Speaking with eighteen-year-old South African surfer Ntando Msibi, aka “Biggy Smiles,” he comes off like any promising young shredder lucky enough to grow up along Durban’s surf-drenched Golden Mile. Excitedly discussing his upcoming surf trips abroad, his preferred adjectives are “stoked” and “sick,” both pronounced with long vowels so that they become stow-kt and seeeeek.
Not long ago, however, Msibi was living a far different life.
As a small child, Msibi wandered the streets of Durban, begging for money, searching for food. He was harassed by police or older street kids. At night, with no family to take him in, he slept on the ground.
A trip to the beach with surfer/activist Tom Hewitt, however, changed the course of Msibi’s life. Though he could barely swim at the time, Msibi showed natural ability on a surfboard. By age 14, Msibi was representing South Africa at the ISA Pro Juniors in Ecuador and he has since surfed for the South African National Junior team.
Msibi’s story is inspiring, but rare. With more than one million street children globally, and an estimated 6,000 in Durban alone, the issue is a global urban phenomenon. Street children endure a wide range of emotional and physical abuse. Street life leaves children more susceptible to hunger and disease. Some turn to prostitution to earn money. Drug use among street children is rampant (nearly 60 percent of street children worldwide abuse one substance or another, according to a study in the Addiction Journal) as many turn to sniffing glue, gasoline or other easily accessible inhalants in order to escape the reality of the streets.
I caught up with Msibi to talk about his work with the non-profit Surfers For Street Children, a mentorship project founded by Hewitt aimed at empowering former Street Children as they move into adulthood.
What’s life like for street children in Durban?
These are kids that ran away from home for all different reasons. Some had problems. Some just couldn’t be obedient at home. The streets are not easy to live in. If you’re on the streets, you have to do whatever you can to survive.
I was very young when I was living on the streets. So a lot of bad things happened to me. Older kids, many of them in gangs, were always trying to get whatever I had. If I had some money, they might come take it from me. When we made ourselves somewhat comfortable somewhere, the metro police would round us up and drive us away from there.
Can you talk about the work that you are doing with Surfers Not Street Children?
There are still a lot of kids living on the streets in Durban. We try and get them to come down to the beach. When they are down there we invite them to surf. That’s also where our social workers can try and talk with them and try to help them. [The children] get to see how surfing is affecting us and how much it helps us.
Is it hard to convince kids who are living on the street to come surf with you? What kinds of things do you say to them?
Sometimes it is hard to convince them. They might freakout and say, “What if I drown?” or “What if I don’t come back?” I just tell them “Once you get out there, it’s way better than getting high.” Once you convince them to get in the water, most are committed, though.
What happens after you get the kids surfing? Are there programs to help the kids with things like school or jobs?
The surfing part is really sick and I love pushing the guys to get better at surfing, but there is a lot of other stuff we need to help them with. We have a mentorship program to help kids transition from street life. Simple things are important, like how to behave or react around people. We help them find jobs, which can be really difficult for former street children.
How did surfing change you? What do you love about it?
For me, surfing makes me feel good everyday. As long as I’m surfing I feel like I don’t have to worry about anything else.
If you’d like to learn more about or donate to Surfers Not Street Children you can visit their website.
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