The sand of Piston Beach in Jacmel village, Haiti, is laced with rubble, empty glass bottles, cardboard boxes, and plastic bags. Pigs rummage through the mess. Nearby Kabik Beach, however, is starkly different: lush with coconut, banana, and papaya trees. Only about 45 miles from the epicenter of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, there's no hint there of the destruction and subsequent refuse on Kabik Beach.
That's because members of Surf Haiti, some as young as seven years old, organize regular trash pickups and beach clean ups there. Since it started in 2011, the non-profit has been trying to lift up the community through lessons on surfing and environment. Their aim is to establish Haiti as a sustainable surf destination for tourists.
Last month, Surf Haiti opened Haiti's first surfing school—a simple, 200 square foot wooden structure. One of the kids used a hedge shear to cut a ribbon, and volunteers from Share the Stoke Foundation donated five new surfboards to kids in the program. The kids headed towards the water with their shiny new boards and pushed each other onto the surf. Older kids helped the younger learners and they spent hours out there, coming in only with the setting sun.
Surfing first started at Kabik Beach in 2011, when Dr. Ken Pierce, on a relief project in the region, brought his board and went into the water, riding on 10-foot waves. A group of kids gathered on the beach, shouting. When Pierce came out, a long line of kids followed him and several of them asked—mwen ke fe sa? [Can I do that?] Pierce called surfing his "north star" and was excited by the prospect of helping others through it. On his next trip, he brought more boards and along with fellow American Alan Potter, founded Surf Haiti. Some of the kids learned to body-board on discarded planks of wood, even though many of them didn't know how to swim yet. There is nowhere to buy a surfboard or have one repaired in Haiti.
When Surf Haiti started in 2011, some of these kids did not even know how to swim. Photo by Michael Magers
With the help of Joan Mamique, a Frenchman who has been living in Jacmel since 2010, they started teaching surfing to six teenage boys who knew how to swim. Through expatriate donations and sales of Surf Haiti t-shirts on their website, their resources grew. When Pierce and Potter left Haiti last year, Mamique, now 38, realized that if surfing is to develop in the region, it will will have to be sustainable—for Haitians, by Haitians. A surfing school, he thought, would help the boys make an income by giving lessons to tourists and renting out the school's boards, while also producing future generations of Haitian surfers.
To build the school, they collected $1,500 from friends and well-wishers, and added it to $1,500 from t-shirt sales over the years. The school now has 15 boards, and 30 regular participants—six are teaching surfing to 10 other beginners and 14 are being taught how to swim. When the kids give lessons to tourists, they earn $12 a day: half goes to Surf Haiti, and the other half goes into their pockets.
For context, a majority of the Haitian population lives on $2 a day, and tourists are few and far between. Fewer and farther between since the 2010 earthquake that took 200,000 lives. Most of the kids of Surf Haiti have never left Jacmel.
"It's a life school for them. To be in the water, all together, all one... They say Surf Haiti is a family for them. The one they have chosen and build together," Mamique said via Skype.
Surf Haiti still faces serious challenges: it needs more volunteers, more funding, and the most important goal still remains; developing the local economy.
"I could never imagine that it [would] work and we [would] come this far. But now it's my life," Mamique said.
He hopes that one day, Jacmel will be able to host an international surfing event, and show the world the true resilience of Haiti.