Big Wata: The Surfers of Sierra Leone

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In 2007, the fishermen of a small fishing community in the West African country of Sierra Leone witnessed an unusual sight.

It was an NGO worker in the ocean. But he wasn’t swimming. He was standing on top of a board, riding the waves.

We decided at a very early stage to make a documentary about surfers rather than a conventional surf film. The main distinction lies in telling of the personal development of the characters, to tell an intimate story covering universal themes … To me, Big Wata touches on the power of hope and dreams, and that once these dreams are attained they are replaced by new dreams as your horizon shifts.

Gugi van der Velden, director

It was in that moment, as the fishermen looked on, enthralled, that the idea of the Bureh Beach Surf Club was born.

The first – and only – surf club in Sierra Leone, it is at the heart of the local community: a source of pride and, occasionally, of tension.

Thanks to the club, a sport that was once unknown in the country has given the younger members of this community a passion, an identity and a sense of purpose.

They work hard to keep the club functioning, reporting back to the community on its successes and failures, and avidly consume all the information they can about surfers and surfing around the world.

They dream of one day riding the waves they read about in surfing magazines.

Then the chance arrives, via an invitation from a surf club in neighbouring Liberia.

Several members of the club are selected to travel there. For many, it will be their first time leaving Sierra Leone.

The journey is long and arduous. Along the way, they must explain surfing to bemused border guards and undergo important medical checks, for both countries have been recently ravaged by Ebola.

But the difficulties are worth it. As well as bonding over their shared love for their sport, the Sierra Leonean and Liberian surfers plan ways to ensure it benefits their countries, their communities and their people. They want to put Africa on the surfing map.

But, of course, they aren’t only there to talk. There are new waves to ride.

When the time comes to return home, with their dreams burning brighter than ever, it is with a renewed appreciation for their own families, their own beach and their own “Big Wata” (the ocean).

Source: Al Jazeera

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