The Surfer’s Journal is proudly reader-supported since 1992. We rely on membership rather than advertising to remain commercially quiet. Become a member below and gain access to every article ever published along with many other TSJ member-only benefits.
The film crew of Beyond explores Africa’s surf cultures from Morocco to Senegal.
By Mario Hainzl
Light / Dark
We were shooting in northwest Africa for our film project, village by village, story by story. Sometimes we spent a week with locals capturing the details of their lives, bringing us closer to a primer on the surf scenes along that diverse stretch of land. There were encounters with bystanders, who simply shook their heads over the ill-fated, ocean-bound people before them. There were our new, dry-docked friends, who allowed us into their homes, but failed to quite understand “surfing.” We spoke to a cross section of people over the course of three months and saw the potential that this section of the continent offers.
And while our end product fails to reveal a defined answer to the question of how surfing evolved in Africa, I humbly consider it an introduction, valuable to me, and hopefully a window into the area as a destination through the eyes of its inhabitants. We found the local surfers to be most welcoming—without the unfortunate “ism” that often accompanies a rapidly expanding surf populace. We want to introduce some of the personalities we encountered during the production of the movie, individuals we came to know as we traveled from Morocco, across Western Sahara, through deserted Mauritania, and finally to the green coastline of Senegal.
Aboud Kabbour was likely Morocco’s first local surfer. His initial encounter with someone “playing in the waves,” as he called it, was with two surfers from the U.S. who were stationed at the military base in Mehdia, just north of Casablanca. The G.I.s saw the young lad watching them sometime in the 1960s and lent him a board.
At some point, they rotated away from the base, returned to their homes, and left Aboud, still uncertain of his skills, to the waves of Mehdia Plage. He continued without them and eventually taught the next generation of locals to surf. As he also grew into a lifeguard, his nickname became “Mahmoune,” which translates to “the boat that takes ships into the harbor.”
“Old people, when I see them, I feel sorry for them,” he says, sitting before us with his elderly, yet still limber body. “It is as if they have something bad in their bones. They still go to the beach, but they just go for a short swim. And at some point they stop going to the beach at all—because they have no reason to keep it in their hearts. Not me. I refuse to tell myself I’m old. Still I dream of zigzagging at night.”
“Age is not a poison in your body. It’s inevitable, but manageable.”
We were in Safi for the second of the more-than-14 weeks that we spent shooting our documentary. We were still not fully in the flow of production, yet we somehow managed to learn a lot about the rivaling clans of surfers in the area, its challenging wave, and the obstacles this village needs to overcome should it ever be a flourishing tourist destination for surfers.
We met Yassine merely by coincidence through a local surf photographer. “Who is the most remarkable person around here?” I asked, and the photographer connected us. Some hours later, Yassine came down the hill, racing on his skateboard. “I believe in dreams,” he explained. “I want to make longboarding big in Morocco and I want to make my living from it. I’m not the first longboarder in Morocco but I will be the one who will make it big.” There was no arrogance—just plain determination. We spent days together traveling and surfing from Safi to Marrakech.
“Some dream of having a dream. Some know: Dreams can give you pressure.”
Ayoub came into play when Andy, our producer in this journey, began to search for a translator and fixer—someone to guide us through the Moroccan segment of our travels. We ideally wanted an experienced Moroccan surfer who was deeply rooted in the subculture. We came across Ayoub, a photographer based in Taghazout, via the images on his Instagram account. Once on the ground with him, it became clear he is uncommonly dedicated to surf photography. His ability to make you feel at home while traveling very far from home also made him an invaluable companion for this part of our trip.
He grew up in Casablanca and faced many limits and challenges in regard to his aspirations. “I always wanted to know about people in other parts of the world,” he said, “but limited travel opportunities eventually brought me to settle for exploring within Morocco. But what I learned while traveling applies to all people. It doesn’t matter if someone is African or European, Muslim or Christian, whatsoever. If you’re friendly, if you share the good things in life, you’ll find commonality.”
“There is no exoticism. There is only ignorance of sameness.”
Apart from the weaving of millions of grains of sand, there is silence in the desert. People from this region radiate a calmness that proves to be a legacy of their lifestyle in this hostile environment. Hamza was born in Tarfaya, a place on the edge of a wasteland. When a ferry connected Tarfaya and the Canary Islands starting in 2007, there was an influx of outsiders. The village flourished: shops were opened, hotels built, dirt tracks exchanged for pavement. The desert outpost filled with tourists and, for the residents, a lively connection was opened.
It all came to an abrupt end when the ferry was shipwrecked in the inshore waters. Suddenly, those blossoming hotels were empty, leaving obsolete infrastructure in a ghost town. Hamza was part of group of teenagers who had tasted the outside world for just long enough. “We want Tarfaya to be known again,” he says sitting in front of an abandoned military tower, which now serves as his surf circle’s clubhouse. “And if the world does not come to us anymore, we’ll reach out. Our youngest, Osama, is to become a surfing champion. All our efforts are aimed at helping him so that he may become known and make Tarfaya known in the world out there.”
One of their local spots breaks along the hull of the shipwrecked ferry. Lefts and rights peel on either side of it, creating a platform for Osama, their future hope, as he hones his skills.
“We’re not lost, unless we fail to find ourselves.”
Dakhla, Western Sahara
Hamid is a refugee. He was removed from his fishing village and now lives in a prohibited military area. We came across him during our search for potential waves. His home is a cabin, which he shares with another friendly man, who is also a fisherman. When they’re not at sea, the rooms are often filled with music—classic rock mostly, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, War. We were about to listen to Peter Gabriel when Hamid was taken away by the military. They had observed our film crew at his cabin and didn’t like the thought of an exile being interviewed in a prohibited area. I waited until Hamid returned unharmed. It was a relief to see him, though we were of course unable film the rest of his story.
Cristina De Las Rivas Barredo
The desert state. The area around Nouadhibou, in the north, is said to be one of the densest and largest land-mined regions in the world. “My first trip to Mauritania was in 2002 with my mother,” says Cristina. “She was a diplomat and had business to do here. Originally she wanted to leave our native Spain for Costa Rica, but Mauritania came into play and won her over. Europeans who are permanent residents in Mauritania can be counted on one hand. And when I told stories at home, my friends were shocked at first—how could one live here? But the freedom I enjoy, evenings with friends on the beaches, sitting beside camp fires, and opportunities I have to live and work, doing what I want outside the hamster wheel—when I tell them about those things, they suddenly start to envy me.”
Of course, as a white, European, Christian woman, it was not always easy. But she has convinced many Mauritanians and now she runs a little hotel in Nouadhibou, the only one of its type in the north of the deserted country. Locals in the market greet her kindly and she seems very much at home now. “People everywhere understand patience and tenacity.”
“I never thought I would end up here. And when I did, something quite new started for me in Mauritania.”
We moved further south and the Savannah gave way to dense jungle, mangroves, and the endless arms of rivers. The beaches of the Casamance, a region of southern Senegal, seemed like the Caribbean with its palm trees and white sand. Yet, those beaches were empty.Isidor used to work in a hotel in Kabrousse as a sports trainer. That was before a group of rebels began to attack local Senegalese military convoys. A couple of years ago, rumors of a pending civil war were spreading. As a consequence, the hotels closed one by one and the people formerly employed in tourism lost their jobs. Isidor was among them. He used to surf and enjoy access to his hotel’s quiver of boards. Now his only remaining equipment is a windsurf board, which he uses to roam the mangroves in order to catch fish.
He lives off the resources of land and sea, having become a hunter and gatherer again, so to speak. He maintains that tourists will come back and things will change. A friend of his, who had lived in France recently returned to Casamance and brought back a small quiver. “Eventually crisis turns into the good life again,” he assures us. “That’s how it always works. It just needs time.”
“If your job is gone, when your income is suddenly taken away by greater events, what will you do? You go back to the basics. You return to nature.”
The surf culture in Dakar is thriving. There are seaside bars strung along “Almadies,” the coastal street. There’s the well-established wave, N’Gor Right, with nearby hotels welcoming surfers from all over the world. Dakar first appeared in surf culture in The Endless Summer. Since then, the local scene has been continuously growing.
Adama is a third-generation surfer. He represents very much the urban African. He used to work in marketing and as a model for Benetton. Now he has started his own companies, running a car rental service, plus a restaurant for surfers at the ironically well-known beach called Secrets. He is a counterargument to the cliché of an Africa without opportunity. “For me Dakar is a very enjoyable place with lots of prospects,” he says. “I haven’t been to Europe yet but our lives, in comparison, don’t seem so different. We look for jobs, we find them, there are business opportunities. In our free time we hang out in cafés and go surfing. Plus the atmosphere here is very international. Surfing holds opportunity for us and naturally we are more in contact with people from outside than the average fisherman. It expands our world. I owe a lot to surfing.”
“I would describe myself as a proud, modern African, living in one of the most enjoyable cities in the world from a surfer’s perspective.”
[Feature image: Adama Sounba, at play in the workplace of his fishermen brethren. Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Andreas Jaritz.]