Out in the ocean, this surfer found his family


Phakamani Baba balances belly down on his surfboard. Gentle waves lull his body while the sun warms his back. With his eyes on the shore, Baba dips his hands into the water and starts paddling. Out of nowhere, a crushing wave appears. Baba’s board slips away and the rough undercurrent threatens to suck him down to the ocean floor. But he quickly propels himself to the surface, taking in a deep breath of air. Baba is not afraid of being knocked over. A lifetime of struggle has built the fight for survival into his bones.

Growing up, Baba watched alcoholism, abuse, and instability take over his home. After his brother’s death and his parents’ divorce, Baba’s father passed away. “I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” he says. The young boy became the breadwinner, with his mother and two sisters relying on him. Crushed by the weight of responsibility, he wasn’t able to concentrate on matric, and failed. But when the horizon looked bleak, the water saved him. Baba discovered Waves for Change, an NGO that helps kids and young adults channel their stress through surfing.

Despite never knowing a stable home on land, Baba has found belonging in the ever-changing tides. A qualified surf coach for the organisation today, this isn’t a job for Baba – it’s his life purpose. When he recognises the confidence, trust, and coping skills that surfing has instilled in him, he’s overwhelmed by the ocean of hope there is for South Africa’s kids. “Being a brother was taken away from me,” he says, “But working here at Waves for Change has brought it back.” Baba hopes to use the sport to provide the inner strength and family spirit he always wanted. And who better to encourage kids to get back up on the boards time and time again? Beyond the surf lessons, Baba is teaching his crew that no matter how close you get to rock bottom, you can always catch a ride from the sea.