“Now 90% of young people surf”
About a 90-minute drive from Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, is Bureh, one of the best beaches in the West African country. This area, next to a fishing village with a population of a few hundred, has become a hotspot for surfers, thanks in part to one man’s curiosity.
John Small (28) was just a kid when he started watching strangers unload surfboards from their vehicles and take them out to the waves. It was shortly after Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war, and Bureh was very remote. “There was no guesthouse, no bar,” he recalls, when the roads between Freetown and Freetown were pretty bad.
One day, Small managed to catch a wave himself. “When the tourists left, they gave me a surfboard,” he says. He continued to practice. “At the beginning when I was doing it, it was a bit hard and stressful, but I didn’t give up, I worked hard for it. People thought I was wasting my time.
At one point, Small says his father wanted him to stop so badly that he cut the surfboard into pieces, but Small got another one from a visitor from Norway – and he no longer stored that board. at home.
He then met Shane O’Connor, an Irishman residing in Sierra Leone who also loved surfing, and together they decided to start a surf club to benefit the community.
“Suddenly, Bureh became a community of surfers; now 90% of young people are surfing,” says Small. “These 10 years have been a great experience for me.”
O’Connor, a 46-year-old man from Oranmore in Galway, moved to Sierra Leone in 2009. “I started going down [to Bureh] weekends,” he said. “It’s literally the perfect place to learn to surf. Beautiful warm water, a tropical beach, a mountain with tropical rainforests in the background, a very nice community there that will take care of you and give you a safe and good experience.”
The tourism industry
Sierra Leone had a booming tourism industry before the war. By the time O’Connor moved there, things were picking up and there seemed to be a lot of investment. The Irishman thought Bureh would be a “perfect place for a surf school” and decided to start a community-focused one before someone else started one privately.
O’Connor both raised funds and contributed his own to build a surf club on land owned by the community. He brought donated boards there from Ireland and the club opened at the end of 2012. The idea was that it would be run as a cooperative. Locals would offer lessons for visitors who would also pay a fee to rent a surfboard. Revenue was to be shared, with 50% of profits going to support club members, a quarter for building maintenance and 25% going directly back to the community.
“The community was involved at all points. . . It was envisioned as a community project and, for better or for worse, it remained as a community project,” says O’Connor.
The initiative and the increasingly skilled surfers trained there have been covered by the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and Al Jazeera. We focused a lot on Kadiatu Kamara, known as KK, the only female surfer. “Back then all you heard about Sierra Leone was child soldiers and diamonds,” O’Connor said, so he was glad there was a positive story for once.
But when the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak hit West Africa, tourism came to a halt again. Although Bureh was relatively unaffected by the disease, an international competition due to be held there was canceled – a huge disappointment for many local surfers. After the epidemic ended, Sierra Leone joined the International Surfing Association and the situation seemed to be improving. But the area was again negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic; visitor numbers remained well below normal even after the country’s borders reopened in mid-2020.
O’Connor and Small are no longer involved with the Bureh Surf Club, O’Connor due to personal commitments, and Small following community disputes over how it should be run. “I wanted [local] children to have [free] accessibility to it. They only focus on money, business now, it’s sad,” he said.
Instead, Small gives private lessons nearby at a cost of 160,000 leone (around €12), or rents surfboards for 60,000 leone (€4.60). His boards are displayed outside a new bar and restaurant, Menyeleh’s, which Small co-owns. “My main goal is to increase tourism and promote surfing,” he said. “My family is proud of me now. I wish my dad was still alive to see what I did.
O’Connor still sometimes visits Bureh to surf. “I’m ashamed when I go down there. Luckily, they let the old man out anyway.
He encourages anyone interested in visiting Sierra Leone and says the best time to surf is probably May or September, either side of the rainy season. “Sierra Leone can be a difficult destination. . . but it is quite beautiful, it has an incredible set of coastal beaches. There are very interesting animal parks in the hinterland. . . There are a few parts that are unexplored in terms of surfing, I’m pretty sure there are a few spots that have waves that have yet to be ridden. . . Someone will one day.