A post-war surfing renaissance is underway in Africa’s oldest republic

(CNN) — Nestled between Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Guinea, Liberia is the oldest republic in africa. But despite its historical legacy, in the minds of many outsiders, the West African nation is still more often associated with civil war and convicted war criminals. Charles Taylor.

But at the end of the second civil war in 2003, as Liberia was about to democratically elect the continent’s first female head of state, a different narrative was emerging in the fishing village of Robertsport; one that would end up changing the culture of this small seaside community on the border with Sierra Leone.

“After the war in 2003, Americans came to Robertsport, where they started riding our waves,” recalls local surfer Philip Banini. “(They) ran into a black guy, Alfred Lomax, who was the first Liberian surfer, and they taught him the sport. And that’s how he too started sharing it with the people here. .”

Lomax, now the most recognized and decorated surfer in the country, taught Banini, who in turn taught countless others, growing the community from one to many.

Today, inside Banini’s guest house, a sign reads ‘When nothing goes right, surf left’ – a reference to the left break for which Robertsport is famous. The village is now one of Liberia’s top three surfing destinations, the others being the capital Monrovia and Harper on the border with Ivory Coast. Between the palm trees and the long stretches of sandy beach that border the Atlantic Ocean, the water is dotted with surfers every day.

To borrow a surfing phrase, “the momentum is real”.

A growing community

Surfers at sunset watch the sea from Robertsport beach.

Jo Munnik for CNN

Surfing has a long history in Africa. The first account, from Ghana in the 1640s, even predates the first record of Hawaii, the spiritual home of surfing. The parallel development and history of African surfing is less known and the sport remains less established than in other parts of the world. But a renaissance is underway.

Today, Robertsport has been a world apart since the days when Canadians Kent Bubbs and Landis Wyatt first set foot on its beach. Since moving to Liberia 15 years ago, Bubbs has witnessed how the community of around 4,000 people has grown to include more than 60 local surfers. “There are more and more surfers every year,” Bubbs told CNN. “Kids who originally surfed now have kids, and those kids are surfing – it becomes generational. We often see multiple family members surfing together.”

Among them are former National Men’s Surfing Champion Oscar Comney and his younger brother, Massalley “Samon” Comney, whom Oscar taught to surf.

Through their NGO Universal Outreach Foundation, Bubbs and Wyatt have taken an active role in helping to grow the Liberian surfing community through surf tourism initiatives. They also find sponsors for the only national surfing competition in the country, which they organize in collaboration with Robertsport’s Surf Club.

“The idea behind (the competition) was just to give the young people and children of Robertsport something to look forward to,” says Bubbs. “Surfing has become a place where young people can go and enjoy the company of their friends, compete against each other and be in an environment where they can speak out and meeting some of life’s challenges with like-minded people.”

Massalley recently won the Robertsport Under-18 competition and plans to challenge his brother for the adult title in the future. One of eight children, the 17-year-old juggles working at Banini’s guesthouse and selling handmade bracelets to tourists to pay for his high school tuition.

“I really like surfing because I feel like the best man on planet Earth,” says the up-and-coming youngster.

He’s not the only one making a splash either; Irene George is Robertsport’s only local surfer and the current women’s competitive champion.

Her skills have earned her the nickname “Butterfly”, as she moves through the waves as if flying. After taking a break from surfing to pursue hospitality studies in Monrovia, she is now back in the water and eager to prove herself.

She hopes to inspire more Liberian women to take up surfing, but acknowledges there are challenges ahead. “When (I) walk around saying, ‘I want to teach you how to surf,’ they say, ‘I can’t swim.’ Once you know how to swim, you can surf, so first we have to learn ( to people) to swim,” she said. It is George’s plan to one day open his own swimming and surfing school called Liberian Future Surf School.

Irene George is Robertsport's only surfer and the current women's champion.

Irene George is Robertsport’s only surfer and the current women’s champion.

Jason Boswell for CNN

surf tourism

Reputation and infrastructure could pave the way for Liberia to join South Africa and Morocco as top surfing destinations in Africa.

Robertsport is looking to tap into an international surf market that is expected to be worth more than $4.8 billion by 2027, and surfing its waves are tourists from all over the world. Despite the setbacks in tourism — first, from a two-year-old Ebola outbreak that began in 2014, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic — Banini says things are looking up. These tourists bring with them skills to share as well as surfboards, wax and dollars to contribute to the growing surf tourism economy.
Some tourists give boards to locals before returning home, while others are provided by a Swiss NGO Provide the slide, which collects old boards and ships them to all West African countries. But with only one repair shop in all of Liberia, run by Bubbs, it’s not uncommon to see local surfers happily sharing broken and damaged boards.
Canadians Kent Bubbs (left) and Landis Wyatt (right) moved to Liberia 15 years ago and are now an integral part of the Robertsport surf community.

Canadians Kent Bubbs (left) and Landis Wyatt (right) moved to Liberia 15 years ago and are now an integral part of the Robertsport surf community.

Courtesy of Landis Wyatt/Kent Bubbs

Bubbs recalls a time when the only visitor accommodation in Robertsport was camping on the beach, but that changed as new guesthouses opened. Soon the Robertsport Surf Club will have its own property, which will be used to organize surf lessons, fishing trips and possibly also offer accommodation, diversifying opportunities in what is still a local fishing-dependent economy.

In a few years, surfing has become the heart of this community. “It’s time for the country to understand the importance of focusing on Robertsport’s surfers,” says Banini. “I want them to know that there is a sport called surfing in Liberia and many Liberians participate in it.”

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