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Raw. Lush. Small, but complex. One world's least-visited countries. Made up of three islands total, São Tomé is the largest, and where the majority of the country's surf is-that is, surf that has been accessed.

Visiting São Tomé now, colonial remnants continue to age under lush jungle and dramatic peaks, but it’s the beauty of gestures steeped in tradition that are impossible not to notice. The songs echoing from the washing that takes place in the river, the rhythmic chanting from the people dancing in the dusty streets. Vibrant colors against dramatic backdrops, welcoming grins and an easy warmth—this is São Tomé.

MEET FRANCISCA & RITA

MEET FRANCISCA & RITA

SOMA FOUNDER & GENERAL MANAGER

Currently, SOMA is the only infrastructure in place for young women to learn to surf, and though the limited resources and well-established gender roles present their own sets of challenges, SOMA founder Francisca Sequeira maintains a positive vision for the future. Originally from Portugal, Francisca first visited the islands as a flight attendant in 2017, and has been drawn back ever since, with the belief that surfing can be a stepping stone to so much more in terms of self-discovery, especially for young girls. However, while surfing is a powerful tool, she believes it needs more, hence the development of SOMA.

Shortly after, fellow Portuguese-born Rita Xavier joined Francisca as SOMA’s General Manager. Together, the two handle the day-to-day operations that keep the organization running, from house visits to surf pickups, to helping develop future programs within SOMA. SOMA began with Francisca knocking on doors and asking if the young girls inside wanted to come surf with her. Luck would have it that the first door she knocked on happened to belong to Maura Selva.

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"Seeing them deciding to go out to the water and taking their surf boards, it's very transformative. It's when I feel like we are accomplishing our mission."

MEET MAURA

MEET MAURA

SURFER

At 13 years old, Maura is the current female national champion—and she’s only been surfing for a little over two years. Although they grew up directly behind the surf club in Santana, Maura and her twin sister, Maury, were no exception to the heavy load of household duties that are expected of most women on the island, and only began surfing through their introduction to SOMA. Surfing has allowed Maura the access to opportunities and experiences that a young Santomense woman might not otherwise encounter.

Just prior to our visit, Maura traveled to Liberia for a surf conference and national championship competition hosted by Provide the Slide, a Swiss and German-based NGO that focuses on providing surf resources and support to countries on the western coast of Africa. It was a trip of many firsts: Maura’s first time leaving not only São Tomé, but her small town of Santana and the surrounding coastal areas, her first time on a plane, her first time meeting with and competing against women from other African countries. The progression of surfing in São Tomé is changing before one’s eyes, and Maura is at the forefront of that as far as women’s impact on the sport as it fully takes shape in the country.

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"I want to travel around the whole world, get to know many countries and show how São Tomé is very important."

MEET MARILÚ

MEET MARILÚ

SURFER

Just south of Santana, sits the peaceful community of Água Izé. Although only about 10 minutes driving from Santana, without transport, local surfers are rather isolated from the resources that exist just to the north. Marilú Tavares met Francisca on the beach in Santana, where she began surfing with SOMA, and shortly thereafter won the country’s first female national surfing title, in 2020. Support from her family and SOMA allowed Mari Lu to progress quickly, but diminished funds within the organization have temporarily halted SOMA activities in Água Izé, meaning Mari Lu’s surfing has taken a pause as well. New funding and future plans mean this shouldn’t last forever, but goes to show how delicate and new the infrastructure is for young women trying to surf on the island.

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"Girls did not surf because our communities told us that women are meant for cleaning clothes, cooking, and taking care of the house. Due to these beliefs, we were discouraged from surfing. But today, we embrace surfing because women deserve equal rights. If boys can go surfing, then girls can do it too."

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