National Geographic : 2017 Jan
the dangerous lives of girls 151 Her mother, Baby, struggled, still struggles, to make enough money and could afford to send only two of her children to school: KK and an older brother. Now 19, KK is the youngest of her siblings and has always gravitated to places where she can feel like she belongs. She lives with her mother and other family members, so she craves space of her own. Four years ago, when a surf club started up on the beach, full of young guys from her village, she wanted to see what surfing would be like. She had only seen people surfing in the magazines that foreign tourists left behind at the beach. The ocean is therapeutic for KK. When she gets in the water, she feels freer, more at ease. “ When I’m surfing, I feel like I’m in another country,” KK says. When she started out, she could barely swim. The leash tied to her an- kle once snapped, and the board floated away, leaving her fighting to stay above water. One of the other surfers had to fish her out so that she wouldn’t drown. KK is one of Sierra Leone’s few female surf- ers. She knows girls who have become pregnant and dropped out of school, or ended up with much older men, but she’s always known that she didn’t want that for herself. She listened in school when they told the girls not to have sex too early. Surfing kept her focused. “Sometimes the girls, their moms don’t have money to pay for them to go to school, so they always go to the boys who give them the money,” KK says. The boys then may expect sexual rela- tionships in return and abandon the girls when they become pregnant, so girls can end up living on the street. Her mother never had much money, but be- cause of KK’s skill and dedication, she is making her own money and has never needed any boy. She works in the kitchen at the beach restaurant and sometimes sells cookies on the beach. In the mornings she gets up at six or seven, catches a wave if there are good ones, and then heads to school. She’s in class all afternoon into the eve- ning and then returns home to study and cook dinner. KK helps support her mother, giving her some of the money that comes her way. On a Saturday afternoon back in July, I watched KK stretch on the hot sand at Bureh Beach and then jump fearlessly with her surf- board into a frothy wave in the turquoise wa- ter. She paddled and floated, patiently waiting for another high wave. The boys were jumping into the weak waves and crashing. A young, scrawny one made a sign of the cross before div- ing in. KK yelled with glee as she fell off a wave that burned out. KK wants to make her own surfboards. Some- day she hopes to open a shop to sell them and start up a surf school. “I want to teach other girls,” she tells me. In the meantime she surfs several days a week, especially in the rainy season, when waves can hover at six feet. KK is working on improving her technique. She believes that if she can get good enough, she can make a career out of surfing. She would like to be a doctor or an accountant but is uncertain whether she will be ready for college. The teachers sometimes don’t teach, and she has difficulty reading. “If I participate in surfing, I think somebody might come down to the surf club and then they see me and pick me up [to sponsor me],” she says. “ Through that, I will always be able to support my family.” j I’m surfing ... I’m in another country.’ Alexis Okeowo, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is working on a book about extremism in Africa. This is her first story for National Geographic. Pulitzer Prize– winning photographer Stephanie Sinclair specializes in gender issues and human rights. She founded the nonprofit organization Too Young to Wed.