It’s a normal day at Monwabisi Beach, with waves swelling and crashing onto the sand, in the South African sunshine. A group of barefoot, wetsuited children stands at the shoreline, watching a young Xhosa woman lie down on a surfboard, on the sand. The 26-year-old Khanyisa Mngqibisa makes a paddling movement with her arms; brings one leg forward; jumps up. “This is how you do it,” she explains to the children standing around her. “In one nice flowing movement, you pop up on the board, then you surf the wave.” The kids watch her intently, then turn to look at the sea. Pop up. Flowing movements. Surf. These terms are all new to them.
“Now grab your boards and let’s get into the water,” says Khanyisa – or Khanye as most people here call her. Khanye only learned to swim eight years ago. At the age when other teenagers are thinking about what to study, where to travel, and whether to do a gap year, she was focussing on staying afloat. She proved to be a quick learner: today she works as a lifeguard and surf teacher, and has completed a degree online. “When you see a big wave coming towards you, you do feel fear,” explains Khanye, “but you have to face the challenge nonetheless. And then, one day, you’re surfing down the wave.”
She talks about surfing matter-of-factly, without drama. She says: “The waves are one thing. Life is another. Where I come from, you run the risk of being murdered all the time.” Or shot, or robbed, or raped. “You name it,” she says. Every one of the children here has seen someone get killed at some point. Yes, every single one. The kids pair up to carry the surfboards to the water. A big mixed group of children and teenagers, all at the beach to learn to surf today. Surfing could be a metaphor for their lives here: daring to enter the sea, but refusing to sink. Riding the wave; feeling the fear; and eventually reaching the goal. These young people come from the socially deprived townships of Cape Town. They live in some of the most violent neighbourhoods in the world. Where people from western countries might live through an average of four or five traumatic experiences ever – experiences such as the death of a family member, a serious illness, an accident or a robbery – these children experience four or five traumatic events every six months.
And this pattern begins early. Khanye explains that these damaging experiences begin when they are toddlers, just two or three years old. The damage leaves deep scars, deep inside: trauma. Thirty children are in the water now. Many of them are giving it a go, crashing around in the cold water, sliding along on their boards, practising flowing movements. Others are not so sure, standing hip-deep in the water, trepidation on their faces. They can’t swim; so their first lesson is about learning to trust the sea. Though trust is another word unfamiliar to most of the children. They’ve never been to the beach before – even though their township is only 500 metres away – because the journey is too dangerous, along a road controlled by gangs. While the children get acquainted with the ocean, the sound of distant jet engines indicates a 747 flying in to Cape Town International Airport, high above Monwabisi Beach.
A few hundred metres along the beach, behind a dilapidated pavilion, a group of containers stands. There is a flag billowing in the wind, as a woman cooks a lunch of rice, peas, and a fish sauce for the soaking wet children. A sign reads “Waves for Change”, declaring the name of this project that seeks to heal wounds and perform small miracles. The first surf centre for children from local townships was set up in 2009 by English entrepreneur Tim Conibear. He wanted to help disadvantaged kids learn to surf, in Masiphumulele near Cape Town. The centre’s first students were sceptical. But word spread, and before long, more boys and girls were coming to try it.
Conibear developed the project, hiring visionary social workers to work with him and help make his idea a reality. Waves for Change was born; the team collected surfboards in order to be able to inspire larger numbers of children to try surfing. No one here claims to be transforming people’s lives. The project’s modest aim is simply to enable children from the townships to experience the magic of the waves. Eight years on, the project has well and truly taken off: even being distinguished by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. That foundation receives strong support from Mercedes-Benz, and has helped Waves for Change to offer “surf therapy” to ever-greater numbers of children.
Today the initiative runs three Waves for Change centres in Cape Province, one each in East London and Port Elizabeth, and has recently opened a centre in far-away Liberia. In Cape Town, surfing now brings several hundred children to the area’s beaches. Brightly painted buses bring them to the coast, and take them home to the townships of Khayelitsha, Lavender Hill and Masiphumelele. South Africa’s parallel worlds. Shanty towns full of ramshackle houses made of corrugated iron and wood, whose inhabitants often have no access to running water, no sewage systems. These sprawling neighbourhoods directly border the highways, house over a million people, and experience serious widespread criminality and gang problems. In parts of these townships there is almost an entire generation of orphaned children; robbed of their parents by AIDS, drug overdoses or bullets.
The healing power of the ocean Down by the sea, the kids form a circle around the boards and the instructors. They practice the movements again, and go over the rules for swimming in the sea, as the waves of the southern Atlantic break unceasingly along the coast. There have been many studies conducted on the healing qualities of water, and many of us ourselves feel a certain magic about the ocean. Stepping into the sea – the unknowable sea – triggers ancient sensations, impossible to put into words or to recreate. In recent years more and more people have extolled the ocean’s capacity for healing, including Californian Carly Rogers, who set up an initiative to teach surfing to traumatised soldiers while she was still a student. These individuals had already tried various other forms of treatment without success, such as electric shock therapy, hypnosis, painting therapy and yoga. Rogers’ ocean therapy programme is based on the theory of flow developed by American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and has proven highly effective.
Over a thousand traumatised veterans have undertaken the programme so far, including many marines. For some of them, learning to surf literally gave them their voice back, with trauma having rendered them unable to speak for months – in some cases even years. Doctor Ocean. Robyn Cohen, 48, and Ashleigh Hesse, 25, know that ocean therapy isn’t a panacea, however. Cohen is National Director of Waves for Change, and Hesse is responsible for training measures.
“Sport and the sea are both great catalysts,” explains Cohen, who spent 30 years as a social worker in the townships, and who set up an orphanage in Masiphumelele. “But we are dealing with acutely traumatised kids here. Surfing is just a first step in helping them tackle deep-seated issues.”
Ashleigh Hesse, a teacher and social worker, also knows that the children don’t come just to ride the waves. They develop strong bonds with the surf instructors, who regularly visit them at home and in their schools. The instructors also help the kids fill out the Waves for Change forms, which are not so much about surfing, but rather the weightier aspects of their life. The children answer questions about why they want to join the project. To become more self-confident. To meet other people. To learn how to like myself, how to calm myself down, how to combat my fears. For many of the children there is also another reason for coming: although children need to be at least ten to join the surf classes, some of the participants appear to be only six or seven years old. “It’s down to malnutrition,” explains Ashleigh Hesse. “Some of them have so little food that their growth has slowed.”
Twelve-year-old Bukho, standing on the beach, doesn’t know where she was born. “In Cape Town, I think,” she says, as she sits down. Lunga Sidzumo, 34, manages the centre at Monwabisi Beach, and is standing at the centre of the circle on the sand. Just a few hundred metres away, separated from the beach by a wall of dunes, Khayelitsha begins: Cape Town’s largest township. “The beach is a good place,” says Bukho. A place where worries lose some of their weight, and the sea engulfs everything. In unison, the group repeats rules and maxims out loud. The sessions are also about promoting emotional skills. Through trust is help. Hope. Having goals. Being friendly. The aim is for the kids to feel the sea’s positive energy and, at some point, to be able to carry it with them into their lives. Bukho tells us about her shell collection. She always carries one with her. “Whenever something bad happens,” she says, “I clasp my hand tightly around it and think of the beach.”