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“You know how beneficial surfing is for your wellbeing, so go and find someone else who really needs it and teach them to surf!” / Photo supplied by Waves For Change

Surf therapy for violent communities.

The words hang from the tagline, gluing your eyes to the screen. It’s almost an oxymoron to us – surf and violence.

As surfers, violence is not a word we tend associate with. It’s a rating for a Hollywood movie or something that happens overseas. It’s a word we can switch off with the television, not a word that dictates every day of our lives.

The South African townships of Masiphumelele, Khayelitsha and Lavender Hill aren’t so lucky. They’re names I can hardly pronounce, of places I’ve never thought to visit. But there’s something that connects me to them, that connects us all. It’s something so simple yet so deeply intertwined in our daily lives, we sometimes forget the transformational powers it has.

“You know how beneficial surfing is for your wellbeing, so go and find someone else who really needs it and teach them to surf!”

Tim Conibear, founder of the non-profit organisation Waves For Change, isn’t just saying the words. He is living the reality. And he’s doing it in some of the most violent places on the planet.

“When we opened our programme in Khayelitsha, I think it was listed as one of the most violent communities in the world. In Khayelitsha, if there’s been a fight, the bodies will typically get dumped at the beach so we’ve had to clear them away before we went surfing”, Tim explains.

What started out as Tim taking a few locals from the townships surfing, evolved into the collaborative organisation of today when Tim saw the deeper issue.

“There was this one kid called Sean. He was a drug addict and in a local gang but we couldn’t find help for him anywhere. We tried to get him to a councillor but there wasn’t one in the township. We tried to get him to talk to a school councillor, but there’s wasn’t one. His Dad was long gone and his Mum didn’t want to get involved because he was an alcoholic. The school principal didn’t want anything to do with him because he was misbehaving. There was literally no hope for this kid.”

“So I thought, let’s find a social worker. But there’s only one social worker for five schools and the only opportunity to speak to them was for five minutes every three months. Then the social worker would just disappear.”

“I asked Sean one day why he liked coming surfing and he said it was because it was dangerous. He was attracted to the risk. It’s the same for pretty much every kid who was coming with us, they were drawn to the danger.”

“I started to connect the dots to see we could naturally reach out to kids like Sean. Then if we could identify trust worthy adults in the community, we could train them as youth care workers.”

“When we started in 2011 we trained two people, Apish and Bongs. They worked with 20 kids in the township of Masiphumelele where Sean is from. Then two turned to four, doubled to eight and now we have 16 youth workers who reach out to about 250 kids a week”, Tim finishes.

The most important thing about the organisation is its ownership lies within the community it benefits. All Waves For Change projects are delivered by members of the community for members of the community.

Giving the township responsibility for the legacy of the programme is what Tim believes has contributed to its success. “It’s not just people from outside the community coming to deliver it then disappearing, the community is leading it themselves. There’s also a social interest within the township because surfing was exclusive in the old days. Now you have townships taking pride of this new sport that was previously beyond their reach because of apartheid”, embellishes Tim.

The challenges all the children in the Waves For Change programme face are similar to Sean’s story. It’s an issue Tim is dubbing “toxic stress”.

“If we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, there’s this idea that you’ve been exposed to a singular event, there’s one incident that affects the whole way you cope with life”, explains Tim. “What these kids go through is just repeated trauma after trauma after trauma. Statistics from the University of South Africa reveal these kids experience on average eight traumatic events a year.”

Being exposed to continuous amounts of violence negatively affects the way township kids respond to emotional issues. Part of the challenge the Waves For Change team face, is they are dealing with a demographic who are notoriously difficult to work with.

“There were very few people who wanted to work with them. It’s really hard to keep them in programmes, to keep them engaged or to succeed at anything with them. A lot of them come to us using glue.”

“Most of the kids that we work with have one meal every two days, so they sniff glue because it suppresses their appetite. But it also destroys all your neurological pathways so you can’t concentrate”, Tim reveals.

But there’s good news. The psychosocial intervention is working. Around 60% of the kids referred to the Waves For Change programme are completing the one year course. “In terms of the demographic we work with, that’s quite a good success rate!” Tim chips in.

Reports from teachers say the children are consistently showing up to school, and they’re now easier to control. Interviews with participants reveal they are more in touch with their emotions, their behaviour feels more stable, they are less aggressive and becoming more social. Parents are turning up to the beach to watch the surfing and teachers are becoming more open to the idea of using Waves For Change as a referral channel for difficult students.

And the surfing? It’s helping reshape personal images. The kids are identifying themselves as surfers and developing new coping skills. “All the little things surfing does for you naturally, we reinforce with the curriculum”, shines Tim.

The success this curriculum is having in South Africa is the start of something bigger. “We want to be in the public eye and work in partnership with other NGOs who are facing similar issues, because that’s where the programme has most value”, Tim expresses.

The next few years will focus on development, and Tim hopes to eventually share the Waves For Change toolkit internationally. If the team is to truly break these negative cycles of violence and other abuses, awareness, partnership and longevity of the programme is key.

You can find out more about Waves For Change here