In Nigeria, surfing between pipelines and oil tankers
Behind the swell, the constant coming and going of oil cargo ships doesn’t seem to bother Michael Gabriel and his friends, who ride under their arm to catch a wave in the polluted waters of Lagos.
In Tarakwe Bay, a small fishing village attached to the titular port of Nigeria’s economic capital, surfing has in recent years become a getaway for its youth.
Amidst the rollers, bands of surfers perform stunts to the cheers of their friends, on the occasion of the second national surfing competition held in this West African country where the board sport is still in its infancy.
We’re far from the big African surf spots like Senegal, South Africa or Morocco, but whatever the case, 20-year-old Michael is determined to become a “champion” representing not only Nigeria, but “the whole of African surfing”. It is said that his eyes shine with hope.
“Maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day I will be a champion”, he says from the shore, where children as young as six standing on pieces of boards are already exercising on the foam that cleans the beach .
For seven years, Michael has been training every day to fulfill his dream like dozens of other teenagers in this community without schools and health centers, thanks mainly to tourism.
Because their village and their beach, accessible only by boat, are one of the few leisure spots in the crowded megalopolis of 20 million inhabitants, where space is sorely lacking. That’s why wealthy Nigerians and foreigners flock there every weekend to decompress.
It is also through them that the first surfboards appeared on the coast fifteen years ago … before winning the hearts of the youth of Tarakawa.
“I like to surf, because as soon as I’m on a wave, I feel good and I forget all my problems”, said Michael between two waves.
He says it was surfing three years ago that helped him recover from the trauma of his forced eviction and the demolition of his home by the Nigerian military.
– Bulldozer and demolition –
One morning in January 2020, Navy personnel arrived with bulldozers and gave the thousands of residents of Tarakawa Bay an hour to pack up and leave.
“They demolished all our houses, almost all the surfers’ houses. They said it was because of vandalized oil pipelines, there was too much (stolen) fuel so they demolished our island”, recalls the boy. .
The army then accused the community of participating in the shutdown of oil pipelines that run along the lagoon and supply gasoline to the whole of western Nigeria. The country of 215 million people is the world’s sixth largest oil producer, but nearly half of its population lives in extreme poverty.
After the evacuation, most of Tarakawa’s residents settled on the ruins of their homes, which are still visible three years later.
“We fight to have a shelter, to eat, to have a good life”, testifies Michael, who has not stopped “working hard to forget everything else” since that day.
“Surfing has given a lot of hope to these youths, some of whom are desperate and have nothing to do all day,” said Adewale Fawe, president of the Nigerian Surfing Federation.
He is convinced, “Surfing can become something positive in their life, it keeps youth away from crime and drug addiction”. And why not work with the authorities to change the image of the community, thus preventing future evictions.
Adewale Fawe also dreams of developing surfing in other areas in Nigeria, such as Bayelsa in the Niger Delta, where residents live in the greatest poverty and violence, their environment one of the most polluted in the world. After decades of oil exploitation.
Above all, he hopes to one day send one of his “champions” to the Olympic Games.
But the challenges to developing the discipline are enormous, he acknowledged. Especially due to the lack of surfboards, which are very expensive.
The best surfers in Tarakawa have been offered boards by individuals, federations or major surf brands. However, it has its drawbacks.
So here, a sense of camaraderie prevails: “When we’re not in the water, we lend our boards to little kids so they can practice”, says Michael, surrounded by several kids who watch him intently. Appreciation. In their eyes, Michael is already a champion.