When a South African surf company wanted to put African culture on the global surfing map, it knew it needed a distinct African symbol.
It chose the name Mami Wata or “Mother Ocean,” a mermaid-like spirit from West African folklore with long, flowing hair who, followers believe, can charm snakes.
The Cape Town brand designs and produces surf wear, surfboards and accessories. Launched in 2017, it aims to move perceptions of surf culture away from western stereotypes and towards “the power of African surf.”
“Surfing’s history has been told through the lens of Australian brands and American brands, which is largely a blond-haired, blue-eyed story, whereas actually there’s a lot of people that story isn’t relevant for,” Mami Wata’s co-founder Nick Dutton said.
The company is trying to change that by telling a different story.
Inspired by Africa
“Mami Wata is the sea spirit,” Dutton explained. “People who believe in her believe if you go into the ocean and she takes you to be her lover and you survive, you’ll come back and be better looking and more successful.
“That story of transformation and the impact and power of nature for us was very powerful,” he continued. “We feel it captures the story of African surf.”
Mami Wata hopes to represent the growing diversity of African surfing by incorporating African patterns and African creators.
“Our designs are inspired by Africa… stories of African adventure,” said Dutton.
The continent, and South Africa in particular, is a rapidly growing hub for surfing with thousands of miles of coastline and several popular beaches. And Mami Wata wants to help ensure that the surf scene reflects everyone who’s a part of it.
“One of the biggest things that surfing is changing is when most people go to the beach now, they will see somebody like themselves surfing,” Dutton added.
The company develops and manufactures all its products locally, using sustainable materials.
“Our mantra is where we can we’ll use African materials, but critically for us we manufacture everything here,” said Dutton.
As well as creating jobs directly, Mami Wata hopes to attract surfers from around the world to South Africa.
“We’ve got a firm belief in the role that surfing can play in the development of local economies in Africa,” said Dutton. “Africa is the final frontier in terms of undiscovered surf.”
A bigger impact
Mami Wata is also using surfing to help improve South African society.
The company supports initiatives such as Waves for Change, a surf therapy organization that helps disadvantaged communities and vulnerable children.
“Mami Wata and Waves for Change, it’s a great combination. The brand itself, it really drives surfing in Africa,” said Apish Thsethsa, a surfer who works with both organizations.
“We teach young people, getting them to know how to cope with stress using surfing,” Thsethsa said.
The company is hoping its activities will help produce the next surfing superstars.
“It’s getting the kids off the streets,” said Hugh Thompson, who shapes Mami Wata’s surf boards by hand. “It’s including them in a lifestyle of note… some of the best surfers in the world are South Africans and these South African kids on their way up are going to make their mark on the world [of] surfing,” he added.