S'nenhlanhla Makhubu Photo credit: S'nenhlanhla Makhubu/Instagram
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African women surfers on undertaking a male dominated sport and surfing

According to observers, black surfers are still not properly represented in various media and promotional events for the sport. It is likely because surfing is generally considered a “whites only” sport and the preserve of men; making it riddled with racial and gender biases against black women surfers.

For black women surfers financial elitism fuels their exclusion and the racially charged history of the sport leaves them vulnerable to racism and microaggression.

In the true nature of colonization, surfing dates back to the ancient Polynesian cultures before the arrival of missionaries resulted in its erasure. To European interlopers surfing appeared pagan and the sport’s mixing of the sexes scandalized them. Despite their best efforts the sport still found its way to other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, surfing intersected with nations like the United States and South Africa that rigidly segregated public and private spaces. Although the sport grew in popularity over time, it grew in ways that denied people of color access thus creating the idea that surfing had originated with whites.

Rhonda Harper who founded Black Girls Surf, an organization that trains black women and girls to become professional surfers, has been a surf coach and competition judge for decades.

She told Outside online about the struggles black women face in the sport saying, “It’s very hard to acclimate yourself to surf culture, particularly for girls of color,” she says. “You’re coming into this predominantly white industry, and it can be very uncomfortable to get the resources you need to go forward.”

Black Girls Surf supports girls and women whose career goals are competing in professional surfing, through fundraising efforts that go towards training and preparation.

“My goal is to become the coach and mentor I needed to become a world class pro surfer,” Harper said on the organisation website.

Khadjou Sambe, Senegal

23-year-old Khadjou Sambe, has aspirations of competing in the 2020 Olympics, which will be the first time that surfing will be part of the Summer Games.

According to an interview with Pri.org, her path to surfing was a labour of love. As a girl she would use bits of broken boards to paddle the waves near her family’s home in Dakar. Even then she was the only girl who surfed and her family some of whom were frequent surfers themselves, made it clear it was not for her.

“When I started surfing, many people told me to stop, people said this isn’t something for girls,” Sambe said. “But I didn’t listen, I continued”.

“I would jump out of the window and when I got back, I would say, no, I was here, I was napping,” she continued.

Towards her dream of representing Senegal in the 2020 games, Sambe has been training in California with her surfing coach and founder of “Black Girls Surf”, Rhonda Harper.

According to Harper, the biggest hurdle towards professional surfing for up and coming talent is finances; an average surfer spends anywhere between $50,000 to $60,000 a year in travel, fees and equipment, Harper estimates.

“It is absolutely an elite sport and there needs to be a change,” she says.

Read: The history of black surfers and Africa’s big surf destinations

However, for African women and other women of colour the hurdles are more far reaching. Of her experience coaching Sambe she said, “I’ve never seen someone harassed as much as Khadjou [is harassed] in the water… It’s the microaggression, it’s the subtle cutting off. It’s the subtleness of the aggression. [But] some are overt [and] they will just run you right over.”

This aggression she describes as, “Surfing While Black.”

In fact, a viral video documented a white surfer pulling the cord attaching Sambe’s friend’s (also a woman of colour) ankle to her board, causing her to spill while they were surfing in Venice Beach.

“We thought it was maybe because we were black. We don’t know. In Senegal that doesn’t happen,” Sambe explained.

Such incidences have made it necessary for coach Harper to employ security when the girls are surfing in particular locations.

Despite all this Sambe remains determined, ultimately hoping that past her ambition to surf in the Olympics, that she can inspire young black girls to take up the sport.

“It is so amazing that I am here training [with] Black Girls Surf,” she says. “I am here for my country, I am here for Africa, I am here for Black Girls Surf [to] represent black people.”

Samukelisiwe Cele, South Africa

In 2015 Samukelisiwe Cele, became the first black South African woman to compete in a professional surfing event- The Ballito Women’s Pro. Then 16 years, Cele told the South Coast Herald that, “It was fun and I really want to become a professional surfer. The one thing I want to be is a champion, the world champion- I want to win the world tour.”

Pat Flanagan, the co-founder of South African Surfing Legends spoke to Press reader about Cele’s achievement in 2015 saying, “Durban has never really been known for girls surfing. The Cape always led the way. But starting about 15 years ago, more girls started surfing, it is great to see”.

As a Durban native which is arguably South Africa’s best surfing location for both local and visiting surfers, Cele has loved water sports since she was young.

“I just loved water sports, I used to be a really good swimmer when I was in grade five or six to seven, I was a really good swimmer so I would stay in the water for like three hours and just not care, just go blank and just… you know have fun,” she told Africa News.

She started surfing after an introduction to the sport by internationally renowned surfer, Jason Ribbink who is both a friend of the family and the head of her sponsor company “Bilt Surfboards”.

Of her surfing achievements so far she told eNCA News that, “Having different races of women looking up to me as a young person as well is amazing.”

S’nenhlanhla Makhubu, South Africa

Lat year S’nenhlanhla Makhubu followed in the footsteps of her country mate Cele to compete in a World Surf League event. Makhubu steadily progressed through the year in the Junior series, culminating in a semis finish at Ballito Women’s Pro before losing to a Hawaiian surfer.

After her impressive performance she told Swell bound in an interview that she wants her brand to be, “’Tomorrow will be better’ because I’ve had such bad days that I literally wanted to quit and end everything. This was due to what I was going through, things like racism and being treated unfairly. I had forgotten that days can be different.”

Makhubu started surfing at the young age of 9, “It was my dad who took me to surfing lessons back in 2011, and I have been surfing ever since,” she told IOL.

“I fell in love with surfing as it is unlike other sports because every wave is different. It’s also fun because it’s not serious all the time, it can be a hobby and not always competitive”.

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