Update: Surf of Clans SambavaMar 16, 2019
Sambava is a small town in the northeast of Madagascar with three surf spots, one beach break and two right breaks. In the winter, during cyclone season, the waves can get up to 2 meters high. There’s one local surf club here—called Surf of Clans—and there are eight official members, all male, with ages ranging from 13 to 30
In theory, each one of the guys has a role in the club (president, for example, or cashier, or secretary), but in reality they just love to surf and spend time on the beach together every weekend and don’t worry too much about formalities.
There are no surf shops in Madagascar and all the boards and equipment the club owns were either left by visitors or somehow scraped together. The guys are inventive and industrious and manufacture fins out of aluminium and fiberglass. When they first started out, they fabricated leashes out of scotch tape and string and used a mix of hot candle wax and honey as surf wax. The few boards they do own break often. It’s usually Vario, the “father” of the gang, who patches them back together in his yard.
Although all the guys constantly complain about how hard it is to get boards (or anything, for that matter) in Sambava, they are often surprisingly careless with their equipment. They try to impress each other and are reckless in the water.
Their surfing equipment is an endless source of worries and fights within the club. Some guys own their own boards and won’t let them out of sight. Others use whatever patched-up boards they can get their hands on. Some guys recently started talking about manufacturing boards out of wood, and drew up board designs in the sand.
The guys have known each other since childhood and started surfing together a few years ago. They’re all self-taught. They learned by practicing a lot, and by watching videos on YouTube, pirating wifi throughout the city.
The members’ backgrounds contrast sharply: Some come from stable middle class families, some grow up very poor, without parents, and barely any schooling. Some of them are hippies who play the guitar, drink strong coffee in the morning, and walk everywhere barefoot, others can’t read or write and love to get drunk on the weekends. Their club is an opportunity for them to encounter different manners of masculinity, and to figure out what kind of life they want to lead.
Here’s something almost all of them told me: “Once I enter the water, all my problems disappear. When I surf, I live in the moment, I‘m one with the board and the waves. It’s the only thing that counts for me. Surfing is in our blood, and the guys in the club are like family to me, like brothers.”
Surfing teaches them patience and gives them courage and confidence; in this area, isolated from the world, it’s their therapy.
Two club members, Olidano and Yoyo, have always been much more interested in surfing than schooling, so they just dropped out at the age of 17 and started minimum wage jobs at the airport and a local mattress factory.
Three girls started surfing with the guys in 2014, but two stopped quickly because they couldn’t swim and were scared of the water. The third girl apparently was really in love with surfing, but her boyfriend forbid her to continue. The guys explained to me that girls in Madagascar are much more looked after by their parents and would not be allowed to go to the beach alone, or with a bunch of guys.
Also, many Malagasy are terrified of the water, and there are some strange stories going around town, of ghosts who live in the ocean pulling people down to drown.
The economy in Sambava centers around the vanilla trade—80% of the world’s vanilla is cultivated here—and the whole area is infamously hard to access: The roads are terrible and haven’t been kept up since the French colonialists left in the 1960ies. During the rainy season, some areas in the north are completely cut off from outside traffic.
Madagascar is also the only country in the world not in conflict whose population grows poorer every year. Most Malagasy are farmers, and they eat or trade what they grow. Corruption is rampant in all areas of life. In schools, there are often more than 60 students crammed in one room, and without “handing a small gift” to headmasters and deans, it’s impossible to enter college or university.
Almost every one of the boys sees surfing as an opportunity and a strategy to go andafy (“outside of Madagascar”). They dream of becoming pro surfers and finding contracts or sponsors, someone who will take them under their wing and enter them in international competitions. They’ve created special Facebook profiles under their noms de guerre and strike up conversations online with surfers abroad.
They laugh about their dreams, and are a bit embarrassed by them, but surfing is definitely the number one thing them that connects them to the outside world, keeps them going, and gives them hope that maybe, one day, they really will go on a surf trip to Hawaii or Indonesia.