By shattering stereotypes Annelissa Mhloli helps kids unearth lessons in the surf
The surf therapist from Khayelitsha doesn’t fit the image of a typical surfer — and that’s her secret advantage
Think of Baywatch. I can almost guarantee your mind painted a picture of a voluptuous Pamela Anderson running along a Los Angeles beach, wearing a tight red swimsuit, all in ultra-slow motion.
Now replace Baywatch with Waves for Change, Anderson with Annelissa Mhloli, Los Angeles with Khayelitsha and the skin-tight swimsuit with an oversized wetsuit. Suddenly your mind can't quite comprehend that scene.
Waves for Change is an initiative that uses surf therapy to provide child-friendly mental health services across SA, with bases in Cape Town and East London. Mhloli has been one of their Khayelitsha-based mentors since 2016, but she's no ordinary surfing coach. The 24-year-old is simultaneously practising what she's preaching to the disadvantaged children and youth of her community.
"Believe it or not, three years later, I'm still learning how to surf!" she declares. "I lost my previous job and I had no idea that I would be using surf therapy to make a positive difference in young people's lives. I most definitely knew that I wanted to work with children in all forms of rehabilitation. I just didn't know that it would include me leaving my comfort zones so far behind!" she laughs.
Mhloli is a plus-sized Xhosa woman. Having those odds stacked against her, there was no way she'd be a surf therapy coach. Fortunately, Waves for Change chose to see more than just the physical; they knew she was the perfect inspiration for the local kids.
So what does she think draws kids — and the odd adult — to her?
"I think people realise just how genuine I am, and they appreciate that," says Mhloli. "For instance, it takes me about 20 minutes to get into the biggest wetsuit available and after all that I'm still not perfect at surfing. I think the wonderful kids I work with can see I'm growing each time I face a challenge, and that's a huge practical lesson for them."
"When I was told that I got the job as a coach, I googled videos and photos of surfing and it's no secret what I saw. This is a male-dominated sport ruled by some of the world's best-looking individuals with perfect abs and incredible bodies. They're all in shape and most of us envy them on some or other level, as they look like they have it all together. So for someone who's black, female, from a township and overweight, it's amazing to not only to be part of this world, but to really make a difference," she says.
According to Bullyingstatistics.org approximately 94% of teenage girls have been body shamed, and almost 65% of teenage boys have reported being fat shamed. Mhloli has been a victim of it for her entire life.
"I've always been a big girl, but body shaming became really intense when I was in high school. The other pupils would pass nasty comments about me. A small percentage of them had the courage to say them to my face. What I then discovered is that the body shamer usually doesn't like something about themselves and takes that out on other people. These people only feel good about themselves when there's a crowd listening to them, or an audience," she says.
Mhloli goes on to state she's coached so many "chubby kids like me", and all of them were told they were too fat to surf. This broke them emotionally and psychologically, but seeing her surf despite her weight gave them the courage to finish the course, and to take that lesson to other parts of their lives.
"We need to raise kids who think positively about themselves so that they grow up to be adults who accept who they are. Only when this is the case will we be more accepting of others who don't fit into what is considered to be normal.
"Unfortunately, it's mostly women who tend to body shame other women, as these perpetrators grew up not being able to accept themselves for who they are. They don't know that plus-sized people can do it all, including surfing.
"But the greatest joy for me is knowing that this is a sport for everyone. I even teach autistic kids how to surf, and to see them learn life lessons is what I live for," she says.
Mhloli's work with underprivileged children even earned her more than a meet-and-greet with Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, in October last year as part of their South African visit. The royal couple — who spoke to the children about the importance of reducing the stigma around mental health issues — took more than an hour to impart some valuable advice.
"Prince Harry said the reason he loves being a coach is that he gets to make a one-off change in kids' lives, but he was particularly impressed by Waves for Change as we make a difference every single day we are with the kids," she says.
What makes Mhloli's job of going into various Khayelitsha homes to get kids to start attending her surf therapy sessions so difficult is not only the perception that people think she can't possibly be able to surf, but also various cultural beliefs.
"Being black means that we have a cultural backing and that sometimes stands in our way to new experiences," says Mhloli.
"For instance, much of the time parents don't allow their children to attend. They believe that their child has a twin who lives in the ocean. For the human child to be able to even get close to the sea, they first have to throw a R1 coin into the water, to appease the water twin. If this isn't done, they believe their child might drown. So you can imagine how many times I have had to use my own R1 coins to get young people to benefit from surf therapy!"
Traditional customs are cited by young people from Khayelitsha for not being a part of the Waves for Change movement. Sangomas perform cleansing rituals in the ocean, where they leave burdens in the water, and some young people believe that if they get in contact with the ocean, they'll collect the burdens.
"These young people are faced with so many obstacles, and for them to actually end up at one of our sessions is a small miracle," says Mhloli.
"And if they do manage to convince their guardians, go against cultural expectations, escape gang violence and abuse, then they have to face other children teasing them about how they're too fat to surf or that it's a sport for white people.
"In all of this, they learn that with each wave, if you fall 100 times, you have to get back on the board 101 times. This is the same with life," she says.
• Go to waves-for-change.org for more information. Call 021-788-2910, or visit 37 Church Rd, Muizenberg, Cape Town