AFROSURF: Our star cover and cover star

An interview with Joseph Diatta - AFROSURF cover star.

Photo Credits - Nicole Sweet (@nicolesweetsports)

How do you feel about your image on the cover of AFROSURF?

When I see myself in the book, it feels like I am outside of life. Like I am seeing my life from the outside. It’s a big joy for me and a nice memory too.

And it’s my first time to be on the cover of a book, so it’s not normal for me.

I’ve been surfing a long time, but almost anonymously, like not in public, with no recognition, but now with the book, I am known internationally. It creates a lot of nice memories about Casamance and Senegal as well and it will help me to move forward in life. It feels like a great relief.

It’s amazing that coming from a small village that nobody knows, that nobody in the world has ever heard of, to have this book with my face on it.

Tell us about your surfing journey?

One day I saw an American tourist with a surfboard. And I watched him very closely to see what he was doing. Eventually I approached him and asked about the board and how to use it. He showed me and when he left, he gave me his surfboard. 

But the board was too small, so I could not improve. I managed to find a longboard that belonged to a local travel agency and taught myself to surf, tout seul, all alone. At first when I asked to borrow their longboards, they said no, that these boards are for the customers, not for local people. But eventually one of the bosses understood and gave me a board to use.

The first time I went surfing, I took my board to the ocean and I was afraid of it. I was scared of the waves and the rip currents. And then you are alone in this ocean, all by yourself. At first I only surfed small broken waves, but as I did it more, I progressed and became more comfortable. Now I can surf big waves and I am no longer worried. I am conscious of what it means to surf. 

But surfing alone doesn’t make any sense. So I tried to promote surfing to young people. I was the only one in Casamance surfing. But it felt like I had no purpose to just surf on my own. So I wanted to promote surfing to the young people around here. 

I’ve got six brothers and four sisters. At first, I took three of my brothers to learn to surf. One is a beginner, one is pretty advanced and then the other one I had to force him to go in the water. But now he is a bit fat and lazy so he can’t surf. I like to push and train them, so they advance in surfing. Each time I see my brothers surfing in the ocean it gives me so much pleasure. 

Step by step people started to learn about surfing in Casamance. I am the one fighting to establish surfing in this place. Now a lot of people are interested in surfing here and that makes me happy. 

Now I am a surf coach and I know lots of professional surfers around the world. Today there are a lot of surfers in Casamance, and I am always a bit surprised, because I was the first. Even the Spanish champion surfer, Kepa Acero, gave me his surfboard. For this I am extremely grateful. 

Mami Wata x Joseph Diatta
When did you first learn to swim?

When I was a child, I learned how to swim in a lake, near Cabrousse. Once you have learned to swim in the lake, because there is no rip, no currents, no waves, then you can go to the beach. And in the ocean you experience these things. I love the beach and the ocean, because I live nearby. 

When I was a kid, I would see the tourists surfing and playing in the ocean and I asked myself if one day I could do this too. Maybe I could be the manager of a water sports program at the hotel? Or maybe I could even become a champion of these ocean sports. I tried, I did and I succeeded. I dreamed of this and I did it. 

In 2004, I went to surf at an event in the capital Dakar. I was not a pro at the time. I was just a beginner. But I won the first prize and that gave me the hope to become a champion. I’ve been dreaming of being a big surfer, so I train a lot and I surf a lot and take videos of myself to improve my technique.

What do you do for work now?

I was born and raised in Cabrousse and my parents are from Cabrousse. And I’ve never left this village. I am a lifeguard and I also work for a local surf school. I am not the big boss, but I represent the school. In the low season, because the hotels are empty, I’m working in the family rice fields, in the mountains. Now with Coronavirus, there are no tourists, so I’m working more with the family, helping to farm rice, so we can be more self-sustainable.

What are your beliefs?

I’m an animist. My parents and all my family are animists too. At the age of 11 or 12, you have to look after the birds and the cows. And that’s how I’ve been raised by my parents. You learn a lot from being in the bush, surveying the animals. If I go to look after these animals with my friends, it’s a sign of disrespect, like an insult towards my parents. And then I will be asked to do push-ups, or I’d get beaten on the bum. Then when you reach the age of 20 or 21, you become an adult and you must have certain ceremonies. One of them is to dress up, it’s a typical outfit that tells people you are becoming an adult. At the same moment, we are initiated into wrestling. Then once you are initiated, there is a period of time, maybe 7 years, to become accustomed to life as an adult and then it’s time to get married and become a father. You also get given another name, the name of a man. 

Do your animist beliefs improve your surfing? 

When I have troubles, or sickness, or a bad spell on me, then I use the water to heal me. Before I go into the water to surf, I pray and ask the sacred water to move me forward, in surfing and in my life. 

I thank le bois sacré, the sacred wood, for helping me to surf and to protect me and not to have an accident. Each time I enter the water, I do a ritual, to splash the water on my face. And afterwards, I give thanks too. When I do this ritual, I feel relieved and I have no worries when I go into the water. Le bois sacré follows me. 

Tell us about the initiation?

For men, the initiation involves the circumcision in the bois sacré, the sacred wood. The initiation starts with physical training and being forced to dance for a long time. 

Before you are initiated, you may have balls but you’re not a real man. 

If you are not initiated, if you are not circumcised, you cannot go into le bois sacré. You cannot know the secret. And when you know the secret you will be a real man. Until then, you must go with the women. You are a real hero if you are initiated. You are respected in Casamance. 

What is the secret?

You can’t tell anyone what’s happening in le bois sacré once you are initiated. Not your girlfriend, or the person lying in bed with you. You don’t tell anyone.

Mami Wata x Joseph Diatta

Mami Wata x Joseph Diatta

Mami Wata x Joseph Diatta

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