The surf school empowering young Sri Lankan women

The surf school empowering young Sri Lankan women
Through teaching surfing and swimming SeaSisters hope to overcome the trauma of the 2004 tsunami and embolden environmental activism.

On the south coast of Sri Lanka, under the ample shade of a Wetakeiya tree, a group of local young women are sitting in the sand learning about ocean safety. On their laps are booklets written half in English and half in the ornate looping curls of Sinhalese, the most widely spoken language on the island, to help facilitate their learning. A few metres away, small beginner-friendly waves break gently just beyond the shoreline.

The group are part of a programme run by the social enterprise SeaSisters at the popular beach town of Weligama. The training combines practical swim and surf instruction in the water with educational sessions on the beach.

In keeping with the setting, the lessons are relaxed and interactive, but their content is important, especially in a country where few children are taught to swim and on a coastline where the 2004 tsunami – which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans – casts a long psychological shadow when it comes to feeling confident in the water.

Kalpa Gandhari, the programme manager of SeaSisters, was a young child when the tsunami hit but she still remembers people screaming and running away from the beach in terror. She grew up near the ocean, in a town called Unawatuna, but never learnt how to swim because her schools, like most in the country, had no access to a swimming pool.

“It was the perfect place for me to be as a slow learner. Nobody was judging me, and the environment was very calm”

Kalpa Gandhari

Kalpa liked the idea of the ocean or “bath” as she says Sri Lankans call it in Sinhalese, but at 25, she thought she’d missed the boat in terms of learning to swim. “I had lots of fears, and I’m not someone who learns things quickly,” she says, but when she joined SeaSisters, initially as a translator, she took part in the training programme and the experience was transformative. “It was the perfect place for me to be as a slow learner. Nobody was judging me, and the environment was very calm,” she says.

Once she began feeling more comfortable in the water, she took up surfing through SeaSisters, a sport which she’d seen a lot growing up, but never once imagined she’d get to try. “Surfing here was only for tourists and boys from coastal villages,” she says. “It was very male-dominated; nobody thought women could do it. SeaSisters has been really good at changing that mindset.”

SeaSisters was founded in 2018 by Martina Burtscher, from Austria, and Amanda Prifti from the US. Martina first visited Sri Lanka in 2017, when she was writing her master’s thesis on “the potential of surfing for women’s empowerment”. She’d heard about a group called Girls Make Waves, who were offering surf lessons to women in Arugam Bay, a famous surf spot on the east coast of the island, to help diversify the line-up.

“I realised these women face so many barriers in surfing, and I wanted to look more deeply into it,” says Martina. After finishing her thesis, she returned to Sri Lanka with the idea of setting up a women’s surf club on the south coast, teaming up with Amanda, who she met by chance while selling her surfboard.

From the beginning they worked to create a safe space, not just for the women but also for their families, “for the wives’, daughters, and sisters, as the family context is very important in Sri Lanka,” Martina says. “We wore leggings and T-shirts to respect and not break the cultural norms,” she says.

Six girls came to that first lesson, and Martina says it was clear from the start they really wanted to surf. Through word of mouth, news of the programme spread. “The girls went back and told their communities and then their mothers also joined us,” she says. “We never did any advertising, and though we did have a social media presence, those followers were not really the women who came from the rural areas.”

I ask Kalpa if she was surprised there wasn’t more resistance locally? “Sometimes a husband or parents might come to ask questions and see what’s happening, but it was more because they were curious than anything negative,” she says. “[Surfing] is not in their vocabulary, especially for the older generation.”

With support from the local community, international tourists, and women from different parts of the country began to take an interest. “We had an Instagram account, where we posted pictures of surfing, including photos of women in saris, and women from all over Sri Lanka were texting us and saying: ‘Oh wow I didn’t know Sri Lankan women could actually surf.’ Because if you never see it, you don’t know you can do it. It really created this momentum.”

They hoped to use surfing as a tool for social change, and to educate participants about ocean safety and environmental and gender issues. “After the trial, we wanted to try and make it a sustainable thing,” she says, “so we started to develop our own methodologies to work with volunteers and see if we could establish something with longevity, so the women would really have the chance to learn how to surf.”

Martina and Amanda quickly realised there was no point in teaching surfing to women who couldn’t swim so they incorporated swimming into their programme, and though Covid enforced a two-year pause on their plans, they are now fully up and running with swim and surf lessons taking place every Saturday from November to April, aligning with the local surf season, with around 20 young women, ranging in ages from 12-55 attending each session. They also run larger community discussion-based events in the off season with guest speakers and a more advanced surf instructor training course.

From the beginning, the pair sought to embrace local governance, with the idea that many of the young women who went through the programme would go on to become instructors themselves and maybe even professional surfers.

“We wanted local leadership from the start,” says Martina, “and to create economic opportunities within the SeaSisters. It was volunteer-based at first, but now we have two full-time employees, Kalpa, and Thamali Dilshani, who works on our merchandise line. And we’ve recently brought on board Udani Hewamadduma, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan marine scientist, to work as an ocean educator part-time.”

The pattern for the classes is swimming and surfing lessons, followed by the participants all meeting in a circle for the education side of things, underpinned by the booklets to incorporate language learning for both local people and foreign volunteers into the framework.

The volunteers and participants talk about rip currents and other ocean hazards, learn beach lifesaving skills, and how to stay safe, and in time they also discuss more sensitive topics such as women’s health and menstruation.

It’s always been important for Martina to use the classes as a tool for environmental learning in a country where plastic pollution is a huge and growing problem. “You can’t take a step on the street or a beach without seeing plastic – it’s everywhere,” she says, “and it’s important to talk about that. What kind of material is it? Why is it there? What does it do to the animals and ocean and how can we reduce it?”

The hope is that the women will take the ocean protection booklets home from their session, and these will spark conversations in their families that will eventually lead more people to be inspired to take action. “If you’re disconnected from the ocean, you might never think about it but when you’re in the ocean and seeing trash floating around or sea turtles dying because of plastic pollution it goes deep into your heart and it becomes more natural to protect it,” she says.

Kalpa agrees there is a lack of knowledge and awareness of environmental issues in the country. “People here simply don’t have the capacity to think about it because they are struggling with their day-to-day lives and thinking about how they’re going to survive. Most people can’t think: ‘Oh I’m consuming this polythene or what should I do with this bag?’” she says.

Kalpa herself started to become environmentally engaged through SeaSisters, and a volunteer once said to her: “You could use a reusable bottle, you don’t need to use a plastic water bottle.” Small things, she says, which you don’t know if you’ve never been taught.

She believes they’re already noticing a positive impact from raising these issues with young women on their courses. “People do become more responsible, and we have to actively do more to encourage this kind of change,” she says. “In my village for example, we have a yearly festival for seven days on the beach, and there is always lots of rubbish afterwards. But this year, there was a beach clean run by locals and that makes me happy that people are starting to think about it.”

For Martina, environmental education is now the main goal of SeaSisters and recruiting Udani Hewamadduma as an ocean educator has been key. “She has the ambition to help shift that mindset around environmental protection in local communities and also among tourists,” says Martina, who are of course a big part of the problem. “Foreign tourists consume a lot more than Sri Lankan families do.”

Last year, they started a project called The SeaSisters Experience Day, to educate tourists on what the social enterprise does and to encourage them to be more conscious of their environmental impact while on holiday.

And what about the line-up? I ask Martina if it’s become more diverse since SeaSisters started, but she thinks it’s too soon to say. “If you compare when I first visited in 2017 to 2023, I can definitely see differences,” she says. “Partly because of SeaSisters but also there are more Sri Lankan women from [the capital] Colombo, who still face barriers but might have a higher socio-economic background to women from the south.”

“Some of the women from our programmes have started to surf by themselves but that’s the minority,” she says, though they are proud of one of their young women who became one of the first surf instructors on the south coast. “So many women come to us to overcome their fears and trauma around the ocean, and they’re happy just to complete the programme,” she says.

For Kalpa, the benefits of her experience in the water with SeaSisters go even further. “It’s not just about knowing the ocean is a place for me. It’s also shown me that I can do big things in my life. I can show up, step out of my comfort zone, and things will change. We live on an island and most of us never leave the island, but my life feels broader and less limited now.”

Find out more about SeaSisters here

This piece appeared in Huck #80. Get your copy here.

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