A post-war surfing renaissance is underway in Africa’s oldest republic
But at the end of the second civil war in 2003, as Liberia was about to democratically elect the continent’s first female head of state, a different narrative was emerging in the fishing village of Robertsport; one that would end up changing the culture of this small seaside community on the border with Sierra Leone.
“After the war in 2003, Americans came to Robertsport, where they started riding our waves,” recalls local surfer Philip Banini. “(They) ran into a black guy, Alfred Lomax, who was the first Liberian surfer, and they taught him the sport. And that’s how he too started sharing it with the people here. .”
Lomax, now the most recognized and decorated surfer in the country, taught Banini, who in turn taught countless others, growing the community from one to many.
Today, inside Banini’s guest house, a sign reads ‘When nothing goes right, surf left’ – a reference to the left break for which Robertsport is famous. The village is now one of Liberia’s top three surfing destinations, the others being the capital Monrovia and Harper on the border with Ivory Coast. Between the palm trees and the long stretches of sandy beach that border the Atlantic Ocean, the water is dotted with surfers every day.
To borrow a surfing phrase, “the momentum is real”.
A growing community
The fishing village of Robertsport, Liberia is becoming internationally known for its booming surf scene. Inside Africa follows Liberian American documentary filmmaker Artina Michelle as she turns her lens to the community.
Today, Robertsport has been a world apart since the days when Canadians Kent Bubbs and Landis Wyatt first set foot on its beach. Since moving to Liberia 15 years ago, Bubbs has witnessed how the community of around 4,000 people has grown to include more than 60 local surfers. “There are more and more surfers every year,” Bubbs told CNN. “Kids who originally surfed now have kids, and those kids are surfing – it becomes generational. We often see multiple family members surfing together.”
Among them are former National Men’s Surfing Champion Oscar Comney and his younger brother, Massalley “Samon” Comney, whom Oscar taught to surf.
Through their NGO Universal Outreach Foundation, Bubbs and Wyatt have taken an active role in helping to grow the Liberian surfing community through surf tourism initiatives. They also find sponsors for the only national surfing competition in the country, which they organize in collaboration with Robertsport’s Surf Club.
Massalley recently won the Robertsport Under-18 competition and plans to challenge his brother for the adult title in the future. One of eight children, the 17-year-old juggles working at Banini’s guesthouse and selling handmade bracelets to tourists to pay for his high school tuition.
“I really like surfing because I feel like the best man on planet Earth,” says the up-and-coming youngster.
He’s not the only one making a splash either; Irene George is Robertsport’s only local surfer and finished third in the recent Women’s National Surfing competition.
Her skills have earned her the nickname “Butterfly”, as she moves through the waves as if flying. After taking a break from surfing to pursue hospitality studies in Monrovia, she is now back in the water and eager to prove herself.
She hopes to inspire more Liberian women to take up surfing, but acknowledges there are challenges ahead. “When (I) walk around saying, ‘I want to teach you how to surf,’ they say, ‘I can’t swim.’ Once you know how to swim, you can surf, so first we have to learn ( to people) to swim,” she said. It is George’s plan to one day open his own swimming and surfing school called Liberian Future Surf School.
Irene George is Robertsport’s only female surfer.
Jason Boswell for CNN
Reputation and infrastructure could pave the way for Liberia to join South Africa and Morocco as top surfing destinations in Africa.
Canadians Kent Bubbs (left) and Landis Wyatt (right) moved to Liberia 15 years ago and are now an integral part of the Robertsport surf community.
Courtesy of Landis Wyatt/Kent Bubbs
Bubbs recalls a time when the only visitor accommodation in Robertsport was camping on the beach, but that changed as new guesthouses opened. Soon the Robertsport Surf Club will have its own property, which will be used to organize surf lessons, fishing trips and possibly also offer accommodation, diversifying opportunities in what is still a local fishing-dependent economy.
In a few years, surfing has become the heart of this community. “It’s time for the country to understand the importance of focusing on Robertsport’s surfers,” says Banini. “I want them to know that there is a sport called surfing in Liberia and many Liberians participate in it.”
This article has been updated to reflect the results of the 2022 Women’s National Surfing Competition.