They Told Me Not to Go to: Liberia

by Ali Bruce

A traveler explores the surprisingly active surf scene in Liberia.

They told me not to go to Liberia. “They” being news headlines peppering the three preceding decades: a bloody civil war postered by Kalashnikov-slung adolescents; a merciless Ebola crisis that filled the western world with dread when they thought it would spread to their homes and relief when they realized it would be contained to west African countries they couldn’t quite remember the name of or point out on a map. 

The journey to Liberia, which is shoved up against the coast by Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, would take me via Morocco and Sierra Leone, its neighbor, before touching down on the slick-wet runway of Roberts International Airport. It was early morning and the middle of the rainy season. A medium-rare sunrise was bleeding a warmth into the gray underbelly of the clouds and the matte tarmac. The only other vehicle on the airfield was a bread bin of a minibus to chug us the short distance from the plane to the terminal: by the time we’d reached the bus, we’d already walked half of the thirty meters to the terminal, yet we were shepherded on by a Hi-Vissed man who didn’t look like he was open to a conversation about the ridiculousness of it. This was our grand welcome, and we would not be made to walk.

Liberia is a two-season, largely two-terrain country: there is the sea of green that is the verdant jungle and the blue that is the Atlantic Ocean. I had read and seen documentaries about Liberia’s richness in surfing, which is often carried by tropes of child soldiers throwing down their weapons in favor of surfboards and taking to the water as a panacea to past traumas. I was interested to see this for myself, so I brought my board along for the journey. 

I was going to be spending the next two-and-a-half months working for an NGO that, for one of its many projects, was working with a community of young surfers in the small fishing town of Robertsport on Liberia’s northern coast. Many of the stories exported from Liberia center on this group of wave-riding enthusiasts and the surfer’s paradise in which they live. I would be headed there a handful of times on my trip, but for now, I would be based in Paynesville on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital. 

Signs of Liberia’s turbulent past with America are everywhere, from the star and stripe of the flag to its capital city, named after James Monroe, America’s 5th president. Liberia was “founded” by emancipated slaves who emigrated with the help of the American Colonisation Society as part of a programme of repatriation. The new settlers declared Liberia the first independent country on the continent and proceeded to govern as a minority over the indigenous people with Joseph Jenkins Roberts as its first president. But, as the old maxim goes, violence begets violence; soon after the free African Americans landed on the coasts of Liberia, the subjugation to which they were subject in America became a blueprint of oppression against the local people of their newly reclaimed homeland – a place almost all of them had no prior connection to. 

From the compound I was living in, you could see up the coast, over the corrugated-tin rooftops and fronded trees, towards the city center. Every time I went for a surf before work, I’d gaze back at the beach, admiring the view that was paradisiacal without the grittiness of finer detail. There always seemed to be a rainbow over Monrovia. Like many poor countries – Liberia being the ninth poorest in the world – public services have all but ceased, leaving the street sides and beaches littered with tussocks of rubbish, like drifts of autumn leaves. From out here, bobbing in the waves, you could lap up the raw natural beauty of the place without it being obscured by decades of governmental mismanagement. 

The sounds of the city stirring were both familiar and unusual. Motorbikes and cars splashing through the puddles on the red-dirt tracks outside the compound; roosters, like excitable children, deciding they needed everyone else to wake up; and radios and chitter chatter were all the expected morning yawns of a city suburb. But one noise was at best unique, at most infuriating. During the Ebola and COVID-19 pandemics, the government issued handheld megaphones to street-side vendors to encourage the dispersal of traditional marketplaces. Now, you have salespeople, mostly those selling data and airtime, sauntering the streets with a tinny message on repeat: “Lonestar data, Lonestar scratch card, Orange data, Orange scratch card… Rechaaaarge your phone.” 

A few weeks into my time in Liberia, we were headed to the much-vaunted prime holiday destination for expats. We loaded up into the international symbol for on-the-ground NGOs: the Toyota Land Cruiser. The surf forecast was looking good, so, boards and me wedged into the back, we embarked on our journey. 

The road to Robertsport used to take two-and-a-half hours. Now, the journey is at least four hours long and pockmarked with potholes so big that if you saw two ears poking out the top of them, you wouldn’t know if it was a rabbit or a donkey. Each bump thrashes me around the back like I’ve been dumped by a wave. Leaving the city is slow: the first obstacle is Red Light — Monrovia’s biggest marketplace where everything from heaving buckets of giant African snails to secondhand clothes shipped from America are sold as tuk-tuks (or keh kehs), motorcycles, and taxis weave in murmurations on what remains of the road. 

Along the way, roadside vendors provide wholesale fruit and vegetables to the market stalls on which the city survives and flourishes. Cars groaning under the weight of coal and fresh produce are making their way back to the city, where they’ll fetch a much higher price for their goods at markets like Red Light. 

The last stretch is a bumpy dirt track cutting through the verdant bush, like a red zipper down a green velvet jacket, that eventually passes the mighty Lake Piso before winding down to the idyll of Robertsport. I unfolded myself from the back of the Land Cruiser, stealing a glimpse of the ocean through the trees while we introduced ourselves to Philip Banini. 

Philip is a local who runs a guesthouse beneath the palms, set on the slopes above fisherman’s point. As short as he is broad and shaped more like a bodyboard, Philip was one of the first surfers in Liberia. During the war, another local became an enthusiastic bodyboarder after he found a board in a shipment container during the lootings. He was Liberia’s sole waverider and was taken aback when he saw a white man doing what he does, but standing up on a much bigger board. That white man was an American tourist called Nicholai Lidow, who taught Alfred and left behind his board and some equipment. Alfred was hooked, and so were those he taught with what little equipment he was given. So, with little more than the allure of the surf to get them started, there is now a thriving 60-strong surf crew in Robertsport. 

It doesn’t take long for a surfer to get a sense of how special Robertsport is. There was one other guest in Philip’s Guesthouse: a Frenchman named Olivier, who regularly makes the long journey from Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire simply because there is nowhere quite like it in between. In fact, there are not many places in the world quite like Robertsport. “Iz like a wave pool,” you could hear him muttering as he bobbed in bewildered bliss at the takeoff spot. Other surfers have gone as far as to compare it to J-Bay in South Africa — a surfing destination of great global prestige.

Pristine beaches sit beneath the sea of palms; the tropical rainforest that covers most of the country stops abruptly before reaching the ocean, presumably to marvel at the perfectly peeling left pointbreaks. The locals, who don’t often get the opportunity to leave their small fishing town, let alone their country, have only come to realize how lucky they are through the astonishment of those fortunate enough to visit this place. 

To the amusement of the local surfers, I couldn’t get enough of being in the water. They’re lucky enough to become fussy about which conditions to surf in, opting only for when the swell is really pumping. I happily took my spot at Cotton’s Point among the youngest of the surfers, who by now had this wave zeroed. “Kwepunha!” the kids would shout before paddling out, to my confusion. Moments later, I would be caught unaware as a bigger wave sent me cartwheeling. Kwepunha, which literally means “ocean”, is an indication that there is a clean-up wave about to come through. But it’s also used to encourage the ocean to give them a good wave when it goes flat: Kwepunha, they say, looking to the horizon in anticipation of something better to come. 

It felt somewhat uncomfortable to be the worst surfer among a group who have far less: there I was, talentless by comparison, atop my relatively new board that I didn’t have to share with anyone, alongside kids who have had to share boards since they first took to the water. It gave me comfort, though, to know that, no matter how much of an affront I thought my life of relative affluence was, they wanted people like me to be there. If tourism were a wave, kwepunha would be their call. 

For some years now, they have been preparing for a tide change for their community: working alongside Universal Outreach, a Canadian NGO, and other groups, they have built a surf club, a restaurant where visitors can enjoy local food over a Club beer, and accommodation. Setbacks in the form of Ebola and Covid-19 have only made them more hungry for tourists to arrive to provide them with an alternative and additional source of income to what they make from fishing. It’s their dream to make surf tourism a viable industry in Robertsport. 

I visited Robertsport on four occasions, and each time was better than the last. I had to peel myself away, reluctantly, from the water, from the shade of the almond trees, where husks are left by children who sell the nuts in plastic bottles along the beach, from the hammock of Philip’s guesthouse. 

They told me not to go to Liberia, but I will be back again. And if their calls of Kwepunha are answered, the ocean will entice others to these shores, as well.

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