Surf’s up in Senegal

A brilliant blue wave breaks, perfectly curled by a steady offshore breeze. Like their baggy-shorted brethren the world over, surfers spring upright on their boards, then drop down into a plunging, right-breaking barrel.

But at this beach, mosques in pastel colors crumble on the shores, haggard cattle munch the weeds, and the drinks are sweet tea, cooked over open fires in dented aluminum pots on the sand.

Local wave-riders lean on battered, second-hand boards at one of the world’s sublime and seminal surf spots: The westernmost point of Africa, lapped by the warm Atlantic.

The music is wooden djembe drums pounding against an occasional Islamic call to prayer — sounds that never made it into the Beach Boys’ tunes.

Born of Endless Summer — a seminal 1966 flick that helped introduce the world to surfing, and surfing to the world — Senegal’s surf community rides on, nearly 40 years later.

A sub-Saharan rarity, Senegal’s surfers see themselves as an important outpost of the global surf community — upholding surfing’s 60s-era fraternal ethos.

”For me, there’s no difference. There’s just the surf. Freedom,” says 29-year old Pape Samdandeaye, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound shades.

”Black, brown, white: If you’re cool in the water, we’re cool with you.”

Endless Summer most probably marked surfing’s West Africa debut.

Documentary filmmaker Bruce Brown arrived to film two American surf enthusiasts — Robert August and Mike Hynson — on their worldwide jet-plane jaunt in search of uncharted waves and perpetual sun.

First stop: Senegal.

”On the plane heading for Africa, Robert wondered what was in store,” the voiceover intones, in narration that’s often as dated as the American surfers’ tight swim trunks and fresh-scrubbed looks.

Landing in Senegal, the two put up at a government-run hotel at the Ngor fishing village, a sandy, sheep-wandered hamlet of mosques and breeze-block homes that remains Senegal’s surfing epicentre.

The two Americans flew on to other beaches and other continents, but their exploits left an impression in Senegal.

The Endless Summer surfers filmed here,” says Samdandeaye.

”There are old men who were the kids turning somersaults on the beach in that film.”

Patina N’diaye, now 41, is widely considered the father of Senegal’s surfing clan.

As a boy, N’diaye worked at the hotel where the Americans stayed.

One day in the early 1970s, some Europeans showed up with a surfboard — most likely following the trail blazed by movie, says N’diaye.

”Some people said there were people in the water doing acrobatics,” recalls N’diaye.

”It was a Dutch or Swedish family, I don’t remember, with a surfboard. They let me try it. And voila!”

Years later, after teaching windsurfing at Ngor beach, N’diaye obtained his first surfboard, a second-hand clunker.

”I got a rotten board, without fins. There was no leash, so I used a piece of string. I had no wax, so I used a candle,” he says.

”When I got my board, I loaned it out to other guys: Omar, Mamadou, Pape,” says N’diaye.

Senegal’s local surf community now numbers in the dozens. Others — Lebanese, American and Europeans residents and occasional tourists passing through a Club Med just down from N’Gor beach — join them in the waves.

Most Senegalese surfers are part of one ethnic minority: the Lebu people, Senegal’s sea-canoe fishermen.

”I’m Lebu, the majority of the surfers are Lebu. We’re fishermen, we know the ocean,” says Samdandeaye.

Outside of relatively prosperous South Africa, Senegal is believed to have West Africa’s only sizeable local surf community.

On a continent where a majority of the population lives on less than $1 a day, hanging 10 isn’t a priority.

But while Senegal is among Africa’s poorest countries, with peanuts and cement among top-produced items, it’s also one of the continent’s most politically stable, with a low HIV/Aids and crime rates.

Many Senegalese have time and energy for leisure.

Samdandeaye, at 29, is a vice-president of the Federation of Senegalese Surfers, a nascent group seeking to connect Senegal’s surfing community with their overseas counterparts.

”The problem is first that you need the means to start surfing. That’s the big problem,” says Samdandeaye, who hopes the organisation can attract foreign surfers — and their money and material.

Still, Senegal’s surfers have been able to follow surfing’s broader trends, from long boards to short, from smooth rides to tricks.

”Before, it was different. Now everyone wants to carve the wave,” says N’diaye, hobbling on crutches on Ngor after a recent motorcycle accident.

Cyril Audouard — a Frenchman who owns Senegal’s lone surf-gear outlet, Tribal Surf Shop — has seen The Endless Summer but didn’t settle in Senegal because of it.

”What they show of Senegal in the movie isn’t that nice actually,” he says.

”The waves are much, much better than they look.” – Sapa-AP

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