First touch of sea on bare skin last night as the moon came up and the sunlight bled into the water, sharing a few two-footers with a female dominated line-up; Ruthie aged 17, arguably Tupira and one of PNG’s best young female surfers, her twin sister Florence and elder sister Gladis on surfboards with bright pink noses taking advantage of the quiet line-up, along with local pikinini and super-grom Jaywai, slotted in the curl and skimming the reef on every wave. The next morning Stephanie joins me for a coffee after a breakfast. Her and Ruthie are the most long-term and dedicated local surfer girls. Now in her early 20s Stephanie first started in grade 6, 10 years ago. Over the next few days Stephanie brainstorms on her idea for a ‘Meris training day’ with me and after pitching it to Nicki, the camp manager, colourful fliers are printed to spread the word for Saturday’s session among the local villages. Steph explains that she surfs because its gives her “another reality, new experiences, even if its scary you learn you can survive.” - Notes, January 2016.
In January 2015, I was invited to visit Papua New Guinea by the Surfing Association of PNG in my capacity as a surfer, independent scholar and director of Waves of Freedom to observe the official launch of their ‘Pink Nose (R)evolution (PNR). PNR is an initiative that uses surfing as platform to open space for awareness and dialogue around deeper social issues of gender inequality and violence against women in a non-confrontational and novel way.
It started when President of the Surfing Association of PNG, Andy Abel, decided to paint the noses of half of all donated surfboards pink - marking them for female surfers and then divided equally amongst the nation’s surf clubs as a way to give female surfers equal access to surfing. Since, it has become both a symbolic and practical tool for Papua New Guinean women in the surf and beyond the ‘line-up’ back ashore. Parallels could be drawn with the Pink Ribbon campaign as a tool to raise awareness about breast cancer or the white ribbon to break the taboo and culture of silence that surrounds mental illness, and before that the AIDS campaign. However, unlike most of these campaigns, PNR turns the ‘development agenda’ on its head by offering ‘first world’ nations a powerful impact-model for change in addressing deep-rooted global, social issues from a ‘third world’ nation.
For my return in January 2016, the intention was to show up, be present, let the unfolding happen, gently build relationship, listen deeply, observe what arises and the subtlety of human interaction. And to understand women’s experiences of the impact and benefit of surfing from their point of view.
The first Saturday surf session of the season, spear-headed by Stephanie and Ruthie, far exceeded expectations with with 30- 40 women and girls, young and old, mothers and children, from the surrounding surf management area (extending miles from Sauru in the North and Tavulte to the South). The event served to reinforce and give life to the Pink Nose philosophy and bring together the neighbouring communities as well as providing a platform for some of the younger surfers to step up and develop their own leadership style and skills by sharing their knowledge and experience of the sea and surfing with newcomers. It also privileges the position of women in the line-up/community/village, for that day at least. Rose, a self-proclaimed ‘surfing mum’ from Tavulte village explains how the pink nose surfboards make a difference:
It’s really making a difference between female surfers and male surfers. In the past, we go around arguing and having conflicts about what boards to take. When the boards are painted pink, that’s the difference - the girls have chance to go out and surf.
The impact beyond Tupira and its surf management area is harder to gauge; how much is the pink nose policy enforced without strong leadership? Responses to the actual impact seem mixed. Symbolically and conceptually it is a simple yet powerful tool, and it is encouraging an attitudinal shift in certain domains of life. According to Chief Justice Nicholas Kirriwom and patron of TSC, it seems especially impactful in terms of raising awareness and providing a stronger platform for women to contribute to decision-making at the village meetings. Although it improves accessibility and sense of ownership for some female surfers, it doesn’t for all women. Painting the nose of surfboards pink will not lead to equality or liberation for women without greater structural changes in other spheres of life and a wider network of support services allowing women greater time-freedom and autonomy to be able surf. Leadership and encouraging women in positions of leadership are also key:
I like keeping the emotions and motivations of the girls up. Sometimes I’ll be busy with my kids and all the work but I encourage them to surf more, more, more. For me I’m a mother as well, but on the other hand, I must be the first mother to surf. I’ll be the one who guides female surfers out in the water while others are at school. This is my duty, to teach others. - Rose, Tupira, January 2016.
TSC are doing this through investing profits from the community-owned and operated surf camp, in education, training courses in tourism and hospitality for young women, provision of health care and services, etc. and most recently, traditional timber surfboard shaping workshops (with the master craftsman himself, Tom Wegener).
In this way, surfing is the tool or medium through which change is enacted:
Surfing itself is good, we have fun but through surfing we can make change in the community. Through surfing I see that change is coming - through education, the child early learning centre, we have many things, the stationary, small stuff like t-shirts and clothes.
Ultimately, its about how we might embody the unique qualities that can be found at the heart of surfing, leading to a greater sense of self-autonomy and awareness:
One more big thing about surfing - Surfing really is a work-out for your brain and how you focus. It’s about how you see what you are doing and you make change for yourself, and keep improving. - Rose aka PNG ‘surfer mum’.
Next: Deeper dive into the PNG ‘surfer’s way’, surfing through the senses. And where to from here? The SAPNG x WoF vision, led by Andy Abel, taking the pink nose initiative onto the global stage!
"Special Thanks to PNG Tourism Authority, Tupira Surf Club and Surfing Association of PNG for generously hosting me."