The untold story of surfing’s ancient African roots

Brought to you byOutsiders Project
The untold story of surfing’s ancient African roots
Watch a Huck-exclusive preview of Wade in the Water, which reclaims the 1,000-year-old Black surfing tradition and hopes to inspire a new generation of Black surfers.

If you’ve ever watched the classic surf movie The Endless Summer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that surfing was first introduced to West Africa by a couple of perky Californians who arrived on Labadi Beach in Ghana in the early 1960s. A myth, rich in white saviour-narrative, that has remained the dominant take in conventional surf culture ever since.

Yet, as the new documentary Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing & Aquatic Culture explores, surfing has existed for a thousand years in Africa. According to Professor Kevin Dawson, who appears in the film, the first written account came in 1640 when a German merchant-adventurer described how parents would “tie their children to boards and throw them into the water”. While in 1834, the British explorer James Alexander wrote of “boys swimming in the sea with light boards under their stomachs” who would wait “for a surf and [come] rolling like a cloud on top of it”.

The Outsiders Project and Huck Presents share an exclusive 18-minute preview cut of Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing & Aquatic Culture
See the full version of the documentary at [WadeintheWaterProject.com](https://www.wadeinthewaterproject.com)

According to surf lore, waves were first ridden by Polynesians, with the Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku famously popularising the sport in California. But if wave riding developed independently on the shores of Africa, why has the legacy of Black surfing been overlooked for so long?

It was a question that bothered David Mesfin, a Black surfer and creative director, so he decided to make a film about it. David was born in Ethiopia, but adopted as a child, growing up in the small town of St Augustine in Florida, where he was first exposed to surfing at 14. “I fell in love with it right away,” he says.

So Fly Surfing School

There wasn’t a large community of Black surfers – David thinks there were probably five at most – but he loved the escape from the everyday that surfing gave him and when he later moved to Long Beach, California to study, he kept surfing, falling in with a bunch of new surfers at nearby Huntington Beach.

In 2010, a friend told him about an event being held by the newly formed Black Surfers Collective, who feature in the film, which he attended. “It was the first time I saw a collective of Black and BIPOC people coming out and surfing together – it was eye-opening and really impacted my life,” he says.

David joined the group, attending regular meet ups, and getting involved with teaching kids how to surf and learning more about the history of Black surf culture. The death of George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in May 2020, affected him a lot, and he decided to deal with that pain and anger in a creative way by starting work on Wade in the Water. Its title is taken from the African American Underground Railroad song, which Harriet Tubman is believed to have sung to warn slaves to get into the water so they wouldn’t be sniffed by dogs and captured.

“This movie is an expression of how I felt and a way to find some sort of healing through telling this story.”

David Mesfin, director

“It’s almost like the civil rights movement, when a lot of artists came out of that and expressed themselves through music, art and film,” he says. “This movie is an expression of how I felt and a way to find some sort of healing through telling this story.”

Wade in the Water began as an art project, with David taking portraits of Black surfers, but then he came across the work of Professor Dawson, who had extensively researched aquatic culture in the African diaspora, and Afrosurf, a book celebrating African surf culture by the African surf brand Mami Wata, which Dawson provided insight for, and switched to making a documentary to dive deeper into the topic.

Sidy Camara

David stresses his film isn’t about contesting the origins of surfing in Polynesia or Hawaii. “They have embraced the culture of surfing and passed it on to all of us,” he says. “I’m grateful for that but I’m also grateful to be sharing these other important stories viewed through the Black experience – it makes surfing a rich story for all of us.”

I ask David why he thinks Black surfers have been so rarely seen in the sport’s cultural history, especially pre-George Floyd, when few brands remotely engaged with the Black surf experience or sponsored Black surfers. “Corporations are corporations,” he says, “They go where the money is.” Though as the documentary points out, there is clearly an economic case for investing in Black surfers today, given the increasingly high participation rates amongst the community.

Julian Willams

The film weaves historical accounts of surfing and aquatic culture in West Africa, and segregation around surfing and public swimming in Jim Crow-era America, with contemporary surf footage and interviews with a host of Black surfers including Selema Masekela, one of the co-founders of the African surf brand Mami Wata, Tony Corley, who founded the Black Surfing Association in 1975, Sharon Schaffer, the first Black female pro surfer, and Lizelle Jackson, who co-founded Color the Water.

As a woman who surfs and has often felt like I’m trespassing on a sport that purely exists for young white dudes, I was heartened by how many women are included in the film. “It was very important for me to feature a lot of women surfers,” says David, who wanted to overturn the gender stereotypes that say black men can’t swim and black women don’t get their hair wet.

Sierra Raequel

“[In West Africa] women were great swimmers historically, better swimmers even than the men. And it’s so powerful to let women know this is part of your roots and your history and to tell the younger generation that, so when they paddle out, they respect women in the water.”

He describes a 1640 account of a mother teaching her son to catch a wave and says there was an economic imperative for mothers to do this. “As Kevin Dawson’s research shows, Ghana had an aquatic culture, and a teenager would have had to learn to go through the waves with surf canoes and boats to go fishing.”

Visually, Wade in the Water looks different to regular surf movies, and not just because all the featured surfers are Black. “I have my palette on how I like to tell stories and I didn’t really need a reference point from [mainstream] surf culture,” says David. “This was a narrative that needed to be told through an African American lens. That makes it like a new language that other people can look at and be inspired to do their own version of their story.”

“We are the original bodies of water… the water wades in us.”

Sekou Andrew

For encouraging the next generation of Black surfers in the US, and crucially also in Africa, to take this narrative and run with it is David’s primary hope for the movie. As the founder of Mami Wata says in the film: “There is this massive explosion of Selema Masekela and African surf culture. It has a different frequency and signature and rhythm and it’s 100% African. People say: ‘I knew the waves were great in these places, but oh they’re doing it there and they’re doing it their way.’”

David is excited by thriving surf scenes in Ghana, Senegal, Morocco and South Africa, which he hopes will continue to develop along their own path without having Western surf dogma forced on them, new African surf brands including Mami Wata and Bantu Wax, and the rich surf talent coming through, such as Cherif Fall from Senegal and Joshe Faulkner from South Africa, who feature in the film. Mikey February, also from South Africa, was the first Black African to make the World Tour in 2018. In the future, David thinks we’ll see more Black pro surfers coming from Africa than the US as Black surfers have better access to the ocean there.

Sierra Raequel and others at the historic Bay Street Beach in Santa Monica, California

“It’s a sport that requires a daily regimen of going out paddling, surfing and embracing the culture and community,” he says. “In America, it’s so hard to be Black and have access to the beach, whereas in Ghana, Senegal, Morocco and South Africa these kids can get in the water day in and day out, so they’re able to build their skill sets.”

Though he concedes the financial barriers would still be limiting for many surfers based in Africa when it came to having the funds to travel to contests all around the world. “Ideally a brand would embrace an individual and cover that,” he says. “And then he or she could break into the World Surfing League and have an opportunity to become the next Kelly Slater or whoever.”

Reclaiming and celebrating the thousand-year-old tradition of Black surfing and circling the sport back to its African roots in the process. As the film’s powerful closing sequence, slow-mo surfing to a specially written poem by spoken word artist Sekou Andrew, says: “We are the original bodies of water… the water wades in us.”

The full version of Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing & Aquatic Culture directed by David Mesfin is available to stream now.

Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.

The Outsiders Project is dedicated to diversifying the outdoors. Follow us on Instagram, read more stories or find out more about partnering with us here.

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