Proof of Life

Exploring Somalia’s untapped surf with purpose—and armed protection.

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It’s already hot at 8 a.m. in Mogadishu when I open the heavy, bulletproof door to the armored Land Cruiser and climb into the back seat. My driver radios our security team that we’re ready to head to the beach. We’re going surfing.

If you Google “surfing in Somalia,” you won’t find many articles talking about the warm water, the white sand, or its more than 2,000 miles of coastline. There are, however, plenty of warnings to potential travelers about kidnapping, piracy, and war.

The US State Department bluntly advises against any travel to Somalia, and actually suggests that anyone who decides to visit should at least draft a will before leaving. They also recommend creating a proof-of-life plan and leaving DNA samples at home. 

I didn’t get around to naming my inheritors or setting aside genetic material, but I’m aware of the warnings. I’ve been coming to Somalia since 2014, and while I’ve borne my share of risk, I’d love for people to see this country in another light and recognize the beauty and opportunity it offers. One of those opportunities is a wildly understudied surf zone. While security issues prevent full access, there’s a ton of potential waiting to be explored.

On the way to the beach, we convoy with our security team. Armed soldiers sit on benches in the truck bed. Their guns point toward the ground; their eyes scan for threats. We exit the hotel through multiple security gates and join the busy streets of Mogadishu, the nation’s capital.

Surfing as therapy with ex-child soldiers in Somalia. Photo by Zachary Harrell Jones.

Even driving here is an adventure. Bright-red rickshaws hurtle through the streets like some sort of derby. We pass various checkpoints, a small herd of camels, donkeys pulling carts, and even a rickshaw loaded up with three enormous tuna, fish market bound. About 20 minutes south of the city, we arrive on the coast at a private, walled compound called Maanyo Resort. It’s owned by local hotelier and entrepreneur Bashir Osman.

Bashir is big on conservation. Each week, he and his team relentlessly clean the beach of trash. He’s planted palm trees and built a natural stone retaining wall to combat erosion. Local fishermen know if they cast their nets near his beach, they’ll actually catch fish, not plastic. There are other beaches in Mogadishu, like Lido, which offers beachside restaurants with delicious seafood menus. But Maanyo feels safer, especially for foreigners.

Once we pull into the compound, I head to the shoreline. I’m meeting an organization called Elman Peace and a group of kids to teach a surf lesson. Elman Peace has been using surfing as therapy for Somali youth and former child soldiers by both instilling a love for the water and addressing their trauma and  stress of living in a war zone. 

It’s beautiful chaos as I watch kids pile three or four to a board. An instructor is teaching a few how to surf, and I collect another group to teach a basic lesson. The waves are small here at Maanyo, especially close to the shore. But, farther out, there’s a reefbreak. With a boat, it would be possible to get quality waves, especially in July, which is the coolest and windiest month. As it becomes possible to explore farther along the coastline, other waves are likely to be found in the northern regions, like Middle Shabelle, on the beaches of the port city of Marka, and near Hobyo. There’s also a rumor of a world-class wave farther up the coast on the Xaafuun Peninsula, just south of the Horn of Africa, which requires a boat to access.

With all the unexplored coastline of Somalia, it’s clear to me there is potential for surf culture to develop here. Security risks are the biggest setback, as tourists need armed escorts for excursions, but, in the future, with more peace and stability, Somalia could easily become a new destination for surf travel. The country is in need of local business expansion and foreign investment, and it’s exciting to think what surfing could do to help promote peace, environmental conservation awareness, and opportunities for locals.