Senegal: Africa's new surfing hot spot
"Our first challenge was that people used to say that blacks don't know how to swim. If they (blacks) don’t know how to swim, it means they are scared of water and that they can't surf," Oumar Seye tells me. Sitting at his desk in one of his two surf shops at Corniche des Almadies, an upscale neighborhood of Dakar, Seye is preparing for the busy night to come. He built Surfer Paradise, a complex that includes a surfing school, two surf shops and a restaurant and lounge. As the first black African ever to sign a professional surf contract, he became Senegal's very own surfing legend. In 2013, after having toured the world as a professional surfer for 20 years, the 42-year-old Seye, a member of the Lebou, a West African ethnic group that lives mainly from fishing, returned to his homeland with the dream of making Senegal a world-class surfing destination.
"Our wealth — and all we know — is the environment and the ocean. We are children of the sea. Before everything else, we know how to swim. But today, this wealth, we have to learn how to exploit it," he says.
A surfing discovery
Senegal has been attracting surfers since the 1960s, after it was featured in filmmaker Bruce Brown’s 1966 documentary The Endless Summer, which followed Californian surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August on their quest around the world to find the perfect wave. But Senegal's beaches have remained mostly unknown. And yet it has all it takes to become a renowned surfing destination: a laid-back atmosphere, good food and contagious joie de vivre. Added to that, Senegal is only a five-hour flight from Europe.
Located on the Cabo Verde Peninsula, the Dakar area is exposed to both southern and northern hemisphere swells, or "hemi-swells", allowing beginners and pro surfers to find good waves all year long. Senegal is also, despite recent security issues in neighboring countries like Mali and Niger, one of the most stable and forward-thinking countries in West Africa.
Chasing the waves
On the beach of Yoff, north of Dakar, Senegalese children play in the water while adults are working out and food vendors are cooking fish on grills. In the sea, a few local and foreign surfers share the waves, while a group of Western tourists prepares for a first surfing lesson. Standing inside a small shed, Marta Imarisio prepares smoothies for a group of Swiss surfers. With her wavy, sun-bleached hair, her pink boardshorts and her t-shirt with its rolled-up sleeves, the 38-year-old Italian is sporting the typical surfer look. Ten years ago, she moved from the Italian region of Turin to Dakar in order to open Malika Surf Camp, a surfing school that offers surfing holidays and also teaches surfing to local children. "There are more and more tourists coming to Senegal to surf, thanks to the media and because destinations like Morocco are saturated. In Dakar, there are a lot of different types of surfing spots. You can find sand, rocks, waves breaking right, left and in the middle. No matter if you are a beginner or a professional, you can always find a wave that suits you," she says.
Alexandra Wohlwend has surfed around the world. She came all the way from Switzerland to try Senegal's waves. "I heard about Senegal through surfer friends a few years ago. I was surprised to find so many surfing spots here. I have traveled in Costa Rica, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Peru...The difference is that people here speak French, so I can easily communicate with the locals," she says.
While the number of surfers in Senegal has almost doubled in the past ten years, reaching approximately a hundred according to Marta, surfing scarcely remains accessible to most Senegalese. Equipment is hard to acquire in the country, as most of it has to be imported from Europe. In Dakar, a second-hand surfboard can cost up to 100,000 CFA francs (€152/$172), the equivalent of an average monthly salary in Senegal.
Still, for Senegalese surfers, surfing is seen as a way to access a better life. "Thanks to surfing, I am earning a living and I have met a lot of people. I even traveled to Ivory Coast in 2009 for a competition," says 25-year-old Mamadou Mbengue, a three-time Senegal surf champion who now teaches at Malika Surf Camp.
"When you are born next to the sea, all you want to do is go in the water. As a child, I would look for old or broken surfboards and try to surf. There still aren't many of us, but if we train children, surfing in Senegal will develop," he adds.
Building on the dream
With 10 surfing schools affiliated to the Senegalese Surf Federation and a national surfing team, Senegal is now making a name for itself on the international circuit. In March of this year, the country became the first West African nation to host a qualifying round of the world surfing championships.
"My dream is to make Senegal the best surfing destination possible because we deserve it. There is nothing more to be done in Europe or in other countries. Africa is the future. It's time for Africa," says Oumar Seye.