In addressing a room full of faces old a new, it was more than apparent that the majority of us knew what a positive relationship with the sea promotes. After years of working with the South African NPO, Waves For Change, we locked in 5 consecutive dates with co-founders Tim Conibear and Apish Tshetsha to tour their well studied and well designed Surf Therapy programme - one which has to date connected over 5,000 local children to the immense power of the oceans.
With their growing Wave Alliance initiative, W4C continue to bring evidence-based Surf Therapy programmes to coastal communities across South Africa and beyond, creating safe spaces for those in great need of them. How exactly they do this, we'll let the experts speak of below.
Waves for Change was founded in 2011. Our story is fairly simple. I came to South Africa in 2008, initially to pursue a career in the wine industry and then as a tour guide with Ticket to Ride. I’d been to South Africa in 1995 as part of a school trip. Returning in 2008 as a passionate, if very amateur surfer, I was surprised to see a lot of the challenges I’d seen in 1995 still existed. Though Apartheid had ended its legacy was still visible. Paddling out at Muizenberg beach I’d see very few faces of colour in the water. It felt uncomfortable but something that could easily be addressed. The will was there, we just needed a way.
I met Apish Tshetsha on the football pitches of Masiphumelele township, where I’d often play football and get involved in local building projects. Apish had grown up in Masi and was well known for his passion for youth and his community. He was a natural leader. Calm, gentle and compassionate but uncompromising when it came to advancing the lot of his community – founded by migrant workers who forged temporary homes in the forest and now home to 60,000 people.
We’d surf on weekends mostly, taking along all who were keen. Initially we were 5-6 people crammed in a car. Soon there’d be 30-40 people waiting on the pavements outside Masi, desperate to get in the water. Apish was unemployed so gradually we raised funds so he could also run sessions in the week. Soon, Masi had a budding surf scene, founded and sustained by the community. Unique in many ways.
"We were connecting communities with the ocean. We were giving people access to spaces to share, to be heard. We knew it was therapeutic in a way, but didn’t dare name it. We weren’t clinicians. But we pressed on regardless."
It was obvious that the game changer was Apish. He knew the community, knew the culture and was respected in his community. The kids flooded to Apish as he became Masi’s first surf mentor. My role, and indeed the role of Waves for Change today, was to train Apish with the soft skills he needed to work with children experiencing mental health challenges.
Each week I’d ask the surfers ‘why do you come’. Most of the replies were as I expected. ‘It’s fun’, ‘It’s new’, ‘It’s exciting’. But the answer I wasn’t expecting, and the one answer I got from every single surfer, was this ‘We get to talk to people who listen to us’. The more I came to understand South Africa, the more it became apparent that young people here live exceptionally stressful lives. And there are no outlets. The statistics are mind-boggling. Estimates in Cape Town are that 1/3 of young people are living with a mental health challenge. Primary health services for mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression are almost non-existent and certainly out of reach of the most vulnerable in a land of private health care and under-resourced government clinics and hospitals. There is one social worker to every twenty thousand young people.
And yet here at the beach we were establishing a simple dynamic. A safe space where we could have fun, get to know one and other and share our problems. Safe spaces being created by people like Apish - influential figures in their communities who could navigate the cultural and social challenges to which I was ignorant. And under the leadership of these surf mentors, we were in a small way overcoming the legacy of beach apartheid. Overcoming some of the challenges of overstretched primary health care services. We were connecting communities with the ocean. We were giving people access to spaces to share, to be heard. We knew it was therapeutic in a way, but didn’t dare name it. We weren’t clinicians. But we pressed on regardless.
Today, Waves for Change trains and supports 65 Surf Mentors across South Africa and Liberia. They connect 1,700 children to the water every week. They combine surfing with games and activities we’ve designed with psychologists, proven to help young people cope with stress. And we’ve partnered with research organisations to establish that yes, this is therapeutic, and that the term 'Surf Therapy' isn’t a stretch. We can use it with confidence. We are also sharing our method with more and more organisations around the world. Far from keeping our method behind lock and key, we are open sourcing it with ocean-side organisations who want to connect their communities with the healing power of the Ocean. Called ‘The Wave Alliance’, it’s an incubator for start-up Surf Therapy projects. We’ve helped 11 organisations in countries such as Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Trinidad launch programmes. By the end of this year that number will be just over 20. It’s a movement we hope to sustain as long as we can and is proudly supported by Comic Relief and the Swedish Postcode Lotto.
It’s been a privilege sharing our journey with Finisterre and their community over the past weeks. We’re looking forward to sharing more stories from the beaches over the coming months and years.
Our vision is an ocean for everyone. We’re stoked to be getting more and more communities connected to the ocean, under the leadership of more and more local champions, like Apish.
When we first started surfing in Masi, there was a lot of fear about the ocean. In South Africa we have a number of different cultural groups. I am part of the Xhosa community, a tribe from the Eastern Cape. In Xhosa tradition we believe in our ancestors. Our forefathers who have passed away and now live in the Ocean. If we enter the ocean having done something wrong we risk angering the ancestors and never returning. Some of our clans also have associations with the ocean, and twins for example can’t enter the ocean without first receiving the permission of the ancestors. Before they enter the water, they will throw in a two rand coin.
I remember those first surfing sessions. There was a lot of excitement, but also a lot of fear. Parents were concerned about their children going to the ocean and said I was responsible for anything that happened. At first I doubted, but the reaction to surfing was so strong. It was so fun, we bonded so quickly, and we saw a change in the surfers. They became calmer, more social. And their parents and teachers saw this too.
"Our youth are powerful. They just need a platform to express themselves. We know the solutions to the problems we face. We just need the training and support to face and overcome them. This is what we are doing at Waves for Change."
At first we were few. Just a handful of surfers. Today, the surfing community in Masiphumelele is over 250. There’s been a big change. We used to think surfing was for white people. But in Masi, we know that surfing is for everyone. And at Muizenberg, where we surf, we are welcome by everyone. We’ve met so many new people and our community is growing and growing.
Some of those children that surfed with me back in 2008 and now the coaches of today. It’s them who are running the sessions, creating the safe space for the next generation. My role is to train them. For the surfers that have come through the programmes with us, many are now lifeguards and work on the beaches in summer. We never had lifeguards from Masiphumelele. Now we have many. Some work in surf schools at Muizenberg beach even. Surfing is making our community wider. And in Masi, we have the teachers, the parents and the social workers asking to refer children into Waves for Change. Even some of the local hospitals and schools for children with Autism are now referring children to our beach programmes. They have seen the difference. I am even on the youth council for Masiphumelele today as the community leaders are seeing the changes we are making and two weeks ago was invited to the opening of the Western Cape Parliament by our Premier. It’s a great honour.
Our youth are powerful. They just need a platform to express themselves. We know the solutions to the problems we face. We just need the training and support to face and overcome them. This is what we are doing at Waves for Change. We invest in our youth, in our communities as we believe in them.
It’s been great to see the changing attitudes towards the ocean and experience the change that Surfing has brought to my community. With Waves for Change and the Wave Alliance we’re bringing change to more and more coastlines every year. It’s inspiring to see a movement growing and to know it started in Masiphumelele: ‘We will succeed’ in Xhosa.
I’d like to thank Finisterre and everyone who came to the events last week. Meeting everyone, knowing we all share the same feelings about the ocean, we are connected in so many ways.
Support Physical Distancing Without Emotional Isolation
For many of us, our home is our safe space. For many vulnerable children, safety is often found in spaces outside of their homes.
During a time in which children do not have access to schools or surf therapy and are requested to self-isolate, Waves for Change recognises its duty of care to continue reaching those children with child-friendly mental health services.
If you are in a position to do so, please join us in delivering remote child-friendly mental health services during a time of increased risk.
Make a contribution.
Words by Tim Conibear & Apish Tshetsha
Images by Jack Abbot & David Gray