She may not be a household name like Kelly Slater or Carissa Moore, but the pro surfing circuit may one day include Kadiatu Kamara. She is 19 and considered Sierra Leone’s first female surfer. But unlike many of today’s professional surfers who have had relatively few barriers bar skill level and talent to enter their chosen career, Kadiatu has had a very different path.
Her incredible and inspiring story was recently shared on CNN.com as a short documentary by British filmmakers Daniel Ali and Louis Leeson was released during the summer, sharing Kadiatu’s story with the world. She is known to those around her as KK, and is a regular at Bureh Beach, south of Freetown.
KK has seen a lot in her short life so far, having been born into a civil war that took place from 1991-2002, and managing to live through the horrendous Ebola epidemic of 2014. Sierra Leone was one of the worst countries to experience the outbreak, which killed more than 28,000 people across Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Mali, Sierra Leone, and the US. January 2016 saw the World Health Organization officially declared all countries to be Ebola-free.
Sadly, KK’s father died during the outbreak, and while there were high rates of teen pregnancies reported while this was happening due to school closures and girls trading sex for money, KK chose to take to the ocean instead.
“Surfing always makes me happy. [it] always makes me forget about my problems at home,” KK told filmmakers Daniel and Louis.
A photojournalist who has spent time in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Syria, Louis reported on the 47% increase in teen pregnancies during the Ebola outbreak, and that girls start having sex as young as 11. This is why KK’s story is going to serve an inspiration for those around her, especially other girls who are at risk of becoming a statistic.
During the day she makes a living selling hats and bags to tourists in order to support her family, while also juggling school work. But early mornings and evenings are the times reserved for surfing at Bureh Beach Surf Club, started by Irishman Shane O’Connor in 2012, an NGO employee who has since left to work for UNICEF, according to CNN. Shane raised money from donations and purchased surfboards for the local village to teach them how to surf.
Today, it is run by 19 local people, who are now teaching kids as young as five to surf. The town was set to become a major international surfing destination in 2014, but the Ebola outbreak put a pin in that plan. Although Bureh Beach itself did not suffer the brunt of the outbreak like nearby towns did, people stayed away and they are only recently recovering from a lack of tourists.
Filmmakers Daniel and Louis say KK is the club’s only female member, but she hopes to encourage other girls to join her, despite the status quo.
“We did ask [KK] and she gave different reasons, like some of the girls can’t swim, or some of them are scared of swimming or the sea. Guys are the ones allowed to go out and have a bit of fun. There’s probably a lot of other girls that would like to do it, but they’re a bit shy,” explained Daniel about the lack of interest among girls.
Just by her going out in the ocean, and now having her story shared with the world, KK could be seen as a beacon of hope, positivity and encouragement for girls in a country that has grappled with Ebola and its fallout, including a rise in teen pregnancies.
“Surfing is good for us ladies. The message I have from them is I want them to join me,” she said to the filmmakers.
Elsewhere in the world there are stories of women who are taking up surfing, a sport that is still dominated by men in both numbers, sponsorships and pay scale, in order to break gender barriers in their country. This 18 year-old from Bangladesh has waded through conservative cultural stigma surrounding girls and evaded falling into a life of prostitution to become the country’s first female surfer.
And this badass from Ireland has gone where no man has gone before to help Iran become the 100th member of the International Surfing Association. Easkey Britton decided to try her hand surfing the Baluchestan coast 6 years ago, and has since started a movement that has encouraged women in hijabs to take to the waves.
Looks like Kadiatu Kamara is in good company, especially if she can successfully recruit other young girls away from the sex trade and into the ocean. To learn more about her story, watch the short film below: