Picture a surfer. You probably imagine someone blonde and blue eyed—a classic Southern California type, The Beach Boys playing in the background. Maybe you think of Elvis and one of his many surf movies. Heck, you’re more apt to see Scooby Doo on a board than a person of color.
Like many sports in the US, surfing has been actively non-inclusive—a stark reality that Selema Masekela came to understand as a teenager surfing in Southern California in the 1980s.
“There were no other [Black] kids doing it,” Masekela says. “And the kids in my school were very much informative in making sure I knew that. Everything from ‘You people don’t swim, how are you gonna learn to surf,’ to outright usage of the n-word and harassment about my color and being in the water, everywhere I went.”
Ironically, Masekela—now a TV host, musician, and surf enthusiast—faced similar tensions when he visited South Africa, the home of his ancestors and some of the world’s most sought-after waves. It was the early ‘90s and he was accompanying his father, the musician and apartheid activist Hugh Masekela. Though apartheid had just ended, it was still very much the law of the land… and the water. Beaches were segregated, and the high price of entry for surfing meant that many indigenous South Africans couldn’t—and still can’t—afford to try it.
“I walked out of an elevator in a hotel in Durban with a surfboard in my hand and the whole lobby stopped, like a movie,” recalls Masekela. “When I walked out on the street to go to the beach, cars hit the brakes and you could hear the screeching of tires. People were looking like, what is happening? This is the new South Africa that they’re talking about on the radio—is this what it is?”
When I ask Masekela why he chose surfing as the lens for his new book about Africa, the question pretty much contained the answer.
“When [travelers] think about Africa it’s like ‘we went, we landed, they drove us into a safari,’” he says. “Or ‘I volunteered and worked in this village’ or ‘we went and taught people about Jesus and we saved them.’ That’s how we—especially in the West—look at the richest, most vibrant, culturally diverse continent on the planet.”
What people don’t typically associate with the Africa—despite 18,950 miles of coastline—is its waves. Masekela wants to change that with his new book AFROSURF. It delves into the history of surf culture in Africa, challenging stereotypes and popular ideas of provenance. Compiled with Mami Wata, a surf company based in Cape Town that Masekela co-founded, the collection features some 200 photos and over 50 essays, plus illustrations, profiles, even poems and recipes that span Africa’s shores from Morocco to Ghana to Somalia, and even landlocked countries like Congo.
There are thrilling tales of navigating shark-infested waters in Madagascar, and the surfable (and less terrifying) Skeleton Coast in Angola. Read about the tiny surfing utopia of Gabon, known to water-lovers for centuries, as yet undiscovered by much of the outside world. An essay by Kevin Dawson, history professor and author of the award-winning “Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora,” traces the origins of surfing not to Hawaii, but to what is now Ghana, in 1640, with fishermen foregoing canoes for longboards and using them to paddle across lakes.
The book also emphasizes the reverence of water throughout the continent. “Before [my father] left South Africa, my grandmother would always ask him to bring her back seawater from the beach,” Masekela said. “She believed in its spiritual power.” His father told him this story when they were sitting on a beach in 2010, working on an ESPN documentary together. “It was the first time that he ever really helped me to see that my love for the ocean water isn’t foreign—it’s actually native to us. To our family and to our culture.”
Charities like South Africa’s Waves for Change—which receives some of the proceeds from sales of AFROSURF—looks to the sea for therapy, helping kids heal trauma and gain exposure to the sport. “We’re creating a space where kids can be kids,” says founder Chemica Blouw in the book. “Because they don’t always get to be kids in the communities they come from.”
Decades later, the experience of surfing in South Africa has changed for the better for Masekela. But not enough. It’s a start that South Africa now has its first Black championship surfer in Michael “Mikey” February, who is also profiled in AFROSURF. “We’re stoked on Mikey February, but we have a long way to go,” he says. “It needs to get to the point where it’s no longer notable, but the norm.”
The sea change is most felt on the water. “When you get an opportunity to surf with people who look like you, it’s very hard to explain what that feels like, the ease and the safety,” Masekela says. “It’s so much fun to paddle out in Durban and be surrounded by tons of kids that look like me, and are rabid surfers. It’s incredible to go up and down the coast and have it not be strange.”