Words and Illustrations by Anna Anundi | Photos by Giovanni Astorino
Journeying around Africa, Anna came across the inspirational Senegalese surf girl Khadjou Sambe. This is her story.
In the labyrinth of narrow sandy alleys, the pungent scent of fish blended with the fascinating singing from the Mosque. The kids surrounded by goats and chickens played with glass marbles while most of the men took their Persian carpets and washed their faces, hands and feet to perform Wudu, the preparations to pray.
Khadjou Sambe lives in Ngor, a fishermen’s village in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. She has been surrounded by water since she was born, but being a woman in the Ngor community means staying on land while men helm the Senegalese fishing boats, pirogues heading out to sea. Old traditions hold strong in the tightly populated village, so the fixed gender roles divide the tasks of commune living. Men fish and women sell the catch after taking care of the kids, cooking and cleaning the house. Khardiata, known as Khadjou between friends, chose a different path; which wasn’t so simple at all.
Khadjou started surfing at her early 20s with her cousin Astou, when they followed their brothers and uncles into the water. She had easy access to the ocean, as her family’s house stands just in front of the waves breaking next to the little island of Ngor. This wave, Ngor Right, has played am important role in the history of surf in Senegal, since it was ridden for the first time in 1966, by Mike and Robert in the iconic film, The Endless Summer. Khadjou was hooked by the power and speed of the water, and soon learned to ride the waves with the support of her uncle Pape Samba Ndiaye.
The excitement and the passion glow from her eyes when she talks about surfing: “It is simply the best thing in my life. I love everything about surfing and I think about waves all the time”. Since she and her cousin were the only girls doing the water sport, their parents were a bit suspicious, and people around the village frowned upon their new hobby, believing that girls shouldn’t do such an extreme activity. Their families asked them to stop surfing, so after a big argument they gave up.
Khadjou was numbed with grief. For two years she yearned for the waves and stared at the ocean every day, almost losing hope that she would ever step on a board again. But then something unexpected happened. She met Marta, an Italian woman who needed a surf instructor for a surf school that she ran with her Senegalese husband Aziz, at Yoff Beach in Dakar. Khadjou’s family approved her wish to start working as a surf instructor, since she would start to make a living and her new boss was also a woman. She couldn’t have been happier to return in the water. Unfortunately Astou wasn’t so lucky, she never returned to surfing after the conflict with the family.
Now after seven years of working in Malika Surf Camp, Khadjou enjoys surfing more than ever and is taking it more seriously than ever before. She has started to train with the best surfers of Senegal, in preparation for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo 2020. The Surf culture in Senegal has improved fast since the pioneers started to catch waves with the boards left behind by Western tourists in the ’80’s, and West Africa’s popularity as a surf travel destination is rising high. Winter is the busiest season for the camps, which is no surprise since the constant swells of Atlantic Ocean bring high quality waves on the north and west coasts of the triangular peninsula of Dakar.
Still, Khadjou is waiting for the summer, when the mellow glassy waves brushed with offshore winds are warm enough to surf without a wetsuit. Her long braids move with the soft sea breeze as she tells us about her travelling dreams: “I would love to go to Tokyo for the Olympics, but I also would like to visit Ireland, because I have a friend there. I have been invited to surf in California, but it is so difficult to get the visa and it is not easy to save money for travel, since here in Senegal we always support our household and big families.”
Khadjou is a bit mysterious about her life plans, but one thing she knows for sure: “I’m worried that if one day I want to start a family I have to stop surfing, because the role of a mother has a lot of responsibilities and expectations. However, I want to believe that it is possible to find a surfing husband so we can teach our children and go to the ocean all together. That would be amazing!“ Being the only local female surfer in Dakar, and probably in the whole country, Khadjou wants to encourage women to follow their dreams, even if it means swimming against the current.
UPDATE: Khadjou’s dream came true – she is now training in California with Black Girls Surf Association.
This article first appeared in SurfGirl issue 64.
Along with her boyfriend Giovanni, Anna is currently working on a project called the Local Surfer Project, which explores the reality of surf culture around the world, combining photos and illustration. You can follow the project via their blog localsurferproject.com and instagram @localsurferproject.