On Saturday, October 14, 2017, a large truck filled with 350 kg of homemade and military-grade explosives drove into the Hodan District of Mogadishu and detonated at a busy crossroad near the Safari Hotel. A fuel tanker parked nearby caused a massive fireball. 512 people lost their lives and 316 were injured. The organization behind the deadly blast: al-Shabaab. While the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Somalia over the last few years, it has continued to terrorize local Somalis. The attack was just one of 75 this year, which have killed 888 people alone in Somalia.
Translated literally from Arabic as “the youth”, the group’s perseverance depends, in part, on its ability to recruit disenfranchised youth in Somalia. But true to Mogadishu’s make-do-and-mend resilience, local activists are working hard to counter this.
A few kilometres away from October’s deadly blast, on a long stretch of white sand lined with crystal blue water, is Mogadishu’s latest child-soldier and youth rehabilitation initiative. Notoriously known for its pirates, activists are using the power of Somalia’s ocean and surfboards to impact positive change.
The woman leading the initiative is 27-year-old Ilwad Ali. Following in the footsteps of her father Elman Ali Ahmed, an ardent peace activist who was assassinated in 1996 for his human rights work, Ali is now working with her mother Fartuun Adan, the co-founder of Elman Peace (set up in honor of her husband) to help rehabilitate children leaving armed groups in Somalia.
“We sent some boards and instruction manuals, with the goal of helping Elman Peace integrate surf therapy to their offering,” Tim Conibear, the founding director of Waves for Change told VICE Impact. Set up in 2009 in South Africa, Waves for Change began as a small surfing club in Masiphumelele Township and quickly grew when two community members – Apish Tshetsha and Bongani Ndlovu – volunteered to lead and grow the club. After a few sessions, the trio quickly recognized that surfing was an effective way to engage young people. Daily exposure to violence and stress meant many were suffering from emotional and psychological stress, which was manifesting itself in anti-social and high-risk behaviour.
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Why is surfing considered therapeutic? “Being outside and connected to nature is important. It helps reconnect with feelings and emotions that often get lost in highly traumatic situations. Surfing itself is also highly rewarding. Achieving something you never thought possible is key, it helps build confidence and a positive identity,” Conibear told VICE Impact. “Young people growing up in conflict zones experience a huge amount of trauma. In these contexts, it's not always easy to provide them with an outlet to explore what's happened, and find new ways of coping with a wave of new emotions and feelings. Surf Therapy, and indeed sport in general, is a fantastic way to help young people develop positive personal identities.”
VICE Impact spoke to Ilwad Ali to find out more about Mogadishu’s new surf therapy program, and why she believes such initiatives can help counter violence in Somalia.
VICE Impact: Can you tell me more about the surf therapy programme you helped set up in Somalia?
Ilwad Ali: With surfing as a tool for alternative mental health and well-being for children leaving armed groups in Somalia; what we are embarking on with Waves for Change, is a journey of treating the somatic symptoms of trauma and stress carried by children affected by war and empowering them with techniques to rebuild and reclaim their lives.
We have a long-term vision of providing robust and comprehensive solutions to trauma and mental health in Somalia because we believe strongly that without healing those affected by war, we cannot end the war. Peace is not only the absence of conflict but it requires a people that live and breathe and practice peace; which is only possible if people are at peace with themselves.
We want to support Somalia in attaining this by developing a skilled force of trauma healers, exploring alternative methods such as surfing and using every tool and technique in our reach and arsenal until we realize our vision.
The approach we have taken with the support of Waves for Change is the beginning of just that; building the capacity of three dynamic young leaders to become surf instructors, who are following the curriculum designed by Waves for Change on surf therapy.
The situation in Somalia is incredibly fragile. What barriers and challenges did you have to overcome for the project to go ahead?
The project was launched in a very hostile security environment, and further compounding the security challenges is the demographic of children the project aims to support; children who have left armed groups and are undergoing rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. This adds to the security constrictions of the project as we wrestle with their insecurity as some are still under threat as well as the innate sensitivity of the project. As a result, we often have to have armed escorts just to go to the beach to practice the surf therapy.
True to our belief that if children are given the chance to escape military environments they can become children again, we also have seen that once we do get to the beach on the outskirts of Mogadishu; and escape the heavily militarized city and all of its challenges, we witness an immediate calm amidst that chaos.
Why is exploring alternative mental health techniques, like surf therapy, important today in Somalia?
Specialized mental health services do not exist in the country, nor is the importance of such services mainstreamed. In fact, most believe that traditional therapy is a western concept that bears no relevance to the local context and with that is the applied belief that talking about pain, grief, stress and trauma are of little use. For more than two decades, the belief that one must not talk about the pain they carry and simply carry on has been deeply ingrained. So this new approach of therapy that leverages the powers of the ocean; which is often discussed in the Islamic religion that the majority of Somalis practice; is a method that is contextually informed and will face a higher likelihood of becoming a sustainable and accepted practice of self-care.
How are the waves on the Somali coast?
Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and with that beautiful beaches that one day, we are certain will be a tourism haven. The waves aren’t too wild on the beaches of Mogadishu which is ideal for children participating in the surf therapy course, but as we develop the capacity of the youth instructors we plan to venture out to other regions such as Middle Shabelle on the Marka beaches and Hobyoo where the waves will be more challenging.
Due to the incredibly complex security situation in Somalia, and the high cost of keeping students safe, a lot more resources are needed to expand Somalia’s surf therapy program. At the moment Ilwad is able to take 40 young people surfing once a week on Fridays. Transport (3 rented buses + drivers’ salaries) and security costs the group $400 every trip. With additional funds, she would be able to take more kids surfing, more often. She would also like to raise the annual salary of three instructors ($300/ a month). This would allow her to expand the program through the instructors and potentially even set up surf therapy initiatives in different regions in Somalia. Waves for Change have donated and sent 10 boards to Somalia, she would be able to purchase more boards. You can donate directly to help out now.