can surf!
The community’s relationship with the sea mostly centres on income and sustenance, and often involves fear and risk. “We were using the sea for fishing and swimming, but there was often drowning” explains Dali. “At the moment we are trying our best to educate more people about the sea – especially our youngsters.”
“Some of the older people in my community… if they knew I surfed, they would be worried” says K*. “Because they think the water is dangerous, and because they believe the water spirits will take me. For me, I respect the elders but I’m not worried, and I love surfing more than I feel scared.”
The Challenges of Cultural Norms and Local Beliefs
The Thatha iLiza team knows the programme is benefitting the local community, not only in water safety and changing attitudes, but beyond the surf sessions. Participants develop a sense of enjoyment, ownership and responsibility “by getting to know their beach, by being able to identify the dangerous spots and the safe spots, and also doing something different and relaxing on the beach in their free time” explain Sam and Dali.
The team is especially stoked to have more girls in the programme. Today, there are two new girls, who have been warmly greeted and welcomed.
Bringing girls in is a mountain to climb because they don’t believe surfing is sport for girls says Sam. Even I didn’t think one day I would surf, because I thought surfing is for white people and it wasn’t happening for years here. So it’s a new thing to everyone, but we are doing our best to get them in.
Cultural norms and local beliefs, and access to resources, are the biggest challenges the programme faces. Despite this, the group has grown so much that the team is starting to plan how they can safely expand because they can’t face turning any new children away.
“We’re growing” says K* excitedly. “For some of the children, it’s hard, because other children pressure them not to come. They say surfing is for white people, who do you think you are? But the more of us that surf the easier it is to not listen to the peer pressure. The more of us that surf, the more of that can surf!”
The team is equally excited to have more locals safely experiencing the stoke.
On a micro level, I would love to see the Thatha iLiza programme gain more momentum says Ryan. We are trying different ways to increase contact time and reach in the programme. On a macro level I would love to see the Thatha iLiza programme expand to more communities along the Wild Coast region. There is no shortage of amazing waves along the Wild Coast, where surfing and surf therapy can be used to promote mental wellness and water safety.
At the end of the session, everyone makes the return journey to the lodge, across the rising lagoon under the glow of the setting sun. Despite the dimming light and chill in the air, the happiness levels are high, and smiles are wide. “I’m lucky that I tried lots of different sports” says K*. “Surfing though… I can’t explain it. It’s more than being good at it or not. It’s how it makes me feel. It’s so extreme and exciting, and it’s also very peaceful, all at the same time.”