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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Thu, 16 February 2017

Life has been a blur lately for Waves For Change director Tim Conibear, who flew into Cape Town in the early hours this morning clutching a rather prestigious award, writes Spike

After setting up an iteration of the Cape Town-based trauma programme Waves For Change in the remote town of Harper in war-torn Liberia, Tim flew into Monte Carlo in Monaco where his NGO won the Laureus Sport For Good award at a star-studded ceremony on Tuesday night.

After a day of travelling immediately following an all-night jol with the super stars of the sporting world (he left the after party at 4am to start a series of flights home), he touched down in Cape Town at 1.30 this morning, and already he and other Waves For Change personnel have been on Cape Talk, KFM, Jacaranda FM, Chinese TV and various SABC channels.


RED CARPET: Getting ready for the Laureus Sport for Good Awards. Photo Getty Images

Waves-for-Change-Laureus-2017-002When I spoke to Tim this morning, a news crew from eTV were interviewing co-founder Apish Tshetsha, and the day was chokka block with interviews.

“It's all been crazy, so bizarre,” says Tim, whose feet still haven’t touched the ground. “My last two days have been a whirl. After we got the award, presented by HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco, we hung out at the after party until 4am, grabbed a taxi with (US track star) Michael Johnson, and then caught a cab to the airport in Nice to fly to Paris, followed by Cape Town.”

“Laureus were amazing. They flew my wife Daniella and Guyver Ngeyake (assistant site manager at the W4C Monwabisi centre) to Monaco, and put us up in this historical hotel near the yacht club.”


OUR NAME HERE: Tim and Guyver point to where Waves for Change will go. Photo Facebook


It was all a bit surreal, with Daniella sitting next to MC Hugh Grant, who was interested in the programme, and later they hung out with Usain Bolt, who was very friendly and curious about their work.

“Wade van Niekerk and Bryan Habana came and chatted to us. They were super friendly and genuine. It was really cool to be part of a South African team identity, and we had to take a South African selfie!”

He said that former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick went out of his way to talk to them. 

Tim, Daniella and Guyver were in exclusive company. Sprint hero Usain Bolt and four-time Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles got sportsman and woman of the year, Rachel Atherton won action sportsperson of the year (first DH rider in history to win every event in a World Cup season), and Leicester football club manager Claudio Ranieri and captain Wes Morgan collected the spirit of sport after the 5,000-1 outsiders emphatically won the Premier League in 2016.


BOLT SELFIE: Spot the stars. Tim and Guyver are at the back. Photo Getty Images

Nico Rosberg, who quit Formula 1 in December five days after being crowned world champion, received the breakthrough of the year prize, and Comeback of the year went to American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won his 23rd Olympic gold in his final Games in Rio.

The prestigious award has given a rocket boost to Tim’s dream of turning W4C into a global NGO. “We just have to find a way of making it happen,” he said.

Well, he’s well on the way after travelling to Liberia days before with the support of the Liberian Ministry for Youth and Sport to help the community of Harper, a small town in a remote, war-ravaged part of far eastern Liberia near the border with Ivory Coast.


HARPER LOCATION: Almost on the southernmost tip of the Bulge of Africa. Photo Google Earth

Harper lies close to the southern-most tip of the African bulge. Surfer ears will no doubt prick up at that news. It’s right out in the open ocean facing south, with a vast swell window.

But Tim was not there to surf, per se, although he did surf during his three-day stay before flying to Monaco for the Laureus Awards.

A crash course in history tells you that Liberia was created to settle freed American slaves. They, in turn and somewhat ironically, decided to enslave the native Liberians. Two communities developed: native Liberians and Americo-Liberians, or former slaves and their descendents.

Native Liberian Samual Doe overthrew the Amerio-Liberians, and chucked their leader Charles Taylor in jail. After the CIA broke him out, he instigated one of the most vicious, devastating wars in Africa. Lasting 14 years, and ending in 2003, it laid waste to the country, literally.

You might remember Sliding Liberia, the surf documentary film. Next to Timmy Turner’s Second Thoughts (I like reality style-feral surfing-in-remote places kind of stories), it’s my favourite movie.

Well, from what Tim tells me, comparing the town where Sliding Liberia is set, Robertsport, to Harper is like comparing Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla to a homeless person’s makeshift shack under a highway overpass.

For a start, if you wanted to drive to Harper from Monrovia, it takes anywhere from two to five days. In rainy weather, you will battle vast bogs of red mud, and sodden dongas the size of a small canyon. There are stories of people getting stuck on the road for two weeks. By the way, Liberia gets 4,624mm of rainfall a year. That’s an average of 385mm per day.

Robertsport is a bustling community, with a small surf industry, and much has been achieved there to rebuild infrastructure. But in Harper, which is in Maryland county, you don’t get more remote, or more rundown and broken. Since the war, there has been a total breakdown in infrastructure and healthcare, says Tim, with the road one of the casualties. Then the Ebola outbreak came, and aid simply dried up.


STREET WALK: New surfboards transported along a dusty street in Harper. Photo Tim Conibear

“The UN mission in Liberia used to have a flight there, but they cancelled that.”

However, a ten seater aircraft operated by a Christian missionary NGO called MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) flies aid workers in and out twice a week, and Tim managed to get on a flight. One hour in the air beats days on the ground.

“We worked with the only university in the area William Tubman University, who run a counselling programme. They came to us in April last year to help train their people. We are also working with Partners for Health, a wonderful healthcare NGO who are doing amazing things in Maryland. They’ve just instituted a mental health programme to help the many people damaged by trauma and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”


SURF FOR GOOD: Co-founder of W4C Apish Tshetsha does his thing. Photo Getty Images

This is where W4C comes in. “We are building a referral service where the worst effected are selected through a process we have instituted with counsellors. Basically, it’s the same model we run here, with six coaches and one manager.”

It’s a fairly simple and transferrable method, he says, and while Waves for Change in Cape Town started through the medium of surfing as the method to heal members in the programme, the coaches in Harper do not surf, although with all the new surfboards that arrived, you have to think they will be learning soon. It’s the first international example of the franchising system of W4C, with programmes already running sucessfully in East London and PE.

Only one person surfs at the moment in Harper (population about 18,000), a fellow by the name of Ian Mountjoy who runs the Partners in Health programme there. Ian took Tim surfing and they had fun surf all to themselves.


SLIDING BOARDS: Chuffed Liberians bear precious cargo on a motorbike. Photo Tim Conibear

“He’s the only surfer down there, and he gets some ridiculous waves all to himself. We saw incredibly good waves from the air, but I have no idea how to get to them!”

Tim says that Ian was leading the rehabilitation of the healthcare system in Maryland, which was laid waste by war and Ebola, and he was doing an amazing job considering the challenges he faces every day: “You can’t imagine it until you experience what life is like there. There’s no elecricity. It’s all generators. Liberia is rated by aid agencies as the toughest place to operate in the world. And Maryland is possibly the worst in Liberia. That’s why we chose it.”

That will double the crowds at your nearest surf spot to two.

The medical supply route for Ian’s NGO between Abidjan to the East and Harper has been further complicated by the closure of the border with Ivory Coast due to Islam radicalisation, which has made the area unsafe.

Tim will be returning in May to firm up the programme and make sure everything is on track.

Oh and by the way, he’s looking for someone to fly up with him and stay on for a year: “In fact, if anyone with counselling experience or studies wants to come up with us, and stay on for a year helping out, please get in touch! Call it a career break, gap year or internship.”

That will double the crowds at your nearest surf spot to two. 

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