The Mentawais may be well-known for epic waves but many of their beach communities exist in extreme poverty. SurfAid, with the support of a Billabong fashion collection, are trying to change that...

Words by: Sam Haddad

It’s a squally night in Paris. As we take our seats for the Design for Humanity fashion show in Le Marais, one of the city’s trendier quarters, it would be easy to forget that the kids this night is all about are over six and a half thousand miles away. But we don’t. Billabong and their chosen charity SurfAid have seen to that. The cause is mentioned frequently and the walls are plastered with cute-as-hell images of the children in Mentawais, those the charity has already helped and those it plans to help in the future. The thinking behind the Design for Humanity fashion collection and art show, which also took place tonight, is to raise awareness and funds for these kids, who are dying of ridiculously preventable diseases. It’s the kind of stuff that should shame us as a planet, but we’ve got pretty good at turning a blind eye. But by raising these issues in such a creative way, the whole social responsibility message seems to go down that little bit easier.

What’s the SurfAid story?

It all started eight years ago when Dr Dave, who is actually a real doctor, went on a surf trip to the Mentawai islands. The waves were more perfect than he’d ever dreamed they could be, but he also found the local people, especially women and children, were rife with disease, and easily-treatable ones at that. As Billabong surfer and SurfAid ambassador Sanoe Lake says, “It’s warm and tropical and you’re surfing these amazing waves, but on the beach people are dying of diarrhoea. In the West people don’t die from that, your mum just gives you some medicine and you’re good to go."

Malaria and acute respiratory infections were also a major problem, and infant mortality one of the highest in the world, as the islands were so remote and untouched by even the most basic health provision. Dr Dave was so compelled by what he saw that he packed in his job, sold his house and set up SurfAid. “His first project involved giving out mosquito nets and teaching families how to use them," says Kristin Gomes at SurfAid, “and within that first year malaria rates plummeted, the impact was that quick."

SurfAid now has its HQ in Bali and small teams in the field provide aid to villages throughout the Mentawai island chain and neighbouring Nias. It’s the only NGO in Mentawais, which has no paved roads, and is only reachable on a long boat ride in treacherous conditions, and has recently won a global humanitarian award for its hard work in the region. The charity doesn’t provide walk-in clinics, instead believing the key to long-lasting improvement in the region is to educate local women in basic health care, nutrition and sanitation. “Before SurfAid just 10 per cent of women were washing their hands after changing their babies’ nappies and cross contamination was a massive problem," says Gomes. “These women have now seen drastic improvements in their children’s health, it’s been very empowering for them."

Alongside the $25,000 raised at the US leg of the fashion and art show, Billabong have pledged a percentage of the profits from their Design for Humanity Summer 08 collection to SurfAid, and are supporting a programme to educate school kids around the world about the Mentawais. Last summer they also dispatched their sponsored surfer Sanoe Lake to one of the villages benefiting from the aid and here is her first-hand account of the experience.

Sanoe Lake and SurfAid in Mentawais >>>

Sanoe Lake and SurfAid in Mentawais

The thing about remote islands in Indonesia is that they are very remote, but after an insanely long journey the boat pulls up to the island where we’ll be staying and I am elated. The water is gorgeous and I am happy to feel the dewy ocean air on my skin.

We were about a 10-minute boat ride from Mollimook Village, where SurfAid is helping out. As we arrive we see the tiny homes along the shore and at first glance they look surprisingly decent. A bunch of children run up to the shore to look at us. They all stay together in a tight group and keep their distance. We must have looked strange to them. Dr Dave meets us and leads us up the path, which goes directly through swampland. There is stagnant filthy water on both sides – a breading ground for mosquitoes and bacteria. It’s insanely hot and humid and we’re sweating like pigs. It’s not a place anyone would want to live.

We’re still being tailed by the children from the beach. They’re getting a bit braver and have come a bit closer and I can hear them giggling at us as we stroll through their village. SurfAid educates several women leaders, teaching them key health and hygiene principles so that they can teach the other village women. We arrive in a small hut just as the woman who is teaching the group is laying out pieces of coral on the floor. She pulls one piece of coral out of a pile and then goes on to explain that this is the percentage of children dying in their villages compared to Western civilizations. Roughly one in five children will not live past their fifth birthday. Over the next hour she teaches diarrhoea prevention, proper hand washing, sanitation, malaria prevention and proper nutrition.

On average a child will be fed a small bit of taro, banana and maybe some rice twice a day, which is not enough calories nor essential vitamins and nutrients for proper muscle and brain development. It’s not uncommon for a child to go weeks without ever eating a single vegetable and many children are extremely stunted as a result. The women are being taught to feed their children the natural spinach that grows like weeds out there. Before they’d thought the vegetables were only good for feeding the cows and goats.

They are also hesitantly introducing coconut into their diet, having traditionally believed it caused malaria, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Coconut water is one of the best things you can eat. Google it if you’re curious. It’s these simple bits of information that make a world of difference. And it’s very exciting to witness the joy on women’s faces as they learn new key procedures that will help the health of their entire household. The women of these villages are smart, competent and eager to learn. It’s just no one has ever taught them these things we all take for granted, until now.

When the meeting was over we gave the women Billabong T-shirts. I was surprised at how stoked they were over such a simple item. It’s crazy how spoiled we are in the West, we truly never have reason to complain about anything. The children who’d followed us were no longer shy and instead huddled around us for some photos. They loved seeing the images of themselves on Keala’s digital camera, laughing up a storm. We could have played with them for hours, but sadly had to head back to our island before the sun went down. As our boat pulled out of the tiny bay leaving the village behind us it struck me, as I sat there looking back at the children’s beautiful smiling faces, that these were the lucky ones. They had made it past the age of five. The next time I return I hope to see much healthier children smiling and running around and I think I will. Support SurfAid International and Billabong’s Design For Humanity. Make a difference.

For more info visit the Surf Aid International website.