Teachable Moments: Sustainable Surfing in the Mentawais

Murray_studentsElizabeth Murray and her pupils. Photo: A Liquid Future

By Gregory Thomas

Not long ago, villagers on the remote Mentawai island chain off the west coast of Sumatra lived without electricity, cell phone reception, and even a local government. But, as has happened to many other tropical paradises, word got out about the islands' exceptional surf. Their perfectly curled waves, white sand beaches, turquoise water, and coconut palms have earned the islands the nickname "Garden of Eden" among surfers, who started arriving there en masse in the late 1990s. If all goes according to the plans of developers and the newly formed island government, the Mentawais will be the next hot spot in Indonesia travel guides.

But a motivated English surfer and a group of ambitious locals are working hard to ensure that island residents get a seat at the table and that the Mentawais grow in a sustainable fashion.

In 2010, a devastating tsunami flattened the western edges of the Mentawai archipelago. During the rebuilding efforts, a Portuguese boat captain named Goncalo Ruivo struck up a conversation with an English surfer named Elizabeth Murray. Having recently taken up residence in Katiet, a surfing hub of the islands, Murray told Ruivo about a passion project to start a local school that would teach lessons in English and surfing.  This struck Ruivo, since he recognized these as essential for local Mentawaians who want to prosper in the changing economic landscape. Murray, who went to college in the United States on a sports scholarship, was particularly adamant about teaching young girls to swim and surf.

In October of 2012, Ruivo visited the village where Murray was working and found himself "amazed with the success of her program," he says. Murray taught her first English lessons on the sand earlier in 2012 using a whiteboard tacked to a coconut tree. A fluid group of about 15 kids would meet in the afternoons, in the hours after school and before supper. After about a month, Murray moved her lessons into an unused community center, and the group swelled into a loyal crowd of about 90 pupils, including the initial kids and their parents. The sight inspired Ruivo to donate proceeds from a photo book he'd published following the tsunami to fund Murray's newly minted non-profit organization, called A Liquid Future.

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