Cape Town’s Ocean View township does not, as the name suggests, offer views of the sea. A hill blocks the neighbourhood’s view of Kommetjie, a nearby surfer’s paradise, where white beaches and luxury homes contrast sharply with Ocean View’s squat brick buildings. Unemployment, drug abuse and gang violence are rife.
As a teenager growing up in Ocean View, Michaylah Petersen would walk to the beach and watch the waves roll in, but she would not approach the water. “I was afraid of it,” she recalls.
Today, nothing can keep the 19-year-old out of the swell. Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and red trainers she looks every inch the surfer. Her eyes light up when she talks about her work as a coach for Waves for Change, a charity offering therapy through surfing to young people growing up surrounded by extreme violence and abuse.
“My youth was tough,” she says, twirling her bleached dreadlocks between her fingers. “I was assaulted. I could not deal with my emotions.” She didn’t finish her matric, South Africa’s A-levels.
As a township dropout, her odds were not good. Youth unemployment in South Africa is an estimated 50%. Drugs and gang violence can often drag young people off course, but the first time Petersen caught a wave she saw the sport as an alternative. “The ocean cleared my mind,” she says.
Surfing has turned her life around. As part of her coaching she is getting accredited as a child and youth care worker. Plus, she gets to spend the day on the beach, doing what she loves. “I feel very blessed to be where I am in my life,” she says, flashing a smile.
Waves for Change has many such stories to tell. Several of its coaches have come from environments of violence or drug abuse. Having started with only 10 children in 2011, today 250 youth come through the charity’s programmes every year.
It far exceeds what its British founder, Tim Conibear, imagined when he set it up. Having worked as a surf coach in Cornwall, he was disappointed to see that, more than a decade after South Africa’s first democratic elections, segregation persisted on the waves. “I didn’t see kids from the townships in the water,” he says.
He began taking some kids from Masiphumelele, a predominantly black township near Kommetjie, to the beach with some friends. It quickly became obvious that surfing helped the kids focus and cope with difficult situations at home.
One of the first to join the initiative, initially as a volunteer and then as a paid coach, is 26-year-old eesident of “Masi” Yanga Mpopoma. He believes by surfing together black and white South Africans can mend their broken past. When he came to Cape Town aged 15, he thought surfing was only for white people. After trying it, he was hooked.
“When I got into the water it made me forget my stress and my family problems. After catching my first wave, I thought I want to do that again,” he says. Now it is his passion and his career. He especially loves helping children from his community break out of the cycle of violence. “I want to help kids and change the way our community works,” he says.
The charity works with teachers in the township to identify teenagers who might be turning to drugs and violence to cope with traumatic experiences, such as seeing a friend hurt or killed, or a family member harmed. Conibear says kids in the townships can experience eight to 12 traumatic events in a year.
The kids on the programme are taught to surf, and given coping strategies, such as trust-building exercises between each other and with adults, that help them deal with things like peer pressure, stress and overwhelming emotions. The charity also offers homework assistance and there is also a feeding scheme to help those who do not get enough to eat at home.
Other local youth programmes also use sport to lead vulnerable youth away from a life of crime and drugs. Many target sports that are popular in the townships, such as soccer. Waves for Change is aiming to transform what used to be a predominantly white, middle-class recreational scene into something more inclusive.
Earlier this year Waves for Change won the Sport for Health Award from Beyond Sport, a London-based charity. But running the charity hasn’t always been a walk on the beach, says Conibear. At the start, funding was scarce. “We made do with what we could cobble together, which has created a strong ‘can do’ attitude at Waves for Change.”
Today his main challenge is meeting demand, he says. “There are a lot of kids who need the service and even more who want to join. We have capacity for 250 kids per week at the moment but have almost twice that number on our waiting list. So we’re looking at how we can scale effectively to meet demand.”
In 2012 the charity expanded to Khayelitsha, a sprawling informal settlement that dominates the flatlands between Cape Town and the seaside town of Somerset West. It was a challenging move. There are parts of Khayelitsha were even police fear to go. Returning from the beach one day coaches and students were caught out by gunfire. Once, a body washed up on the beach while they were surfing. Today Khayelitsha houses the charity’s largest programme.
Mpopoma’s dream is to one day move from the township and live closer to the sea. So close, he says, that he can wake up and see from his windows whether the waves look good enough for a dawn patrol. Learning to surf has given him a job and a purpose, but it has also given him peace of mind. He says: “It’s made me a free man.”
source: The Guardian