Surfing aficionados Michael Gabriel and his friends are undeterred by the coming and going of oil tankers, too focused on catching the next wave as they paddle through the polluted waters of Lagos.
Tarkwa Bay, in Nigeria’s economic hub, has become a hotspot for young people seeking an escape from their daily grind.
Taking part in one of the first national surfing competitions in Nigeria, young men and women showed off their moves in front of friends watching from the shore.
The sport is still far from being as popular as it is in other African countries such as Senegal, South Africa or Morocco.
But 20-year-old Gabriel is determined to become “a champion”.
“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next month, but I believe one day I will become a champion,” he told AFP.
Children as young as six are already practising on small boards, looking up to the likes of Gabriel who says he has been surfing every day for seven years.
A fishing village only accessible by boat, Tarkwa Bay is one of the only leisure spots near Lagos, a city of some 20 million people.
On the weekend, wealthy Nigerians and foreigners come to its beach to relax, spending money that provides a lifeline for the local area.
But for many in this community with no school or hospital, surfing provides a welcome distraction — and hope.
– Evictions –
Surfing has helped some recover from the mass evictions that were carried out by the Nigerian army in January 2020.
“They demolished all our houses, almost all the surfers’ houses. They said that the problem is pipeline vandals,” said Gabriel, referring to those who damage pipelines to steal and sell crude oil.
Despite being the world’s sixth largest oil producer, the majority of Nigerians live in extreme poverty and some have turned to oil theft to survive.
The soldiers arrived on the beach with bulldozers, giving thousands of residents an hour to leave.
Three years later, rubble testifies to the violence of the forced evictions.
At the time, the military said the communities were directly or indirectly involved in the oil theft.
Residents have since then slowly returned to Tarkwa but the community has never fully recovered.
“We are just struggling — struggling to have a shelter, to eat food, to have a good life,” said Gabriel.
“We have been surfing hard… to just forget everything else.”
– Offers hope –
Adewale Fawe, president of the Nigeria Surfing Federation, said the competition that took place last Sunday brought “something positive” to the lives of some of the neediest.
“With surfing, some of them that are hopeless, that have nothing to do, that are frustrated, are beginning to develop hope,” Fawe said.
“It takes them away from bad criminality, it takes them away from drug abuse,” he added.
His dream is to develop the sport in other parts of Nigeria, such as Bayelsa in the oil-rich Niger Delta where fishing communities are struggling in one of the world’s most polluted areas due to decades of oil exploration.
And “who knows,” said Fawe, “maybe one day compete in the Olympics.”
But the challenges of making surfing more accessible are many, starting with the hefty cost of surfboards.
The most talented surfers at Tarkwa are given surfboards by charities or brands and share them with the community, but more are needed.
“When we are not in the water, we give our boards to the pickin (children, in Pidgin English) for them to try,” said Gabriel, who for the admiring younger surfers is already a champion.