The street outside my house looked like the ocean. The problem was that from the front of the house there was an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean, and the only reason the road looked just like it was because it was covered with ground up broken glass that glistened in the sun and sparkled like the sea.
At the end of the street, on the corner, was an empty lot again covered in broken glass and behind that a big blue house with grills on the window. This building housed the Joshua Project.
The Joshua Project in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, is a Christian charity that seeks to provide a safe haven for vulnerable children and the street kids of the town, clothing, feeding and trying to provide them with a basic education. They also now teach them to surf.
Imagine: Kids as young as 8 years old who have to live and survive on the street. I don't care about the religious connotations of the Joshua Project, the work that they do is amazing and massively admirable.
Whilst I was living out there and working at Jeffreys Bay Surf School my boss and I went to a few meetings at the Joshua Project. Attempts had been made before to get some surf lessons up and running but the kids interest had dwindled and they hadn't had the necessary structure to their day to ensure it's success. Part of the reason was that they never knew when to turn up. None of these kids owned watches and literally survived day to day, meaning that they rarely knew what day of the week it was. They had that structure and routine now though, so on Wednesday afternoons we started teaching them to surf. I wondered whether the numbers would drop off each week as their interest waned. Instead, each week more and more kids turned up until there were more than we had surfboards for. They wore donated wetsuits that were inevitably far too big for them or riddled with holes but enthusiasm kept them warm.
I dragged in a load of friends and volunteers to help out, and Tom the bar manager from the backpackers hostel where the surf school was based ended up putting "helping the Joshua Project surf sessions" on the rota for his bar staff.
We enforced some pretty basic rules. Most of these kids had no homes or contact with their families, they lived on the streets and/or had been victims of abuse of some form or other - they had a myriad of problems that they distanced themselves from by turning to substance abuse. In the majority of cases they sniffed glue because it's cheap, readily obtainable and got them stoned. It meant they didn't have to think about stuff.
If they turned up stoned, no surfing. If they'd been in trouble, no surfing. It got to the point where the Joshua Project could use the surf lessons as leverage to get the kids to attend their normal school classes. When I left a few months later the surf sessions were going strong. My friend Dale took over my job a while after and ended up doing two sessions a week for them. He then started taking the bigger and more competent kids out to the reefbreak at the end of the beach, and it sounds like they're making good progress a year on.
Pretty good for kids who can't swim.
The point that I want to get across is this: Surfing, like a lot of other pursuits, is a form of meditation in motion. It brings us completely into the present moment where we don't reflect on the past or think about the future, all we're worried about is what's happening NOW. This couldn't be of greater benefit than to the kids who are helped by the Joshua Project. I'd wager that they've each got more problems that they need to escape from than a lot of us have put together.
A moment of distraction.
I hope that the surf sessions now provide those kids with some escapism from the daily struggles that they face just to get through the day before finding an empty doorway to lie down in for the night. These are the kids who people cross the street to get away from when they bowl through town with a collection of mongrel dogs yapping at their heels. Dale told me that when a guest at the backpackers was robbed on the beach one day, the street kids from the Joshua Project helped to get his camera back. Some of the opinions and preconceptions of these kids are starting to change, and hopefully it'll give them a chance to make a break away from the situation that they've grown up in.
Regardless, at the very least they have a smile on their faces for an hour on Wednesday afternoons.
Top Image: Photograph by Niels, a Dutch guy who helped out with the first few Joshua Project surf sessions. That moment of distraction, captured on camera.
Image Below: Photograph by Roger Arney. Myself and Tom Jones from Island Vibe backpackers hostel trying to get across the concept of turning a surfboard within two minutes (the kids don't have very long attention spans) and with a language barrier, being that English is these kids third language after Afrikaans and isiXosa and my grasp of isiXosa obviously ain't that good...