Most surfers would attest to the liberating nature of wave riding. Anxieties accrued throughout the week are often rinsed away by the first duck dive, and a good barrel will banish even the most persistent of problems. Despite this, surfing’s potential as an agent of social change is often underestimated.
One person who recognised the sport’s potential is Tom Hewitt, a surfer who has devoted the last 20 years to the issue of street children in Africa, and across the world, utilising surfing as a unique medium to encourage children away from life on the street.
In 2004 he co-founded a project named Umthombo with his wife, looking to fuse high-intensity engagement with psychosocial services to provide inspiration for street children and offer a possible route out of poverty. When the children saw Tom surfing off Durban pier, it wasn’t long before they were out there themselves.
“I started Umthombo as I had come into contact with street children in Mozambique during the civil war there,” says Hewitt. “I introduced surfing as one of the programmes at the organisation and the kids absolutely loved it. It opened a door for our social workers to spend time with the kids and help them out of the streets.”
Last year Hewitt passed on the rains of Umthombo in order to focus on Surfers Not Street Children. He runs this initiative from Durban, South Africa , in collaboration with three former street children, with the principal aims of changing societal perceptions of street children and inspiring homeless youths across the world, using surfing as a means of empowerment.
Rob Bain, from sponsors, O’Niell, was particularly enthused by the initiative: “I got involved with O’Neill and Umthombo some years ago, when the team in South Africa told me about these street kids and the program Tom was running in Durban,” says Bain. “What really resonated with me, was that when the kids put on their wetsuits, it was if they had suddenly put on a superman outfit. They became a surfer, and this instantly became empowerment, and gave them a huge amount of joy to go surf. For me surfing is escapism, and this was such an amazing example.”
The team was recently in the UK, giving surfing demos and speaking at various events, raising awareness about an issue which, according to Hewitt, is consistently marginalised within the development sector.
For more information visit: www.tomhewitt.org