Surfing Activist Lucy Small Keeps The Pressure On

Lucy Small's film 'Yama' examines how board sports like surfing and skating challenge Ghana's colonial past. Words by Charles Rushforth

By Charles Rushforth, 16/3/2023

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Since going viral for calling out a Sydney surfing competition offering unequal prize money for female athletes, surfer and sports equality activist Lucy Small has been pretty busy.

Aside from petitioning Federal Parliament to legislate equality policies in sport, Small has also found the time to co-direct/ produce Yama, a short film shot and edited by Maddy Meddings about the burgeoning surf and skateboarding scene in Ghana.

Junkee sat down with her to talk about the film ahead of its premiere on the 28th of March. 

A group of skaters in Lucy Small’s film ‘Yama’. Photo credit: Maddy Meddings.

When did you first discover female surf and skate culture in Ghana and what made you want to tell those stories? 

I had a friend who was from Ghana and she gave me a piece of jewellery from there like eight years ago that I’ve never taken off and I’ve always had in my mind I would love to go to Ghana. And then Afro Surf came out in 2021, which is this landmark documentary book of surfing in Africa that uses storytelling in a really special and kind of uniquely African way. 

I also read this essay by Kevin Dawson, who is a surf historian who writes an alternative surf history that’s different from the commonly understood origins of surfing, which is out of Polynesia in Hawaii. He writes that people were surfing in West Africa on wooden boards for hundreds of years before colonial invasion. So I read that essay and I knew about this project, so when I was approached by Project Blank to make a film, I was like, this is my chance. I’m finally going to Ghana! 

Two of the people making waves in Ghana are Sandy, who runs the skateboarding initiative Skate Gal Club, and Justice, who runs the girls surf camp Obibini Girls Surf Club. What inspired them to start these community initiatives? 

Surfing in Ghana wasn’t really something I was aware of before I went there. But talking about it with Justice, he assured me that people have always surfed in Ghana. He used to ride this wooden board as a kid, everyone did. With Justice, every day at his school is like “okay, what can we do, what do we think is gonna work?” He does fitness classes with the girls after school every day. Once I asked him how do you decide what to do? What’s your program? And he is like, “Oh, I just look it up on YouTube”. He tries to find activities that aren’t just good for surfing, but good for girls surfing and specific for girl female bodies. So he’s just doing what he thinks will work in his community.

Sandy is slightly different because she comes from a background of sports management. She used to do that in France, so she’s taken her experience in that and gone “okay, there’s really nothing of the ecosystem and the kind of the framework that’s needed for an industry”. 

Skate Gal Club is more than just the concrete in the bustling city of Accra, it’s also a collective designed to elevate and champion women’s initiatives across Ghana. Photo credit: Maddy Meddings.

While we were there in [Ghana’s capital city] Accra, [Sandy] was putting the finishing touches on this recording studio at the skate park because Sandy had gone “okay, there’s no community music space here, so let’s make it!”. When we were editing the footage, I really got emotional just realising the scale of the work that they were doing. The task of making this film felt like a big project, but it is nothing compared to what Justice and Sandy are doing.

How were you received by Sandy and Justice? Were they interested in your activism in Australia, or were they cautious about how you wanted to represent them? 

Before we had gone, I had met quite a few times with Sandy and we had talked a lot about how to best approach the film. How to approach representation, how to not just reinforce old stereotypes and kind of move away from this narrative of charity and move towards a story that actually explores what is going on in Ghana. So by the time we got there, I think Sandy felt like a real partner in the project. We couldn’t have done it without her. 

A student at Justice’s surfing school pictured with a trusty foam board. Photo credit: Maddy Meddings.

The thing that I love in all my years of travelling to different places around the world to meet up with female surfers and skaters is that no matter the boundaries of geography and cultural language, you have this shared language of board sports, there’s this common recognition of like, “I know you”. 

My favourite part of the whole film is a line from Eden, a skater, who says, “We don’t care, bro. We’re doing it for us.” I get goosebumps thinking about that, because it’s this shared experience of knowing what it’s like to cast off the restrictions of social norms in order to pursue a sport that maybe not everyone understands.

Surfing in particular really struggles with diverse representation at elite levels. Have you got a theory on why this happens? 

There’s been a lot of research on socioeconomic barriers in access to the ocean. For example, in Sydney right now the eastern suburbs has some of the most expensive real estate in Australia if not the world. So if economic lines fall along race lines, then people of colour are pushed further and further away from the ocean. 

Surfing historian Kevin Dawson posits that Ghanian locals were surfing hundreds of years before white settlers, and they expertly navigate Ghana’s coastal waters today. Photo credit: Maddy Meddings.

I think there’s a really cool ground up movement that is trying to change that now. Things like Textured Waves, which is a Black women’s surf group in California. There’s Black Girls Surf, which is setting up programs around the world and really trying to help and bring Black women into the ocean and help them to become competitive athletes.

But I think that the commercial element of the surf industry has a lot to answer for in this regard. For example, if you are a Black woman and you wanna buy something to surf in, do you feel like you see yourself in all the advertising? Like, as a white woman, I feel that exclusion from not being represented across the surf industry and across surf media. So I can only imagine what it must feel like as a Black woman to look at the way that surf media tells stories and the way that advertising is done, telling Black women that there is no place for them in the industry.

On that note, can you believe that it’s been almost two years since you called out the organisers at the Curly Maljam about offering unequal prize money to female winners?

Oh my God, I know. And guess what? They have equal prize money this year!

Such great news! How far do you think the sport has come in identifying and remedying these issues?

I feel like there’s been this massive removal of the social license to offer unequal prize money. It just seems that Curly Maljam could never get away with offering unequal prize money this year because no one will do the event. They’ll get more bad press. It just wouldn’t work. I think at a local level, quite often it can be where the most innovation happens, but it can also be the last place that the change reaches.

Last week, I was at this awesome longboard event in Noosa called the Noserider Invitational. It’s literally a competition to see who can stand on the nose of a surfboard for the longest and they invite people to compete. And out of 24 spots, they invited three women (laugh). It’s like, come on!

You can never take your finger off the pressure point. You really have to just stay on there.

Yama premieres on the 28th of March, you can find your nearest screening here.

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