Life’s swell

2013-10-03 11:00

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The kids of Khayelitsha are riding high – thanks to a life-changing project that encourages confidence and independence.

The school bell rings and within a few seconds the pupils of Esangweni High School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, spill onto the street.

Klak! A piece of concrete the size of a man’s fist smashes against the fence behind us.

The kids rush back to the safety of the school parking lot, clamouring over each other for a better view of the action.

‘That’s a fight!’ says Tim Conibear (32), the Brit who founded the surfing NGO Waves for Change. ‘That’s definitely a fight.’

In the distance, on an open patch of land, young men are pelting each other with stones.

Two children, no older than 14, walk fast and look over their shoulders.

One holds open his satchel while the other slips a panga into it.

They turn behind a container and disappear.

‘The gangsters are fighting,’ says McGyver Ngeyakhe (24), head coach at Waves for Change.

‘Often when we’re coming back from the beach at around 5:30pm they’ve started fighting properly – a real fight, with knives and guns.’

After about 15 minutes a police van pulls up.

‘They stoned the cops last time,’ says Kanyisa Mngquibisha (23), Khayelitsha’s first female surfing coach.

This time the police just sit in their vehicle but their presence seems to signify a break in the aggression.

‘Come,’ McGyver says. ‘Let’s go surfing. We’ll take the back roads so we can avoid these thugs.’

We pass the site of a roadside abattoir, bleached skeletons of at least three cattle lying among empty chip packets and plastic bottles.

Then down a long path through the dunes under the bridge and we’re at Monwabisi, literally ‘the place of our joy’.

Girls and boys aged between 15 and 17, still dressed in school uniform, stream into the fenced courtyard of the surf club, which consists of two renovated shipping containers.

One is filled with surfboards and wetsuits and houses a kitchen, the other functions as a make-shift office.

Soon we’re all lugging boards through the derelict old pavilion, past the man-made tidal pool where two men are sucking up sand prawns for bait, their kids shrieking as they deposit the bugs into a bucket.

Down at the beach, everyone gathers in a big circle and the coaches run through a series of exercises.

Tim takes a step back and waits patiently beyond the circle, his surfboard under his arm.

Born in Oxford, England, he learned to surf in Cornwall at the relatively late age of 19 and found himself in South Africa after university.

After a season in the winelands cleaning barrels and picking grapes, he was asked to head up a tourism operation called Ticket to Ride that brings groups of British gap year tourists to South Africa to learn to surf.

Ticket to Ride was adamant surfers should engage with South African realities, so they started organising township visits and collaborating with a local soccer initiative in Masiphumelele near Kommetjie, Cape Town.

‘Between trips we always went surfing with the kids we’d met through football,’ Tim explains.

‘In 2010 I quit Ticket to Ride and set up the Waves for Change foundation. I spent about a year messing around with a life skills curriculum (similar to a counselling agenda based on issues affecting the community) but it just didn’t work. I was trying to talk to these guys about HIV and they were looking at me as this white guy from overseas, thinking: “What the hell does he know?’’’

It was only once Tim enlisted the help of community members that the surfing project really took off.

The initiative’s first two coaches were Apish Tshetsha (24) and Bongani Ndlovu (20), who both learnt to surf with Tim’s help – Apish couldn’t even swim when he first came on board.

‘Straight away the kids opened up,’ Tim says. ‘At first I couldn’t get them talking and now we can hardly get them to shut up.

Handing over to the coaches made the whole operation more sustainable and the community really buys into it because it is led by the community.

Equipment doesn’t get stolen because the community owns it.

You start getting really good buy-in from the schools because they can see it’s a driven initiative. It took that initial big failure to realise this is how it’s got to be.’

‘Surfing is the glue.’ Tim explains. ‘If you want to teach somebody to surf you’ve got to engage them for a period of time. Then we have this educational curriculum the guys go through a couple of days a week and the surfing just cements it all together.’

What they are taught is based on a social cognitive learning theory. ‘It’s like community psychology,’ Tim says.

‘The main goal is to create role models in the community, like McGyver. Social cognitive learning theory is well-suited to surfing because it relies on imitating the behaviour of someone you perceive to be a role model. Because surfing here is new and the sea is terrifying for most of the kids, the coach who takes them into the water immediately earns their respect.’

Waves for Change isn’t about finding the next world champion, he adds – the programme isn’t designed to encourage kids to find a way out.

‘If that was the case they would start reflecting on the community as a place they don’t want to be. What we are trying to do here is encourage people.

‘We have this thing called “bananas”: protect, respect, communicate.’

The concept’s name goes back to the first time Bongani and Apish surfed in Muizenberg and had no idea what the ‘shaka’ was – the pinkie-out, thumb-back telephone-style global surfer salute.

To them it looked like a banana, and it was quickly appropriated as a kind of talisman for Waves for Change.

‘In the first two months we discuss what it is to be bananas, what it is to protect each other, respect each other and communicate with each other. Now these kids take it back to their community and see it as a place they can actually fix. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I live in a horrible place, I’m getting out of here”, they think, “Actually, there’s a lot to be said about where I live and I can do something about it.’

Today the lesson is about peer pressure and support, encouraging the children to resist joining gangs, doing drugs or crime.

One of the kids is being pushed backwards by a group of three, emulating an instance of peer pressure.

Someone steps in behind him and lends their weight to push back.

Then someone else steps in and supports them and suddenly there are six or seven people in the group and they are immovable.

McGyver plants the final thought in isiXhosa, then everyone runs down to

the water. I follow on my board and snag

a few waves in among the crowd. While paddling back out for another, I fall into rhythm next to Lwandile, one of the boys I was chatting to earlier on the walk down from Esangweni High School.

He has a huge smile on his face.

‘You know why this is so great?’ He pants.

‘When you get into the water all your troubles just seem to wash away.’

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