Literary Excerpts

South African Surf Therapy: It's Bananas

by Mami Wata
Photos courtesy of Mami Wata.

A successful Kickstarter campaign by the South African surf and streetwear brand Mami Wata led founder Selema Masekela to undertake an exciting project: "the first ever book that will document the entirety of African surf culture." AFRO SURF is an eye-catching coffee table book filled with essays, poems, playlists, comics, recipes, and ephemera showcasing the style, tradition, and diversity that make up surfing culture on the continent. Sales of the book benefit two African surf therapy organizations, Waves for Change and Surfers Not Street Children. An excerpt from the book, written by Waves of Change surfing coach Chemica Blouw, is below.

Banana Culture. It’s what we live by, and we named it because of how the shaka looks like a banana.

Waves for Change is really about mental health. Yes, there’s surfing, but surfing as a form of therapy, to help kids work through their issues and deal with trauma they’ve experienced or are experiencing. Water is extremely therapeutic. Even if you spend an hour in the water, if you’re having a bad day, you’ll come out feeling a lot better. We also teach coping mechanisms, like meditation. It works for me, and it definitely helps the kids.

We’re creating a space where kids can be kids. Because they don’t always get to be kids in the communities they come from. Lavender Hill, Masiphumelele, Monwabisi . . . these communities are high risk, there’s constant violence, some come from abusive homes, and the kids don’t have safe spaces to be a child because they’ve grown up too fast, taking on adult responsibilities.

As a coach here, I can make a change, have an impact, and share my love of surfing. Even though surfing only makes up a part of the program, whenever we’re doing the other exercises, like meditation or whatever, the kids are always asking, “When can we go into the water?”

The community I come from helps me relate to these kids. My childhood wasn’t as traumatic; I didn’t come from a violent home or an abusive family. But the people around me did, and so I was exposed to these realities. And in the same way I was protected from these things, I can now try to do the same for these kids. And that’s Banana Culture.

Banana Culture. It’s what we live by: Protect. Respect. Communicate. Being bananas means we protect others and ourselves from harm. We respect each other and ourselves. And we practice open communication.

Usually we’ll be in our wetsuits, rain or shine, at 9 a.m.; and the only time we won’t go into the water is if the shark flag is up. We move onto the beach, do a check-in, do a breathing exercise, some fitness, then another check-in. These check-ins are important. We lay down in a circle, close our eyes, and just talk about how everyone is feeling. If someone’s not feeling great, we’ll usually discuss it privately, one on one, but sometimes the kids will share with everyone.

The very first lesson we do is immersion. We’ll link arms to form a chain, and wade into the water together. After about ten steps we check in with everyone to see if they’re okay, and if they are, we can go out a little bit farther. That’s communication. Talking to each other, asking one another how we’re doing. Then listen, be respectful, hold tight, protect your friend, and don’t break the chain. If everyone’s feeling good, we can go a little deeper. But if someone’s not feeling okay, we respect their feelings, we stop, turn around, keep the chain, and walk back to the shore. That’s bananas.

Another part of Banana Culture is TLC: Tell it. Label it. Celebrate it. So, when a kid gets up and rides a wave, you tell them what they’ve just accomplished: “Oh my word, you just surfed!”
Then we label it, “That was your first wave — amazing.” And then we celebrate: “Yeeeew!” Through everything we do we teach others to do the same among themselves. Teach the kids to teach their friends, their families, their community . . . and it becomes this ripple effect. Sisonke Simunye. Together we are one. We are one together.

When you’re surfing, actually riding a wave, it takes all your focus. You can’t think about anything else but riding that wave in that moment. That’s the therapy coming in. You’ll see kids start their day feeling a bit down, and then, after they’ve been in the water, there’s a totally different mood. You can’t be in the water and be upset. It’s bananas.

There are so many surfers who are now being encouraged to stay in school, to focus on education, to be respectful to others. I’ve met 20-year-old surfers who are still bananas. A wave will come through and they’ll be in the spot for it, and when they turn around, they’ll see me and give the wave to me. “Ah, shot bru!” Something like that can change the whole mood in the water. Suddenly everyone’s being bananas and giving each other waves.


Don't Stop There. Buy the Book

AFRO SURF, compiled by Mami Wata, is available at Bookshop.org.

Excerpted with permission from AFRO SURF, by Mami Wata, published by Ten Speed Press, June 2021.

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