A Visit to the Kovalam Surf Club in South India

Jelle and the Kovalam Surf Club

Jelle and the Kovalam Surf Club

I pulled my scarf taut over my head and shoulders to create a barrier against the searing Indian sun, waiting outside of the school for Jelle Rigole to arrive and introduce us to the kids of the Kovalam Surf Club, which uses surfing as a means for community development, youth empowerment and, of course, play.

I found a bit of shade and a cool concrete slab to sit on and watched the kids at recess; playing cricket in barefeet, running, laughing, flailing. These kids are some of the most economically disadvantaged in South India, but here at the SISP school (the Sebastian Indian Social Project), they’re given opportunities--- like nourishing meals, medical care, an education and time like this to play, to be children.

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Kids play cricket during recess at SISP

Kids play cricket during recess at SISP


Schools in India are nominally free but most still require fees that many parents still cannot afford. To convince the very poorest parents to send their children to school instead of working, they are paid an allowance as a replacement income from the SISP School of 10 Rupees a day --- about the price of a quarter of cheap chocolate bar in the US.

Poverty is cyclical; when resources like education, financial capital, and connections are unavailable, poverty-stricken individuals are sucked into a cycle that keeps them from attaining these kinds of advantages. Add the caste system into the equation, a social structure that creates even greater social blocks for upward mobility, and poverty seems an unbreakable generational shackle. 

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Jelle arrived by rumbling motorcycle and escorted us into the school, a sturdy maroon and cream-colored concrete structure. Jelle is easily recognizable in any Indian crowd; Belgian born with blonde dreads, he looks the part of a drop-out surfer, but plays the part of a passionate social worker.

Jelle is a sterling example of the surge of surfers breaking the mold of tired stereotypes. He founded the Kovalam Surf Club as a way to get children of the SISP School off the streets after school and to act as an extra motivation to keep these kids going to school on a regular basis. The main rule to participate in the surf club is: 'No school—No surfing'!

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Emi crafting with young SISP girls for a Beyond the Surface project

Emi crafting with young SISP girls for a Beyond the Surface project


On our tour of the facility, Jelle showed us classrooms, painted in cheery primary colors, walls decorated with signs that read in English and Malayalam (the local dialect), the kitchen, wafts of hearty curries a’simmer, and told us the history of the school.

The SISP was established in December 1996 by a couple of Belgians, Paul Van Gelder and Werner Fynaerts, who encountered a group of young children who were unable to get an education due to their work responsibilities. Paul and Werner used the profits of their local guesthouse to get the project off the ground, with the initial goal of encouraging child labourers into school by paying their families a small replacement income.

The SISP has since evolved into much more than just a school; it is a social hub of opportunity for the community. Besides currently educating around 80 young people, SISP also facilitates mirco-credit loans to women’s groups, holds adult literacy training, and creates employment opportunities through sustainable handiwork.

Young girl works in craft centre which provides employment opportunities

Young girl works in craft centre which provides employment opportunities


In traditional Indian society, little attention is given to the empowerment of women. Domestic abuse, forced prostitution, and rape are serious threats to the lives of Indian women, which are not addressed in practice by the Indian government, especially at the lowest socioeconomic levels. SISP’s projects boost the self-esteem of local women by providing them with opportunities for employment, community, and financial independence.

In 1997, SISP took on six social workers to help the local community, focusing especially on women. Over time they have been able to set up a number of women's self-help groups and facilitate a variety of projects. For example, in response to high vaginal infection rates amongst local women, SISP recently started production of affordable menstrual pads, as one of its Social Employment Programs.

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We came to the SISP School as part of a documentary film project that explores the usage of surfing as a tool for social development, community building, and sustainability in south India. Six of us traveled together for a month to explore the coastline for surf, share stories and learn about the role that surfing can play in empowering youth: Ishita Malaviya (India’s first recognized female surfer) Liz Clark (ocean adventurer and environmental activist), Crystal Thornburg-Homcy (professional surfer and artist), Kate Baldwin (yogini extraordinaire), myself, and Emi Koch, who founded the NGO called Beyond the Surface International, which works closely with the SISP and the Kovalam Surf Club.


Emi’s dedication to spreading the stoke of surfing to kids through her NGO was the impetus for making the namesake film, Beyond the Surface, for which we were traveling and filming.

Emi’s organization, Beyond the Surface International, is a platform for coastal youth groups worldwide—like the Kovalam Surf Club—who use surfing and ocean play as a medium for self-expression, freedom and fun for underprivileged, at-risk kids in developing communities, conflicts zones, impoverished villages, or "the streets.”

Anyone who has ridden waves knows the exquisite joy that comes from slip sliding across the surface of the ocean, worries blown far away by an offshore breeze. Smiles become unstoppable and we become refreshed and electrified by the infinite intangible forces at work in wild nature.

With this ethos, Emi set out to connect with small pockets of potential surfers around the world. BSI currently supports programs in Mexico, Peru, Chile, the Gaza Strip, India, and two in South Africa.

We realize that surfing will not solve all the world’s problems and that surfing itself presents it’s own unique social and environmental issues. We gathered in India to share the joy and aloha of surfing with a burgeoning surfing culture (population 100 or so?), because we all believe in surfing’s transformative powers, even if it only provides an opportunity for play—that all too forgotten, but essential, aspect of being human. As author Tom Robbins so clearly reminds us:

“Behavioral traits such as curiosity about the world, flexibility of response, and playfulness are common to practically all young mammals but are usually rapidly lost with the onset of maturity in all but humans. Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

Lighthouse boogie boarding

Lighthouse boogie boarding

Manju macho man

Manju macho man

Remish surfing, very talented grom

Remish surfing, very talented grom

LAUREN LINDSAY HILL

Originally from St. Augustine, Florida, Lauren is a professional free-surfer and writer. Her work, which revolves around marine conservation and egalitarianism as they relate to surfing culture, has been published academically, in surfing and mainstream media. She serves as an ambassador for the NGOs Women for Whales and Surfers for Cetaceans.