About 90 minutes’ drive from Sierra Leone’s capital city Freetown is Bureh, one of the West African country’s most beautiful beaches. This area, beside a fishing village with a population of a few hundred people, has become a hotspot for surfers, due partially to the curiosity of one man.
John Small (28) was only a child when he began watching foreigners offload surfboards from their vehicles and take them onto the waves. It was shortly after Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war, and Bureh was very remote. “There was no guesthouse, no bar,” he recalls, while the roads between it and Freetown were quite bad.
One day, Small managed to catch a wave himself. “When the tourists left, they gave me a surfboard,” he says. He kept practising. “At first when I was doing it, it was a bit tough and stressful, but I didn’t give up, I worked hard for it. People thought I was wasting my time.”
At one point, Small says his father wanted him to stop so much that he chopped the surfboard into pieces, but Small was given another by a Norwegian visitor – and he no longer stored this board at home.
He then met Shane O’Connor, an Irishman resident in Sierra Leone who also loved surfing, and together they decided to set up a surf club to benefit the community.
“Suddenly Bureh became a surfing community; now, 90 per cent of the youths are surfing,” says Small. “That 10 years was a great experience for me.”
O’Connor, a 46-year-old from Oranmore in Galway, moved to Sierra Leone in 2009. “I started going down [to Bureh] at the weekends,” he says. “It’s literally the perfect place to learn how to surf. Beautiful warm water, a tropical beach, a mountain with tropical rainforests in the background, a really nice community there that will look after you and give you a good and safe experience.”
Sierra Leone had a booming tourism industry before the war. By the time O’Connor moved there, things were recovering and there seemed to be a lot of investment. The Irishman thought Bureh would be a “perfect place for a surf school” and decided to start up a community-focused one before someone else established one privately.
O’Connor both raised funding and contributed his own to build a surf club on community-owned land. He brought donated boards there from Ireland, and the club opened at the end of 2012. The idea was that it would be run as a co-operative. Locals would offer lessons to visitors who would also pay a fee to rent a surfboard. Revenue was supposed to be split, with 50 per cent of the profit going to support the club’s members, one quarter for the upkeep of the premises, and another 25 per cent to go directly back to the community.
“The community were involved at all points . . . It was envisaged as a community project and, for better and worse, it has stayed as a community project,” says O’Connor.
The initiative and the increasingly skilled surfers trained through it have received coverage from the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and Al Jazeera. There was a lot of focus particularly on Kadiatu Kamara, known as KK, the only female surfer. “At the time, all you would hear about Sierra Leone was child soldiers and diamonds,” O’Connor says, so he was glad that there was a positive story for once.
But when the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak hit West Africa, tourism stopped again. Though Bureh was relatively untouched by the disease, an international competition which was supposed to be held there was cancelled – a huge disappointment for many of the local surfers. After the end of the outbreak, Sierra Leone joined the International Surfing Association, and the situation looked to be improving. But the area was again negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic; the number of visitors remained much lower than usual even after the country’s borders reopened in mid-2020.
Both O’Connor and Small are no longer involved with Bureh’s surf club, O’Connor because of personal commitments and Small as a result of community disputes over how it should be run. “I wanted [local] kids to have [free] accessibility to it. They’re just focusing on making money, business now, it’s sad,” he said.
Instead, Small gives private lessons nearby at a cost of 160,000 leone (about €12), or rents surfboards for 60,000 leone (€4.60). His boards are displayed outside a new bar and restaurant, Menyeleh’s, which Small part-owns. “My main motive is to increase tourism and promote surfing,” he said. “My family is proud now of me. I wish my dad was still alive to see what I have been doing.”
O’Connor still sometimes visits Bureh to surf. “I’m shamed when I go down there. Thankfully they still let the old man out.”
He encourages anyone interested to visit Sierra Leone and says the best time for surfing is probably May or September, on either side of the rainy season. “Sierra Leone can be a challenging destination . . . but it’s pretty beautiful, it has an amazing set of coastal beaches. There are some very interesting wildlife parks up-country . . . There are a couple of parts that are unexplored surfwise, I’m pretty certain there are a few places that have waves that are still to be surfed . . . Someone will some day.”