Today: February 29, 2024

How surfing is challenging tradition in a Ghanaian town

Picture by Ben Lalande

It started with a magazine cutting.

Appearing in Surfer, the article was titled ‘Africa – Home of Surfing?’ and illustrated with a heavy-handed caricature of a tribesman dragging a board out of the surf.

Written in the 1960s and forwarded to Ben Lalande by colleague Sarah Hughen over Instagram nearly 60 years later, it set the filmmakers thinking.

A few months later in Busua, a small Ghanaian fishing town, they focused their camera on some surfers bobbing in the Atlantic and the blue morning light.

As the article had explained, it is a centuries-old scene. But there was also something new in the images they were capturing. This group of surfers was all girls. And in Ghana that difference is making a difference.

“One day I went surfing and my mother beat me with a pan,” says Vanessa Turkson with a smile as she swings side-saddle in a low-slung hammock.

“She was saying ‘I don’t want to lose you.'”

One of her friends tells how her own parents would inspect her feet for grains of sand, ready to punish her it they discovered any.

It wasn’t without reason. The sea is a force to be feared. The Gulf of Guinea swirls with dangerous currents off Ghana’s coast and, until 20 years ago, swimming skills were scarce, external in the town.

The water is where livelihoods are earned – tuna fishing is especially important to Busua’s economy – but also where lives are lost.

Every few months another body would wash up on the beach.

Parents feared for their daughters with reason, but also with discrimination.

While they have prevented their girls from enjoying the beach, their boys have learned to harness the local waves, with Busua becoming one of several surf hotspots in Ghana.

Justice Kwofie is at the heart of Busua’s scene, running a surf school alongside his six brothers.

Kwofie saw the division that kept girls at home after school, cooking food, helping their parents and working the land, and was determined to break it down.

“I lost both my parents when I was young and grew up with my grandmother,” he says.

“When she passed, another woman took care of me and now my surf shop is supported by a woman.

“I realised that in Africa the women do all the hard work. It shouldn’t be only the men on the beach and then you go home and your sisters cook for you. We need to do something to make the girls part of us.”

Five years ago Kwofie and his brothers started a programme called Black Girls Surf to teach female surfers to first swim and then catch waves.

Turkson, once chased around the kitchen by her pan-wielding mother, was one of those to win her parents round and sign up.

She learned to surf, but she didn’t only learn to surf.

“I feel happy because I am with my friends sitting in the water, chatting and things,” she says with a smile.

“Then, whenever I am standing on a board, it makes me feel like I am flying.

“It makes me comfortable, like I am not stressing. Everyone can do surfing; it is like dancing.

“Surfing has taught me that in the olden days they say that girls cannot surf, only boys. Now I know that whatever a man can do, a woman can do better!”

Kwofie says the teenage pregnancy rate in Busua has declined since Obibini club – Ghana’s only female surf club – was set up to give young women a place to play, learn and socialise.

The club is part of a scene that has sprung up after decades of lying dormant in some areas of Africa.

Since the Surfer article was published, the evidence that surfing developed independently in Africa many years ago- rather than being imported from Polynesia, California or elsewhere – has only increased.

One key account comes from a Scottish soldier. While stationed 150 miles up the coast from Busua at Accra in 1834, James Alexander recorded a curious activity, external that was previously unknown to him.

“From the beach, meanwhile, might be seen boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs,” he wrote in his diary.

“They waited for a surf; and came rolling like a cloud on top of it.”

Busua’s modern chapter, empowered and better equipped, has fascinated filmmakers and photographers and been commercialised by brands.

Sandy Alibo is the founder of Surf Ghana,, external an organisation which uses action sports to empower and educate young people and supports the building of a sustainable surfing infrastructure.

However beautifully Busua’s story is told, she says Ghana’s surf scene depends on cold, hard numbers.

“In the village, they see money first,” she says.

“Life is really difficult. People can earn 400-500 cedis (£26-£32) a month. The priority of every parent is to take care of their daughter and make sure they get married to someone who can look after them, and maybe even the family.

“Surfing is not a priority – it is still a luxury. Leisure time is not even part of the plan. In the tradition of the village, women should not even be outside. They go to school, come back home and help their parents in the house, and that is it.

“My thinking is that if surfing can bring money, the parents will accept it.

“I also develop skateboarding in Accra and I definitely notice a change as soon as it offers a job. That is what makes the shift, something direct and efficient. If you are a surfer you can get a job.

“That is the only way for the community to understand they are the beneficiary of all of this.”

Lalande and Hughen’s award-winning film, external promotes a donation page, raising funds for equipment, teaching qualifications, safety courses, sex education and menstruation supplies in Busua.

With support from skatewear brand Vans, Alibo and Surf Ghana have also overseen the construction and opening of a new clubhouse, external in the town, giving young people a hub to build their community out of the water as well.

The scene is growing and its effects are spreading.

“When I see them on the wave it means a lot to me,” says Kwofie of the female surfers he once taught.

“It is something huge.” – BBC Sport