Surfing in Liberia

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For many years Liberia was mostly infamous for its brutal civil war but now surfing fans are discovering the beaches of the West African nation. In the Geo Quiz we're looking for Liberia's surfing capital, New York Times' Diplomatic Correspondent Helene Cooper grew up in Liberia and knows where to find it.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Surf's up for today's geo-quiz . We're searching for what may be the best unknown surfing spot in West Africa. It's a small coastal town located at the end of an unpaved road about 30 miles north of Liberia's capital, Monrovia. The coast there is an open stretch of mostly empty beaches where it' not uncommon to see 20 foot swells rolling in one after the other. The beach town itself is named after Liberia's first President. What's it called? Well there's no time like the present to answer that. New York Times diplomatic correspondent Helene Cooper grew up in Liberia. She recently trekked to this surfing mecca.

HELENE COOPER: It's about two, two and a half hours from Monrovia. Mostly on a dirt road. That's a really actually good dirt road. When we finally get to Robertsport and my mouth fell open because it's just so beautiful. It's not just the waves that are incredible, but Robertsport was one of the first colonies where freed slaves landed in Liberia. Liberia, as you know, was founded by freed slaves from the United States and freed blacks. One of the most historic ships, the Harriet, landed at Robertsport. This is back in 1829. A lot of the houses there are 150, 160,170 years old, so it's a combination of houses that look straight out the deep south, out of Mississippi, but then you have this backdrop of the Atlantic ocean and where the continent curves at that point in Robertsport creates these really cool swells for surfing where you can ride waves for long, long periods of time. So I get to Robertsport and we go to Nana's lodge which is this rustic safari type surfing camp and I'm completely expecting that I'm going to see the usual surfer types and white guys. And I saw Liberian guys, I saw black guys in the water on surfboards and that's what just completely blew me away.

MARCO WERMAN: Yeah, so that must be a fairly new development. Robertsport, by the way, is the answer to our geo-quiz today and it's extraordinary. You describe these 200 yard waves that you can ride, they're just breaking and breaking. That's the way it goes. Here you meet this 21-year-old named Benjamin Mecrumiddah. How did he get into the sport?

HELENE COOPER: The civil war, Liberia ended about six years ago. So for six years now this was a horrible war that took hundreds of thousands of lives and finally this country is slowly coming out post-war. Benjamin at the time was a teenager and at the time there were a lot of NGO types that went to Liberia and a lot of them tend to surf. He met this Scottish surfer called Wolf Magnuson. Benjamin was fishing on the beach and saw, and what he described it to me and he said I saw this white guy and he was on the water and it looked like he was flying. And I was just, so you just went up to him? And he was like what are you doing? And the two of them just struck up this really cool friendship and Wolf taught Benjamin how to surf. And I asked Benjamin how he felt that first day. He kept talking about he kept falling off the board, he kept falling off the board, but he was determined he wanted to do it and then finally at one point he stood up on the board and caught a wave breaking and he said he felt like he was on a motorcycle. Talking to him as he's describing this, there's this huge smile that breaks out on his face. This is a guy who's been through God-knows-what in the war. His whole childhood had been dominated by this awful civil war and all of a sudden he said he had this feeling of freedom and he's riding on top of the water that he said he could never duplicate. Ever since then he's been a surfer and more and more of his friends are surfing. There are a lot of Liberian guys now who surf and even a few Liberian women are starting to talk about doing it. I'll believe that when I see it.

MARCO WERMAN: Wow. That's really cool. It sounds like catching the first wave for Benjamin was the most therapeutic thing that happened to him after the civil war in Liberia. Is that kind of the - - of surfing in Liberia for Liberians right now?

HELENE COOPER: I'm not a surfer myself, but everybody I talk to talks so much about this feeling of freedom and that's like, a lot of us get that, I get off on that when I get in my car and drive really fast over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge listening to Bruce Springsteen. But it's this whole feeling of suddenly getting away from where you are but yet you are in the same place, but you feel like you're flying.

MARCO WERMAN: Helene, you described some hotels in Liberia that's - - tourism industry. Some of these rooms are starting like at $200.00 a night. Is tourism really an option for Liberia right now?

HELENE COOPER: I think that's going to take some time, but I don't think it's out of the question. Liberia has beautiful, beautiful beaches. And these are very unspoiled beaches. It also has chimpanzee sanctuaries upcountry. There are mountains. Liberians speak English so I think it could be a destination for Americans as well. It's not that far from the United States. They're talking about starting direct service between New York or possibly Atlanta, and Monrovia. Right now for Liberians, we're all still rebuilding after the war. The country is still in very poor shape, but we can dream.

MARCO WERMAN: Helene Cooper is the New York Times diplomatic correspondent. Her memoir about growing up in Liberia is called The House at Sugar Beach. Helene always good to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

HELENE COOPER: Nice to talk to you Marco.