Khadjou Sambe’s Olympic dream inspires Senegal’s next wave of female surfers

Khadjou Sambe, 23, stands on the beach in Dakar, Senegal, after a surf session. (Photo: Joni Els)
Khadjou Sambe, 23, stands on the beach in Dakar, Senegal, after a surf session. (Photo: Joni Els)

The setting sun casts a gold light over the water as Khadjou Sambe and her student stare into the horizon, waiting patiently for the Atlantic ocean to offer up its next set of waves. Their surfboards gently knock against each other as Sambe leans towards the young girl and offers a soft spoken word of advice, before shouting ‘go!’. The two jump up onto their boards and seamlessly ride the awaited wave to shore.

There was a time when a woman surfing these waves elicited a confused double-take at the very least. In the male-dominated world of surfing, Senegal had no female surfers until Sambe arrived on the scene.

At 13 she took her first surfboard into the water.

“I remember the first time I stood up on a board. I was so happy. I yelled so much that everyone looked at me,” says Sambe, now 23-years-old.  Instantly hooked, the joy of surfing overshadowed the possible social complexities of being the only girl in the water.

“When I surf I feel so happy. It’s like I am a dolphin who’s free to do what they want. Because you forget all the problems in your head. It’s like the sea belongs to you,” she says.

When Khadjou Sambe started surfing ten years ago, she was the only girl in the water. (Photo: Joni Els)

Despite her instant love for surfing, Sambe admits there were plenty of challenges.

“In the beginning it was hard being the only girl surfing with boys… it was complicated.”

In Senegal, the ocean had always tended to be male territory, traversed by fishermen while women waited on the shore to deal with the haul. While the relationship with the sea evolved to include other activities like surfing, the dynamic remained. The men in the water, women waiting along the coast.

Khadjou was not one to obey the status quo. She pushed on forward as the only surfer girl in Senegal, “because when you love something you follow it through to the end,” she explains. And with this tenacious attitude, she paved the way for other women to experience the joy of surfing.

Ten years later, Sambe is no longer Senegal’s lone female surfer on Dakar’s peninsular.

When we meet her on Dakar’s Les Almadies beach she is accompanied with two other friends; all three women donning t-shirts and caps with the slogan “Black Girls Surf.” They are preparing to go surfing and quickly change into their wetsuits before running down to the water, surfboards in tow.

Khadjou Sambe with her fellow Dakar surfers, Mariama Ba and Madjinguene Seck. All three women are part of the ‘Black Girls Surf’ organisation. (Photo: Joni Els)

Their t-shirts reference the organisation Black Girls Surf (BSG), founded by Sambe’s surfing coach in America, Ronda Harper.  Noticing a lack of visibility within professional surfing, Harper has made it her mission to support women like Sambe who aspire to surf professionally.

The image of the typical female surfer is blonde hair and blue eyes. For surf brands, the goal is to sell at any cost. Straying away from the stereotype has been the biggest hurdle. You can’t get sponsored if you don’t fit the image,” Harper says.

Our goal is to recruit girls around the world for our training program. I founded BGS out of need,” she adds.

Last year, Sambe spent six months training with Harper, with qualification for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics at the top on her agenda. And while she set her sights high, she has no plans to leave her female counterparts behind. Now back in her hometown, Sambe passes her mentor’s lessons forward, and is now training girls in Senegal to surf.

Khadjou Sambe now teaches women and girls in Senegal to surf. (Photo: Joni Els)

A few days a week, Sambe takes her students out into Dakar’s warm ocean, creating space for the opportunities and support she never had. She dreams one day of having a well-established women’s surfing team representing Senegal, “because it wouldn’t work with only me.”

“I want other girls to be the future champions of Senegal and Africa,” she says emerging from the water after one of her lessons. “I can’t compete for the rest of my life. But I can continue as a coach, help them participate in competitions.  I can do everything in my power to make sure they keep surfing.”

Sambe’s unwavering spirit appears to be paying off as more and more women and girls pick up their boards and take to the waves in Dakar.  With each new student, she challenges the patriarchal world of surfing and shows women will no longer simply wait along the coast.

“We see in Senegal and Africa girls can surf well. It’s not only boys who can surf, girls can do everything.”

Interview with Khadjou Sambe was translated from French into English by Asta Tall.