Surfing at the legendary Nile Special Wave. (Marcus Farnfield Photography)
At 2015’s International Canoe Federation (ICF) Freestyle World Championships, only one of Africa’s 54 nations was represented, and its journey there was by no means easy. Uganda’s Freestyle Kayak Team spent months raising the funds and negotiating with immigration in the run-up to the competition. It was only through dedication and perseverance that the team made it to the Ottawa Valley to compete at all. Yet Uganda’s athletes made their mark at Worlds by scoring strong rides and throwing massive tricks that they honed on their home river, the White Nile.
It was during this period, inspired by the story of the Ugandan Team, that the ICF Freestyle Committee hatched the plan to launch a freestyle development program in Africa. The goal was to encourage freestyle participation and grassroots competition across the continent and increase African nations’ participation in major freestyle kayaking events.
Four months later, 10 of Africa's most promising kayakers representing six different African nations received invitations from the ICF to join Sam Ward and Dane Jackson for a two-week training camp on the Nile. And for the two recent weeks, 10 kayakers from six different African nations have come together for the ICF African Freestyle Development Camp.
These kayakers were not only chosen for their kayaking abilities but also for their dedication, motivation and enthusiasm for the sport. On March 24, the following participants arrived in Uganda full of enthusiasm and nerves to kayak some of the worlds best features: Tammy Muir (South Africa), Philip Claassens (South Africa), Paul Teasdale (Zimbabwe), Julius Nalishebo (Zambia), Melusi Magagula (Swaziland), Shane Walker (Kenya), Francis Mwangi (Kenya), Sadat Kawawa (Uganda), Yusuf Basalirwa (Uganda), David Egesa (Uganda).
For some, particularly Melusi of Swaziland, the ICF African Freestyle Development Camp was a truly life-changing experience. Having never left his country, he was exposed to a whole world of new opportunities over the course of the two weeks.
"The times that I was not catching the wave I was feeling bad of myself, but the moment I caught the wave I was so proud and I heard the cheers from the group," says Magagul, of Swaziland.
The camp took place on the upper section of the White Nile in Uganda, splitting its time between the Nile River Explorers campsite which used to sit on the banks of Bujagali Falls, and the Hairy Lemon, a tropical island paradise only a 10-minute paddle from the world renowned surf wave, Nile Special.
The camp was designed to develop both the freestyle skills of the individual athletes as well as providing the opportunity to share knowledge, cultivate fresh ideas and fuel the enthusiasm
already prevalent in these kayakers. Ward and Jackson guided the participants through workshops both on and off the water to ensure that the participants were provided with the information and skills necessary to run fun events and competitions and further develop the sport upon returning to their home nations.
Zimbabwe’s Paul Teasdale explained the excitement that the participants feel about the sport of kayaking: "I used to be a career-orientated person who sat in an office to make money,” Teasdale says. “Now I'm a kayaker and I'm really really stoked to learn freestyle, I'm keen to learn whatever I can."
On April 2, the athletes participated in the first-ever African Freestyle Kayak Championships, hosted on the Nile Special Wave. With six African nations represented in the competition and with locals and spectators cramming the banks to cheer and support, it was a day to remember. After 10 days of training and coaching, the participants of the camp (some of whom had never taken part in any competitions, let alone one of this caliber) performed exceptionally well with Melusi getting the biggest cheers from the crowd on his final run. South Africa’s Tammy Muir placed second in the women's division, impressing the judges with a huge roundhouse, while South Africa’s Philip Claassens proved one of the most consistent paddlers on the wave. The participants gave the crowd a good show throughout the afternoon, throwing huge airscrews, blunts and helixes. Uganda's presence on the podium was hard to ignore, sweeping the podium in the men's division and grabbing first and third in the women's.
Men’s: 1, Sadat Kawawa (Uganda). 2, Yusuf Basalirwa (Uganda). 3, Will Clark (Uganda). 4, Philip Claassens (South Africa). 5, Twaha Mabonga (Uganda)
Women’s: 1, Amina Tayona (Uganda). 2, Tammy Muir (South Africa). 3, Amina Nakiirya (Uganda)
The ICF African Freestyle Development camp marked the beginning of a positive and successful future for the sport in Africa. With plans for an African Competition Circuit already being put in place linking competitions in Uganda, South African, Zambia and Kenya the freestyle-kayaking scene in Africa is already making progress. With more events on the horizon it is not so far-fetched to believe that more African nations could be represented at the next ICF World Freestyle Championships in Brazil.
—Read more about the Ugandan Freestyle Team’s journey to the 2015 ICF Freestyle World Championships on C&K