Success Story September 16, 2020 at 12:11 pm

Meet the first professional female surfer from Senegal who wants to present a team to the Olympics

Ama Nunoo September 16, 2020 at 12:11 pm

September 16, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Success Story

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One girl is on a mission to raise an army of female surfers from her home country Senegal. Khadija “Khadjou” Sambe found love for the waves at age 14 and now aspires to represent her country at the Olympics. Without any role models to fall on, she is forging her own path and moved across continents to Northern California in the hopes of going professional with her love for surfing.

As a teenager, Sambe was the only girl among her cousins and uncles surfing in Dakar. “I didn’t see any women surfing, so I said, ‘Why not me?’,” she said. Her grandmother is her biggest cheerleader as many are still skeptical of a woman surfing. Sambe said her grandmother always told her to “go, go, go” and that is exactly what she intends on doing.

The cultural norms and the traditions in Senegal restrict many girls from venturing into surfing. “The country’s Muslim, and for girls there, you finish school, get married, stay in the house, cook, and have a baby,” Sambe said. That notwithstanding, Khadjou is a very proud Muslim who does not identify with the restrictions imposed on women.

She began defying such rules when she started surfing; sneaking out through the window just to catch a wave.

“The first time I tried surfing I wasn’t scared at all; I was just so excited to get into the water. When you catch that first wave, you are so happy that you scream so that everyone can hear you – because you are content to have stood up and stayed standing.

“It was a bit tough at the beginning because I was the only girl surfing here, and people were a bit like: ‘What is a girl doing here? This is a sport for boys.’ Obviously, that’s not true, and other people really encouraged me and told me not to listen.”

Other women also shy away from surfing with her because they do not want to get darker in the sun and that is why Sambe is on a mission to reorient her fellow girls and women. She wants to break the glass ceiling in her chosen field so as to influence and change the culture back home.

Rhonda Harper is her coach and the pair was a match made over the internet. Harper, a certified surf coach who has been on judging panels for competitions for decades, realized the lack of women surfers in the world of surfing. She started her organization that trains black women and girls to be professional surfers in 2014.

She said motivating and helping other African-American surfers is her calling. “It’s very hard to acclimate yourself to surf culture, particularly for girls of color,” she said. “You’re coming into this predominantly white industry, and it can be very uncomfortable to get the resources you need to go forward.”

Two years down the line, she chanced on Sambe’s photos when she searched for surfers in Dakar online. At the time, Sambe was a surfing instructor at a camp who carried along with dreams of going pro with every lesson she taught.

Not having a certified surfing team and being the only girl in Senegal to want to go pro made her chances even slimmer. She needed to find exposure outside Senegal if ever her dreams would become a reality.

The Harper-Sambe relationship was nurtured over Facebook and WhatsApp messages for two years before the big move in 2018, 6,000 miles away from Dakar, to the United States.

“Every single time we talked, Khadjou would ask when she was coming,” Harper said. When Sambe landed at the San Jose airport, she and Harper met for the first time. “Both of us had these huge grins on our faces,” Harper said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘This is my sister right here.’”

Surfing is yet to make its debut as an Olympic sport and Sambe intends on being in the middle of the whole show. “I love surfing, and I want to represent my country. I want to represent my country as well as girls,” Sambe said.

“When I am in the water, I feel something extraordinary, something special in my heart,” Sambe added.

She first must rank in the top ten of the World Surfing League (WSL) by competing in sanctioned competitions in Peru, Brazil, France, and Australia. All she needs to do is to outperform hundreds of other women to secure one of the prestigious spots for the surfing debut in 2020.

Sambe’s training schedule was intense and Harper coached her for free in her California home in San Jose and Santa Cruz. The training was funded through donations and the sales made from Black Girls Surf merchandise. Harper would do anything to see more Black women surfing professionally.

A video of Sambe surfing popped up in the local news in California which made her an overnight sensation because it got hundreds of views on Facebook and many in Senegal and the world over got hooked on to her talent. She instantly received hundreds of Facebook requests and not less than ten calls a day from Senegal, Harper said.

“She’s a newfound celebrity,” Harper added. “She’s going to be larger than life when she goes back.”

Leveraging on her new training and exposure, Sambe intends on taking her surfing class a notch higher in Senegal when she returns. She used to work with white tourists but now her focus will be on the local Senegalese girls by starting a surf school in Dakar. “I want it for black girls, all girls, not just me,” she said.

Harper helped her lay the groundwork to secure funding and is “100 percent behind her.”  

“She’s paving the way for a whole other generation of girls,”Harper said. “Hopefully, they won’t have to go through the struggles that she had, because they have her to look up to and go to for advice.”

The 25-year-old hopes to be an inspiration and a spark for a new culture of female surfers in Senegal. She certainly will never stop surfing because she feels at one with the water anytime she jumps into it.

“When I’m in the water, it’s as if I’ve never lived outside of it,” she said. “It’s as if the waves belong to you.”

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