Making waves: Meet KK, the only female surfer in Sierra Leone

Story highlights

  • Kadiatu Kamara known as KK, is the only female surfer in Sierra Leone
  • KK was born into civil war and lived through the Ebola epidemic that ravaged her country
  • She is the subject of "A Million Waves," an upcoming documentary
  • "Surfing is good for us ladies," says the 19-year-old.

(CNN)Kadiatu Kamara stares out at the horizon in silent contemplation. Surfboard under her arm she draws the sign of the cross, then pauses. The Atlantic, impatient, swells around her ankles, ushering the Sierra Leonean towards a break a short paddle away.

Kamara, known as KK, is the only female surfer at Bureh Beach, south of Freetown. In fact, she's the only female surfer in Sierra Leone.
    Nineteen years old, KK was born into civil war and lived through the Ebola epidemic that ravaged her nation. But her story is not one of tragedy. Instead it's a love affair with the waves, kept afloat by a polyurethane board and no small measure of determination.
    A young woman in a man's world, she's found herself part of Bureh Beach Surf Club, a group countering sloppy misconceptions about this corner of West Africa. And on a surfboard, she's become a star in her own right.

    Escaping to the ocean

    KK is the subject of "A Million Waves", an upcoming documentary short directed and shot by British filmmakers Daniel Ali and Louis Leeson. They spent time at Bureh Beach Surf Club in May after learning about KK from a couple of traveling surfers. Embedding themselves into the community, they settled on telling her story.
    "She started surfing about two years ago," says Ali. "Her father had died about two years ago, Ebola broke out [around the same time]."
    "When Ebola broke out schools closed down, there was a high uptake in teen pregnancies, because people were staying home and there wasn't anything to do," he explains. Escaping into the Atlantic for a few hours at a time provided welcome respite.
    "Surfing always makes me happy," KK told Ali and Leeson, "[it] always makes me forget about my problems at home."
    At home KK is a student, but also supports her family. Without her father's income, she makes hats and tote bags to sell to the few tourists that make it to Bureh. Surfing is a past time reserved for the early mornings and evenings, when domestic duties and studies are completed.
    "I see it as escapism," says Ali, who spent close to two weeks with KK. He and Leeson shot her with drones and underwater cameras, often maximising the sense of isolation, but also freedom, surfing afforded.
    Shooting two to six hours a day whenever the tide was in, among the challenges were magpies swooping for their drone camera. Another was the sheer enthusiasm of their subject, surfing away from Leeson, bobbing in the Atlantic holding an underwater camera kit.
    "You can't blame her," says Ali, laughing, "it's what she loves doing."

    Putting Sierra Leone on the surf map

    The Bureh Beach Surf Club was started in 2012 by Irishman Shane O'Connor, an NGO employee who has since gone on to work at UNICEF. With donations and sponsorship he brought surfboards and materials to the village of 300 and began teaching locals to master the waves.
    "His idea was to build a place where you could learn to surf," Ali explains, "but also make money from tourists coming to surf in Sierra Leone."
    O'Connor handed the club over to a newly-blooded generation of surfers, and today the 19 local members are teaching kids as young as five to negotiate the break, a rarity in this part of West Africa.
    The club has its international heroes, and surfers will watch videos of their idols on their mobile phones and attempt to emulate their skills. Before 2014 there were plans to bring international surfers to Bureh Beach for a competition, only for it to be scuppered by the Ebola outbreak.
    KK looks back towards Bureh Beach.
    "They see themselves as massively lucky," says Ali. Miraculously the virus never entered Bureh Beach, but struck in the nearby towns of Tumbu and Waterloo, where the people of Bureh would go to school and shop.
    The impact has been profound however, and Bureh Beach is only now reclaiming its status as a burgeoning tourism location.
    "[Locals] see the direct relation between what the surfers are doing and investment and footfall," Ali explains. "There definitely is a sense of pride in that this is their village and it's pretty unique what's going on there."

    Going it alone. But for how long?

    Four years since its inception, KK remains Bureh Beach Surf Club's only female member.
    "We did ask [KK] and she gave different reasons," says Ali, "like some of the girls can't swim, or some of them are scared of swimming or the sea."
    "Guys are the ones allowed to go out and have a bit of fun," the filmmaker argues. "There's probably a lot of other girls that would like to do it, but they're a bit shy."
    KK won't be dissuaded however, and is using her platform to encourage others to jump on a board.
    "Surfing is good for us ladies," says the 19-year-old. "The message I have from them is I want them to join me."
    "A Million Waves" is due to be completed in late September, with Ali and Leeson planning to preview their documentary in theaters.