The beaches of in Kovalam, a fishing village in the southern Indian state of Kerala sports a different look on a off seacon of May before the on set of monsoon. Deserted by normal tourists, this place opens to surfers. But they are not tourists but the local children from poor families who live in make-shift houses and scratch a living from the sea. They ride the waves, cut curves into the water and lunge into the sea’s white foam before reappearing to look for the next swell.
Amidst them, paddling on a surf board, is Jelle Rigole, a 26-year-old Belgian with blonde dreadlocks, who is fluent in Malayalam, the local language. Mr. Rigole runs the Kovalam Surf Club, where local children – all of them from poor families – surf on the weekends.
The club is part of Sebastian Indian Social Projects, a Belgium-based non-governmental organization, which has run a free local school and medical care for the poor here since 1996. Children have been surfing with the charity’s employees on an ad hoc basis for around eight years, since Mr. Rigole arrived as an intern for SISP, but the surf school became fully established last year.
“Surfing always brings a smile on my face,” Mr. Rigole says, “Why should this not apply to the children here?”
The children from the coastal areas of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital, were not keen on studies, he said. Most of them dropped out of school before completing class 10, according to the charity, which provides families with financial support and medicine and their children with free education and now surf lessons. Surfing has reengaged them with education, says Mr. Rigole, who is known by the children as, velakaren, (the white man).
No school, no surf, is his golden rule. Only those who attend the academic classes, can join the school in the waves.
Since the program became formalized, 30 students have turned amateur surfers, a step up from beginner level. Three of those surfers participated in a surfing competition in Kovalam at the start of May.
For 14-year-old Ramesh Unnikrishnan, attending school on weekdays and finishing his math assignments gives him a chance to tackle the waves on the weekend.
“I had stopped going to school and would just idle away the day with friends,” says Ramesh. “When I saw Jelle on the surf board a few years ago I could not resist it and asked him to teach me.
“His only condition was that I restart my education and then he would teach me to surf. I kept my promise, and now I am a surfer,” Ramesh says with a gleaming smile across his tanned face.
Thomas Varghese, a former student and one of the success stories of the academic school, stands watching the children in the surf from the black sand beach. He is one of the best surfers in India, according to Rammohan Paranjape, vice president of the Surfing Federation of India, who also works at the Kovalam surf school.
Mr. Varghese says surfing is still at a nascent stage in India and the cost of equipment can be prohibitive. ”There are just about 150 Indian surfers; right from the east coast of India (Orissa) to the west (Mumbai) to the south (Kerala and Tamil Nadu), says Mr. Varghese. “Still, we try to identify those who have talent and are keen to adopt this hang-loose lifestyle that surfing promotes.”
This seems to suit Kerala where life is often taken at a languorous pace, especially along the coastline.
“We started with three surfboards eight years ago,” Mr. Rigole recalls, looking at the surfboard chamber where 30 rows of short and long boards are housed.
Mr. Rigole and Mr. Varghese earn extra money for equipment by giving surfing lessons to Indian and foreign tourists so the school is not entirely dependent on donations.
Mr. Rigole also wants to ensure the children stay away from alcohol. “There are frustrating moments. You put years of work for the development of the children, in building a good relationship with them, only to then have to watch some of them take to alcohol in a few weeks,” he says.
Mr. Varghese agrees. It’s difficult to keep the children in school for long – in families where the father is an alcoholic, there is a fear that the sons may follow suit, he says.
But they’re hoping that their methods will reengage youngsters with education and give them something constructive to do in their spare time. Surfing requires a high level of concentration and the physical effort can create a natural high, the instructors say.
“For many children, it’s just enough that they get some attention, the feeling that someone cares for them. Since many are bitten by the surfing bug, let’s hope they get repelled by alcohol or drugs,” Mr. Rigole says before heading back into the waves.