Surfing is not new to Liberia. Expatriates and the odd traveling surfer have found their way to the warm waters of Liberia since the ’70s and many wandered to the fabled left-hand point breaks of Robertsport. However, the local surfing culture didn’t begin to take shape for several decades. In 2006 Nicholai Lidow, Dan Malloy, Chris Del Morro, Crystal Thornburg-Homcy and company came to shoot the award-winning film, Sliding Liberia, which portrays the inspiring story of Alfred Lomax, Liberia’s first surfer, who had found a bodyboard and taught himself to “slide” waves. Alfred began to surf with a surfboard that was left behind for him by the crew and subsequently a few of his friends followed suit. The number of Liberian surfers hovered at about three for many years.
The presence of a few non-profit organizations, including Robertsport Community Works and Surf Resource Network, helped to foster a love for the sport of surfing as a positive outlet amongst the youth in Robertsport and, in 2009, the inaugural Liberian National Surfing Championships was held.
Although the women of Liberia did not yet surf, it was important to let them know they could participate in this amazing sport and pastime. At the time, a woman named Elie Calhoun was around to provide some early guidance and inspiration.
October 19 and 20, 2013, marked the 5th Annual Liberian National Surfing Championships and there was a lot of local hype prior to the event. A majority of that hype surrounded the Liberian women.
Call it an epiphany. Call it a shift in paradigm. Call it what you will, but any way you slice it, there is an amazing transformation taking place in the coastal fishing community of Robertsport. This change became very apparent in September 2013 when three women from California–Jessica Preese, Casey Garfi and Jennifer Cassel, visited Robertsport with the goal of helping to develop the women’s surfing scene by not only coaching the girls in the water with surf lessons but additionally being mentors and role models on dry land. These women formed instant bonds beyond comparison with any attempts made by male surf instructors the local women have interacted with in the past. All the women got to know each other quite well and began surfing together all the time. The topic of surfing was used as a stepping-stone to discuss life experiences and universal challenges that women face. After the women from California went home, there was also a woman surfer from Switzerland, Tabea Burkhalter, who came to Robertsport for the month of October to surf. The women surfers of Liberia learned a lot by interacting with these international women who surf on a daily basis. Most importantly, the Liberian women learned that not only can women surf, but women can also be surfers.
Kwepunha Surf Retreat has a board share system to enable the Liberian Surfing Federation and other youth that are interested in surfing borrow surfboards if they are attending school, maintaining their grades, participating in beach clean-ups, and taking part in the surf club’s activities. In years prior, the local women would never come to borrow surfboards or try to improve their surfing, but since Jessica, Casey, Jennifer and Tabea came, they have begun to show up at Kwepunha regularly to borrow surfboards and to practice for the competition. For the first time ever, we began to see Liberian women paddling out by themselves and surfing with the men. As the competition drew near, the number of Liberian surfer girls doubled and each day saw a mixed gender line-up filled with enthusiasm, encouragement and raw excitement.
The 5th Annual Liberian National Surfing Championships brought more than 1,300 spectators to the beaches of Robertsport to witness the Liberian surfers strive for a place on the podium and bragging rights as Liberia’s top surfers. The event was held in fun two-to-four-foot surf and the local surfers came to win, drawing clean lines all the way to the beach. The Junior Division saw the most style with new West African moves being invented such as the “Liberian Layback.” The Men’s Division saw the fiercest competition with the most passion from the competitors. However, it was the Women’s Division that brought the huge crowd into an uproar!
Ester Teah was the obvious stand out, taking off at the top of the peak, pumping down the line and throwing massive claims- raising the roof, number one, and the classic “I can’t hear you” claim. Typically, I am not a fan of claims, but this was both awesome and historic. The crowd stormed the water as Ester rode her last wave to shore; kids, grandmothers, and everyone in between met her on the sand to offer their congratulations and praise for what she has done for the women of Liberia.
The Superintendent of Grand Cape Mount County (where Robertsport is located), the Honorable Imam Mohammed Paasewe, put it best by stating the following of Kwepunha Retreat, Surf Resource Network, the International Surfing Association, and the Liberian Surfing Federation’s efforts to empower local women:
“What you are doing is breaking local taboo. Never before have the women of Liberia dared to venture to the sea; that has been a place for the men. To see the Liberian women surfing is groundbreaking. What is transpiring is highly impressive and is paving a path towards equality. We hope to see more Liberian women take part in this great sport of Surfing.”